2017-09-21 / Opinions


Blackouts and subs revive history
a southern writer

Now and then an intriguing topic crosses my path one time too many. That’s when I know I need to look into it. Such is the case with a World War II topic: the presence of German submarines along the Atlantic Seaboard. The first time this fascinating bit of history crossed my desk involved research for Save The Last Dance For Me, my book about the shag, the official state dance of South and North Carolina, and a dance popular along the Georgia coast. The beach and shagging: they go together like marga and rita, Bud and Weiser, and it turns out sub and marine.

Research revealed that Harry Driver, considered the “Father of the Shag” by some, recalled listening to black and Hit Parade music at White Lake’s Crystal Club during World War II. White Lake is inland, near Elizabethtown, North Carolina. Driver and others fled there because German submarines prowling coastal waters forced people to turn off their lights at night. You need to see those smooth shag moves do you not? And the old jukeboxes had beautiful neon lights. Blackouts thus played a role in spreading the shag inland, further cementing it as an institution of carefree youth, dancing, and “beach” music.

The next time World War II blackouts caught my attention was during research for a book I’m working on right now. Belle Baruch, the daughter of Bernard Baruch, advisor to presidents, rode her horse along the Georgetown County coast patrolling for Nazi spies, and she helped catch one. In The Baroness of Hobcaw: The Life of Belle W. Baruch, Mary E. Miller wrote of Belle’s wartime exploits. In the spring of 1942, an acquaintance from Naval Intelligence contacted Belle, asking her to patrol the beaches. All along the Atlantic coast German submarines were blowing up American ships. Belle herself had seen flashes of light at night on the ocean horizon. Oil slicks and debris washing ashore provided evidence of the Nazi subs’ effectiveness. Belle became a Nazi Observer, as they were called in 1942 through 1944.

One May night Belle spotted a blinker flashing what appeared to be code near the North Island lighthouse. She saw also flashes off the coast and a shadowy figure, a deer or man, crept across the dunes beneath moonlight. It sounds like a scene from a spy novel.

The next day a Coast Guard officer said a German sub had been spotted off the coast, and that afternoon Belle found debris from an American ship on shore. A bit later, one June night, Belle and a friend saw flashing lights and what appeared to be a balloon with a light attached rising into the air. Nothing came of it.

Her night patrols continued and one night she and a friend spotted a man in a small rubber boat. They reported it to authorities after a wild chase to keep the man in sight. The man was caught and turned over to the FBI. He was a German agent, reportedly, who had come ashore from a submarine. J. Edgar Hoover thanked Belle for her work. Later she and her hunting companion, James Bessinger, grew suspicious of a man with a heavy German accent. They kept an eye on him and when they saw him flashing light to a ship, they reported it. Authorities caught the man who had in his possession a map of airports and naval bases from Charleston on into North Carolina. This time Belle had a private meeting with Hoover, the details of which were never revealed.

The next time this blackout business caught my attention was during a tour of South Island over near Georgetown. I saw an area referred to as “Blackout” where old buildings retain their black paint. Here, you see evidence that people took Germany seriously, as they should have.

No one today talks about the era of German subs along our coast much, mostly guides who explain why people painted buildings black. It wasn’t a case of wartime paranoia. It was a response to a campaign of terror, death, and destruction that began January 13, 1942, when German U-boats placed Eastern Seaboard merchant ships in the crosshairs of their periscopes. Nazi U-boats sank fuel tankers and cargo ships at will, often within sight of shore, as Belle Baruch would have told you.

In less than seven months, German subs destroyed 22 percent of the tanker fleet, while sinking 233 ships in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. U-boats took the lives of 5,000 seamen and passengers – twice the number plus of people who died at Pearl Harbor. German subs sank so many ships off the North Carolina coast the area became known as Torpedo Alley.

Today nicknames such as “Blackout” and “Torpedo Alley” remind us that the United States felt the wrath of Nazi subs. We tend to forget history but it comes alive when you hear the stories and see an old building still wearing its World War II black paint.

(Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net or email him about most anything at tompol@earthlink.net.)

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