Military Collection Intern Discovers Important WWII Battle of the Atlantic Document

[This blog post comes from Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina, and YAIO intern Rebecca Mullins.]

The Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina is in the middle of a multi-year project to reorganize and provide better description for its World War II collections for its 75th anniversary. Mostly collected by the State Archives during the war, WWII material has been collected continuously since 1945. Every collection holds a connection to North Carolina’s role in military history and the involvement of its residents in military service.

For the summer of 2016, the Military Collection is hosting an intern as part of a project supported through the North Carolina Department of Administration’s Youth Advocacy & Involvement Office (YAIO) State of NC Internship Program. The internship project is to process, preserve, and describe WWII collections held by the Military Collection.

YAIO Military Collection intern Rebecca Mullins

YAIO Military Collection intern Rebecca Mullins.

While reorganizing a collection of U.S. Coast Guard papers, YAIO Military Collection intern Rebecca Mullins found an important document tucked in a miscellaneous file of “Personnel Duty Logs and Operational Records” for Ocracoke Lifesaving Station on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. In this miscellaneous folder was a three-page, typed document simply titled “Case of Y.P.-389.” The document, created on 1940s tissue-style typing paper (with its brittle edges and faded, typewriter ink text) would prove to make more of a stir for Military Collection Archivist Matthew Peek in a twenty four-hour period than the collection had in its entire eleven years of being housed in the State Archives. The document is a minute-by-minute case report by the Ocracoke Coast Guard Station of the sinking of YP-389 by a German U-boat in June 1942.

The boat in the document, the YP-389, was originally a steam trawler called the Cohasset, until it was requisitioned by the U.S. Navy in February 1942 for service in WWII. With the addition of one 3-inch, 23 caliber gun and two 0.30-caliber Lewis machine guns, the newly named USS YP-389 entered federal service on May 1, 1942. Modest in size, the YP-389 was manned by 24 men. The vessel was ill-matched as part of what has become known as the Battle of the Atlantic when, on the fateful morning of June 19, 1942, the German U-boat U-701 attacked YP-389.

As described in the Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine by author Kevin P. Duffus in his article “When World War II Was Fought off North Carolina’s Beaches,” U-boats “presence in American waters was not intended for ‘show’ but to help win World War II for Germany. The abbreviated name ‘U-boat’ comes from the German word unterseeboot, meaning submarine or undersea boat. However, U-boats were not true submarines. They were warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could submerge only for limited periods—mostly to attack or evade detection by enemy ships, and to avoid bad weather. U-boats could only travel about sixty miles underwater before having to surface for fresh air. They often attacked ships while on the surface using deck-mounted guns. Typically, about 50 men operated a U-boat. The boats carried fifteen torpedoes, or self-propelled ‘bombs,’ which ranged up to twenty-two feet long and could travel thirty miles per hour.”

“Case of Y.P.-389” document

“Case of Y.P.-389” document, from the Military Collection of the State Archives of North Carolina.

When the YP-389 was attacked in an area off the North Carolina coast referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” it sent out a distress message, as recorded by an unidentified U.S. Navy officer at the Coast Guard’s Ocracoke Station on the document discovered in the Military Collection:  “0235 [2:35 A.M.]:Y.P.-389 Called all ships in Fifth Naval District saying she was being shelled off Diamond Shoals.” The time for the initial distress call on this document contradicts official military reports of when the YP-389 was attacked, typically listed as 2:45 A.M. The document also shows interesting pieces of information about the YP-389 crew after the initial attack, and information about the rescue ships’ attempts: “0346 [3:46 A.M.]: The C.G.C.-462 [Coast Guard Cutter-462] reported that she had sighted gun flashes on her port bow and was proceeding, but had seen nothing in the last five minutes.” The document goes on to describe the search and rescue mission for the YP-389: “0513 [5:13 A.M.]: C.G.C.-481 and 462 ordered to carry out search for survivors or wreckage.”

After Rebecca Mullins conducted further research into the event surrounding Y.P.-389, she discovered that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), had surveyed the wreck site in the 1970s, but the NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was unable to identify the wreck as the YP-389 until 2009. NOAA’s work on identification of Battle of the Atlantic sites and sunken U.S. merchant vessels will result in a Battle of the Atlantic nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Military Collection Archivist Peek sought the assistance of the North Carolina Office of Archaeology, which connected the Military Collection with the person in charge of NOAA’s work on the YP-389. The Military Collection has provided scans of the document for NOAA, and NOAA will be utilizing this case report of the YP-389 held by the State Archives of North Carolina in its application for the National Register. The work supported through the YAIO State of NC Internship Program this summer is making such discoveries possible in relation to North Carolina’s WWII history.

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