Gunfire echos through the humid Mid-Atlantic August air, ricocheting off the craggy coastal rocks of Diamond Shoals in the outer banks of North Carolina.
“Fire Again!” I command to the deck-gun crew of U-140, my beautifully sleek U-Boat on its maiden voyage to the U.S. coast. We’ve found and immobilized a 3,000 ton American steamer, and are now working to finish her off.
Below my feet the hatch to the conning tower comes alive as a head pops out.
“Sir,” Kritzburg calls from the hatch, “We just picked up a wireless transmission from a nearby ship. They are declaring they’ve heard gunfire and ships should avoid this area.”
Ah Hell, we just got here!
“Where is the transmission coming from?” I ask, hoping we can take out two ships before having to scurry away from this location.
“Not more than 4 Kilometers, Sir” Kritzburg replies excitedly.
Thats not far at all. We can hunt them down, then come back to sink this steamer later.
“Find me that ship, we’ll sink them too!” I order to both Kritzburg and the lookouts on deck.
“Hold Fire!” I command to the gun crew. Despite military discipline, their sense of disappointment is obvious.
They want the kill.
“We’ve been detected, and are going to hunt that ship before finishing this one off” I call out, knowing full well my explanation is not completely satisfying to them.
It should be enough to keep them focused, and that’s all I need right now.
“Sir, the radio transmission states that it’s the lightship!” Kritzburg calls from the hatch.
“Great, lets hunt her down!” I call back.
Turning from the steamer, I look toward the coastline to where moments ago a double set of light beacons blazed. They’ve been put out now.
“Full speed, 30 degrees starboard”
My boat’s engines rev up, churning the water behind us as we head toward Diamond Shoals, and its light ship.
“Be prepared to fire on my notice!” I order the deck-gun crew. They immediately reload the gun with a renewed vigor.
I got them back. They’re excited again.
“Get me my speaker.” I order Fuchs, one of the lookouts standing next to me in the warm night air.
That lightship probably has about five to eight men onboard.
“Sir, your speaker.” Fuchs offers, while handing me the megaphone we use to warn ships of their impending destruction.
I wait until we are within a kilometer of the lightship before raising the speaker up to my mouth. In perfect English I bellow “Lightship crew, this is Captain Waldemar Kophamel of Kriegsmarine U-140. Please abandon your ship. You will be sunk.”
As I’m saying this, the searchlight of my ship is centered on the lightship. It’s number, 71 shines brightly in white against the dark hull of the ship. Huge white letters “Diamond” are written on its side.
“You speak English!” One of the lightship crew calls back.
“Yes, Please confirm you are abandoning your ship. Do you need a boat?” I reply.
“No, we got one.” The crew-member calls back.
“You have five minutes until we open fire on your ship.”
No vocal reply comes from the lightship, but I can see men scurrying about, preparing the ships launch.
One man enters the launch, while two others carefully lower it into the water. Then these two, along with two others, descend the ropes to the launch before turning toward my submarine.
I don’t want them on my ship when land is nearby.
Picking up the speaker again, I call out “Please make your way toward land. Do you need any food or water?”
“No thanks!” the curt reply comes back through the heavy air.
“Please get clear of the ship. Safe travels!” I call out after them as they row toward land.
My guys are ready to go.
Get clear of the ship!
They row slowly, but within two minutes are at least 20 meters from the lightship.
“Fire at will!” I order my anxious gun crew.
The deck gun immediately booms, followed by an almost instantaneous explosion below the water line of the lightship.
They fire again.
The lightship starts listing.
One more time.
That’s enough, it’s going down.
“Hold Fire” I order.
The gun crew halts their actions just as they were about to load the chamber with one more round.
I wonder how long it will take this ship to settle on the bottom.
“1/3 spead, port 90 degrees” I order. “We’re going to finish off that steamer.”
The gun crew cheers.
I’ll let them have their joy. This has been a good night.
On the night of August 6, 1918 U-140 chased the American Steamer Merak off of the coast of North Carolina, eventually catching up to it. The crew of the steamer was taken off of the ship, and the submarine was in the process of sinking it when an astute radio operator on the submarine picked up the Diamond Shoals Lightship radio transmission warning ships to stay out of the area because a U-Boat was operating nearby. Captain Waldemar Kophamel of U-140 ordered the submarine to find the source of the transmission. When they found out it was the lightship they headed toward it. The lightship was not built for speed, so its crew knew they could not escape the submarine. The crew of the lightship was allowed to abandon the vessel before it was sunk by the submarine. This was the U.S. Coast Guard’s only loss due to enemy action in World War I. The wreck of the lightship is still owned by the Coast Guard, and under agreement with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, divers are documenting the wreck's physical remains. The plan is to nominate the site to the National Register of Historic Places, and to share with the community the story of the lightship for the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2018.