feet Length, 63 feet Beam, 32feet Deep
Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. New York, NY (Mobil Oil Corp.)
Builder: New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, New Jersey
Depth 90 feet
The month of March, 1942, had been difficult for the men of the Merchant Marine off the coast of North Carolina. There had been an almost endless parade of vessels being torpedoed, shelled, or sunk by mines. The Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (later Mobil Oil) Tanker, Dixie Arrow, became a victim of this terrible month when Kapitanleutant Flachsenberg, skipper of the German Submarine U-71, sent a volley of torpedoes her way.
The tanker was struck on the starboard side at 0858 on the morning of March 26, 1942 by three torpedoes within one minute. The first hit just below the amidships deckhouse destroying it, and the next two hit slightly abaft this point, breaking the ship in two. The oil that spurted from the ship was immediately set aflame sending billowing clouds of smoke thousands of feet into the sky and enveloping the forepart of the ship in flames. All of the licensed Deck Officers were lost in the initial explosion and flames. Two of the four lifeboats were destroyed by the blast and flames, another lifeboat was lost during the attempt to launch it. Of the 33 man crew, only 22 survived by using the remaining lifeboat and a raft, several of the men who had been trapped on the bow section by the raging fire had to jump into the sea and swim for their lives.
The Able Seaman on duty in the wheelhouse, Oscar Chappell, was awarded the Distinguished Merchant Marine Medal for standing by his post and bringing the ship into the wind, which kept the flames from the men trapped on the bow. By doing this, he turned the flames toward himself in the wheelhouse, thereby giving up his own life to save his fellow crewmen.
Diving the Dixie Arrow
Today, the Dixie Arrow rests in 90 feet of water 15 miles south of the Hatteras Inlet. She sits upright on her keel and even though the torpedo attack broke her in two, both sections lay together and the wreck is contiguous bow to stern. The most prominent features of the wreck are the bow and stern areas, with the amidships being a jumble of beams and steel plates. The bow rises reasonably intact from the forward bulkhead of the number one tank to the bow stem which stands some 30 feet proud of the sand.
The Dixie Arrow has been under the sea for 71 years and the salt water, along with countless storms, has taken their toll on the structure of the ship. When I first dived the tanker over 25 years ago, the bow was very intact with most all of the structural beams of the deck intact and all the hull plates solid. Today, the top decks have collapsed into the interior of the bow and all of the structural beams that supported the decks and connected the two hull sides have fallen. Even the pillars that support all this structure have fallen in the last few years. This has allowed the uppermost sections of the hull shell to fall away into the sand on either side of the ship. These hull plates contain a row of about a dozen or so portholes that over the years many divers have worked to retrieve - mostly without success. The bow section has continued to deteriorate and in the past several years a section of the forward most port side has peeled away and a large split is starting at the very stem. The forepeak decks have collapsed almost down to the keel. The shell (hull plating) is also beginning to show corrosion holes between the frames, webs and stringers. All of this foretells of the eventual demise of this once proud tanker. Nothing can stop the deterioration of the salt water, Hurricanes and winter storms.
Even with all of this deterioration over the last 71 years, the bow section of the Dixie Arrow is still impressive to see and looks like a shipwreck should. She still stands high from the sand, provides a lot of relief and a very large protected area inside what does remain of the hull. Swimming inside the bow is sometimes like being in a huge aquarium as there are often hundreds of fish swarming about inside the relative safety of the interior. If there is a strong current running this is an excellent place to spend your dive as you are protected from the current and surrounded by all of the fish as well. When inside the bow section spend a few moments taking a look at the exposed longitudinal beams along the hull plating. Each of these beams forms a small shelf about 18 inches deep that is fully encrusted with a wide variety of soft and hard corals and these mini reefs are home to an amazing variety of small creatures that make excellent subjects for photography or just close examination by divers. Every time I look over these mini ecosystems, I see something new to me.
The stern section is every bit as interesting as the bow with the triple expansion steam engine dominating the view here. The engine, which is so large you can swim through it, is sitting upright and towers over the three boilers that are just forward of the engine. On both sides of the engine are the scattered remains of the machinery spaces; pipes, valves and fittings of all size and description. The aft deck house lays many feet off the starboard side of the stern section and is upside down mostly buried in the sand. The majority of the hull shell plating has fallen away with the last few plates still attached to the ship and they clearly define the hull which still rises 10 feet from the sand in most sections. All of this rubble provides excellent habitat for an incredible number of sea creatures. I have spent many dives perched on top of this giant engine watching them cruise past - everything from the smallest tropical fish and shrimp to sharks, rays and turtles pay a visit to the Arrow. She is know as a shipwreck that has a large variety of sea life and usually in great number as well.
Due to her location and the hard sand bottom surrounding the site, the visibility is usually good to excellent and the current most often light. However, when the Gulf Stream is pushing in close the current can be up to one knot or more on the surface, but with the great relief offered by this wreck it remains dive able even under conditions of higher current. Being only 15 miles from the inlet we are usually able to make the trip in all but the worst of sea conditions. Because of these factors and especially the abundant sea life, the Dixie Arrow is often one of the most requested dives we do and even after having visited her many times, she rarely disappoints us.
information on her demise and the diving conditions can be found at Paul
Hudy's web page about the wreck as well as in Gary
Gentile's book Shipwrecks of North Carolina from Hatteras Inlet South.
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