U-Boats Off the Outer Banks

Jim Bunch – Master Story Teller, and his book “U-Boats Off the Outer Banks”

Author Jim Bunch is sitting in his living room surrounded by the artifacts of his life. Since the 1950’s, he’s been diving the waters off the Outer Banks, and over that time time he’s come across quite a few interesting finds.

There’s the torpedo pistol on his coffee table—the trigger would be fixed to the torpedo and would create the detonation. The trigger comes from the U-85, the first German submarine sunk off the Outer Banks, and it tells a tale of a nighttime battle on the seas.

USSRoperDD147
By U.S. Navy (U.S. Navy photo [1] available on Navsource.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The crew of the U-85 knew the U.S. Destroyer USS Roper was behind them, and fired one torpedo from their stern tube. The helmsman of USS Roper had the ship slightly off center from the submarine and the torpedo missed, but it’s wake removed any doubt about what the destroyer was tracking.

“That’s when they (the Roper) came to general quarters,” Jim said.

Looking at the trigger, the story continues.

“It’s a pretty interesting piece,” Jim said. “They were getting another torpedo ready to fire another in the stern tube. That was a new piece that they weren’t even supposed to have. It was a pretty rare find.”

His most interesting, or noteworthy find, however, was an intact four rotor Enigma machine.

The Enigma machine was a German coding device used during WWII to send and receive instructions. Through the use of alternative letters, with different wheels creating each letter, messages could be sent that were almost impossible to decode.

German submarines were ordered to hunt allied shipping off the Outer Banks when WWII began using Enigma machines. Submarine commanders passed information back to Germany using the coding device.

U 52
By UK Government (http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Germans began with a three rotor Enigma, but became concerned that the British had cracked the code and went to a four rotor machine. It was a four rotor machine that was on U-85 when the USS Roper attacked and sank it about 15 miles from Nags Head.

With a masters degree in oceanography and a certified dive instructor, Jim is detail oriented and meticulous in his preparation. After research and numerous dives to U-85, he and his team, Rich and Roger Hunting and Billy Daniels, were convinced the Enigma machine was in the sub and had an idea of where it would be.

“We knew the machine was on the boat when the boat left Germany. We knew the captains had orders to throw it overboard when they were in danger of being sunk,” he explains. “He (the captain) didn’t do it. We knew where the machine was going to be if it was there. We knew it would be in the radio room.”

But finding the radio room 90-100’ below the surface of the ocean is not a simple task.

“It doesn’t look like you think it’s going to look like. I dove the U-85 for years before I ever went  inside. You get inside and it doesn’t look anything like what you think it’s going to look like. The thing looked like a piece of junk. Anybody who’d found it would have just thrown it overboard, but I knew what we had.”

Found in 2001, the Enigma machine is being restored at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village.

Talking to Jim, it become clear that he’s a gifted story teller, and in the two books he’s written, that gift is apparent. His first book Shadow in the Sea recounts his personal quest searching for the Enigma. But what really sets the book apart is his parallel quest to humanize the crew of the doomed U-Boat.

In his recently released second book, U-Boats Off the Outer Banks: Shadows in the Moonlight, he again delves into the details of life aboard the ships—but in this case he tells the stories of the men on both sides of the conflict.

His unique background combined with his ability to tell a good story have led to an interesting part time job—he’s a Roads Scholar for the North Carolina Humanities Council. “I do two right now. One’s on U-Boats and the other one is on the Enigma machine,” he said.

For Jim, the Shadows in the Moonlight writing became a healing force in the midst of a very difficult year.

“It was kind of tough. My wife and my son died when I started this book,” he recounts. “About two months into it. It gave me something to do last winter. I dedicated it to them.”

And, in diving into the book, it reminded him of some of the passions and joys of his life. “It was kind of fun to do,” he said, adding, “You do something like this and you think you’re never going to finish.”

But the end result is satisfying. It’s authors like Jim Bunch that help preserve and remind us of the Outer Bank’s rich history.