World War II: Battle of the Atlantic Expeditions

an image of an old sunkin U-boat
Photo Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA

From January to July 1942, German U-boats sank ships off the U.S. East Coast with relative freedom. This American Theater of World War II was the closest area of conflict to the continental United States. In just three years, from 1942 to 1945, 90 ships were lost off North Carolina alone.

Today, a collection of 78 merchant tankers and freighters, eight Allied warships, and four German U-boats rests on the seabed as a memorial to this history and to the sacrifice of Allied servicemen and the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II.

an image of turtle swimming near the reef
Photo Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Since 2008, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and our partners have worked together to document and survey these World War II shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast. Currently, we have over 45 World War II shipwrecks documented on our website. Visitors can dive into the history of each ship, learn about the present day conditions at the wreck site, and see beautiful images of each.

Beginning in 2008, NOAA has worked with various organizations in a collaborative effort to conduct archaeological expeditions to survey World War II ships that sank off the North Carolina coast. The 2008 expedition was the first part of the multi-year project and it explored three German U-boats, U-85, U-352, and U-701. In 2009, researchers on board the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster used sonar imaging to search for shipwrecks and located a U.S. Navy yard patrol boat, YP-389. In the second leg of the expedition, researchers used non-invasive techniques to document the HMT Bedfordshire. In a continuation of the previous years’ research, the 2010 expedition continued to document and survey various other World War II vessels in an effort to define a cohesive battlefield. The 2011 expedition continued the search for undiscovered shipwrecks and investigated the World War II underwater battlefield site of the Battle of Convoy KS-520.

an image of a sunkin boat
Photo Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Through the years, researchers also searched for the location of two significant shipwrecks, U-576, a German U-boat, and a merchant tanker, SS Bluefields. These two ships sank on July 15, 1942, during the Battle of Convoy KS-520. In the fall of 2015, NOAA announced that the multi-year team effort had yielded their identification. In 2016, through a collaboration of multiple organizations, submersibles dove to over 750 feet to take a first look at these two vessels in almost 74 years. This amazing identification offers a rare window into a historic military battle and the underwater battlefield landscape of World War II.

To explore over 50 North Carolina shipwrecks NOAA has documented, visit the shipwrecks page.