by shellfire and torpedo from the German U-140, August 6th, 1918 - WW1
History of the Merak
The freighter Merak was built in 1910 at the RDM dockyards on the Meuse river in the Netherlands. RDM began operations in 1902 and constructed vessels of all types continuing in business under various company names until the late 1990's. The RDM yard not only constructed the hull of the Merak, but also produced her triple expansion steam engine which was powered by two side by side coal fired boilers. Originally owned by a Dutch company, Van Nievelt, Goudriaan & Co., the freighter ran general cargo for them from the 1910 launch until early 1918, when the SS Merak was taken over by the United States Shipping Board.
The US Shipping Board was originally established to restore the American Merchant Marine fleet and regulate shipping lines. After the declaration of war against Germany in 1917, it was often referred to as the War Shipping Board. The Shipping Board acquired vessels thru a variety of methods; purchase, lease, and direct seizure and then assigned them to various companies to operate as needed to assist in the effort to fight WW1. The Merak was seized by the Board and pressed into merchant service for the US war effort continuing to sail under the name SS Merak.
Sinking of the Merak
The SS Merak was laden with 5,600 tons of coal she had shipped aboard at the Newport News coal docks and was heading south to Chile. On August 6th, 1918, she was offshore of North Carolina nearing the Diamond Shoals, the sea was fairly calm with just a moderate South West breeze and the day a bit hazy. Conditions close to perfect for a ship the size of Merak. However, this was wartime and the German U Boat, U-140, soon surfaced nearby.
The U-140 was a brand new 380 foot long submarine, one of the best and most advanced to have been produced to date. She had six torpedo tubes, 24 torpedoes and 980 rounds for the two 150mm deck cannons - on the foredeck and aft of the conning tower, and it was with these deck guns the majority of attacks would be made. The commander of this submarine was a formidable as his weapon. Fregattenkapitan Waldemar Kophamel had served in the German navy since 1898 and the submarine service for years, he was one of the most experienced commanders at this point in the war. He had already sunk many ships in the war against France and Britain before the US entered the conflict and 55 ships would be his wartime total. The Merak was at long odds against this attacker and his submarine.
The U-140 was on the surface heading South, Southwest when she spotted some vessels to attack, her deck guns were manned and an attack on the Merak and LV-71the Diamond Shoals Lightship begun. The freighter responded by gong to full speed and zig-zagging for her life. The radical course maneuvers bought the ship some time as the U-boat gunners fired away with almost thirty shells, with several eventually striking the Merak causing the vessel to be brought to a halt.
U-140 was one of three identical designs, the photo is of the U-139 the first of these three boats. Photo from UBoat.net
In reading various published books and articles about this event, you may find many different versions of how this attack occurred. One version of the story is that in all his crazed course changes, Captain Charles Gerlach of the Merak failed to account for the location of the outer fringes of the Diamond Shoals. The Merak was reported to have struck the bottom and come fast to the shoals making her escape now impossible. This reportedly caused the Merak crew to immediately take to the boats and the 43 men of her crew escaping the freighter in two lifeboats. The report of the Merak running aground has been replicated in many reports and books. This scenario seems possible, but not be all that likely as this fact was not related by crew members during their interrogation by naval authorities after the event. It simply did not occur.
According to Merak's Second Mate Monti's testimony, after about thirty shots had been fired at them they knew escape was impossible and the Merak was stopped. They abandoned the vessel when the U-boat was still several miles off and had briefly turned more attention to the Diamond Shoals Lightship. No mention of a grounding was made during his or anyone else's testimony. In fact during the initial assault on the Merak, the U-boat was actually closer to the Diamond Shoals Lightship than Merak, giving the Merak crew the time to launch the boats and flee when they knew their ship to be doomed and opportunity arose.
With the Merak stopped and the crew fleeing the ship, the U-140 then was free to deal with the Diamond Shoals Lightship, LV-71. The U-140 had already fired warning shots across the bow of the Lightship in the initial opening cannon salvos. Kophamel had spotted the LV-71 and initially thought it to be a slow moving small coastal freighter. After the warning shots it was thought to have stopped (in fact it was anchored the entire time) so he turned full attention to the fleeing Merak.
The Diamond Shoals crew had heard the cannon fire and spotted the U-Boat shelling the Merak. They may not have even been aware of the initial warning shot across the bow of their ship. The Mate in charge of the vessel, Walter Barnett (a resident of nearby Buxton, NC), immediately ordered a radio transmission be broadcast about the event. Hearing this transmission, the U-boat swung her guns back towards the Lightship and fired at least five rounds at the Diamond Shoals Lightship. One round took out the wireless antenna and another landed right next to the ship causing the deck to go awash with the splash. Barnett lost no time in ordering an evacuation of the lightship as he had no way to fight back and no chance of running away, it took over five hours for the lightship to weigh anchor and get underway. The lightship crew fled in their yawl boat rowing for shore as fast as they could while watching the U-Boat shell the Lightship until she went down. What they could not see due to the distance was the submarine as it went to finish the attack the now stopped Merak.
In another version of the story told by just one crewman of the Merak, the Submarine supposedly approached the abandoned Merak and came alongside her. It was reported the Germans went aboard to place explosives in the bilge of the engine room and that is what sunk the ship. The lifeboat containing the crew was at least four miles away from Merak when this supposedly occurred. Eventually, the U-Boat approached their lifeboat and interviewed the Merak survivors. The submarine asked the identify of the ship, it's cargo and other information. Before departing the shipwrecked sailors the U-Boat men asked if they had a sail and gave them their distance from the beach saying they should have no trouble getting there.
Interestingly, in the battle report filed by U-140, the KTB, the method of sinking is reported to be Torpedo and not shell fire or explosives. This record of the attack reports that U-140 sighted two separate vessels in the vicinity, LV-71 (which was initially thought to be a small freighter) and Merak. The U-boat crew opened fire on the two targets, LV-71 and Merak, almost simultaneously with one warning shot across the bow of each in attempt to stop them. Since the LV-71 appeared to stop, full attention was turned to the fleeing Merak. Rounds fired at Merak eventually set the vessel on fire at which time it came to a stop. The U-140 heard the wireless transmissions from the LV-71 alerting all to the U-boat attack and Kophamel decides to stop this immediately with shellfire and turned a gun on the Lightship to sink it quickly. The transmissions stopped and the U-boat saw the crew abandoning the Lightship. They had hit the vessel enough and returned attention back to Merak with additional cannon fire.
At this time, Kophamel spotted two additional targets not too far away approaching from the South, the freighters Bencleuch and Cretan. He also apparently saw the Freighter Mariners Harbor which was already turning inshore. Kophamel decided to finish off the Merak immediately to pursue these additional ships. He fired a torpedo to immediately sink Merak and it hit the vessel causing it to sink. The U-boat then went into pursuit of the Freighters, giving chase of Mariners Harbor until the water under his boat shoaled too shallow to safely contnue. He consulted the charts, but was not sure of his position as it was too hazy to reveal landmarks. He then turned out towards the 120 curve, where the Bencleuch and Cretan were steaming away. The Freighter Cretan was able to evade to U-140 attack and was not fired upon.
Captain Hanson, Commander of the Mariners Harbor, reported that at 1345hrs, he was proceeding to the area of the Diamond Shoals Lightship when gunfire was heard coming from the area South of the Lightship. He altered course to the North West and steamed away making several course changes over the next hours, eventually stopping in 8 fathoms (48ft) of water about 10 miles WSW of Cape Hatteras to wait for dark. Through his glasses he could see the Lightship and another vessel and the shell fire exploding in the waters near each ship. This initial cannon fire was around 8 rounds continuing for about 10 minutes, then a short break. Then firing was not regular, but at 3 to 5 minute intervals and sometimes longer. The Mariners Harbor heard the transmissions of the LV-71 at 1412hrs and then more cannon fire which continued fairly steady for some time until around 1700hrs there seemed to be a break of about 30 minutes, then more cannon fire, but fainter and farther away. Radio transmissions were then received from the Bencleuch reporting that they were being "Gunned" and were fleeing South. At 1825hrs, the Bencluech reported the firing had stopped and none of the 37 shots made at her had direct effect, she had escaped the fate of Merak and fled South towards Cape Lookout.
Eventually, the Cretan came up alongside the stopped Mariners Harbor and they exchanged information by megaphone. They both slowly moved up the beach towards the Shoals and then ENE to go around when it got dusk at 1915hrs. When offshore and near the end of the shoal, the Diamond Shoals Lightship was not to be seen. They were both running without lights when a very fast moving and low to the water vessel steamed past them. Believing this to be the Submarine, both ships turned away until the suspected submarine was no longer seen. The dark moonless night and poor visibility protecting them.
With no reason to doubt the official record of Fregattenkapitan Waldemar Kophamel, it appears Merak was actually Torpedoed. The U-140 had fired one torpedo and148 cannon rounds at the vessels it had attacked during this incident. Shellfire, torpedo or a placed charge, either way, the Merak sunk quickly and her location was lost to history.
Diving the Shipwreck
For many years, the location of the Merak was not positively determined. We visited a shipwreck site very near the end of the outer Diamond Shoals which we thought may just be the SS Merak but could never really be sure. Another remote possible identity for this shipwreck site was the SS Olympic. A third possibility was that this site is neither of these vessels but some other yet unidentified ship. Changes to the wreck site have allowed access to areas allowing measurement of boilers and other construction features and more available information has allowed near positive identification of this site as that of Merak. The web page with details about the diving conditions , photos and drawings of this site are found here "Mystery Tower Wreck".
This wreck in an area where the current is usually very strong and almost consistently Gulf Stream. She sits in 120 to 145 feet of water not very far from the Diamond Shoals Light Tower and about four miles from the wreck of the Diamond Shoals Lightship, LV-71. This wreck site is broken into two large sections and both of them are completely upside down. These big pieces of the ship lay perpendicular to each other with a gap of about 60 feet between them, the sections forming roughly an "L". The stern section is the biggest piece and it lays with the single propeller pointing roughly to the east, the bow section lays 90 degrees to this with two torn open ends close to each other and the Stem (pointy end of the bow) farthest down the dominant current.
There are no highly distinct features at this wreck site to aide in a absolutely positive identification. Both sections are completely upside down with the gunnels deep into the sugar white sands of the shoals. There are no remnants of the bridge works or other deck houses as all of these structures are crushed under the upside down hull.
This wreck site is the remains of the SS Merak. There are many things which point to this wreck being the Merak and not the other ships lost in the vicinity, but not yet identified. The first and most compelling is the location of the wreck site. This shipwreck is in the right place to be the Merak and of the same general construction (but so where the other potential candidates). She is about the right tonnage, build and length, without question steam powered and single screw. Many of the basic features of this wreck site closely match that of Merak. The stern section contains twin boilers of the same diameter as Merak carried and the length from these boilers to the stern measures very close to the plan view of Merak.
The only thing going against the Merak Identification is the lack of large amounts of the coal cargo, there are just not large piles of it as one might expect. However, coal is almost neutrally buoyant in seawater and with the swift currents and numerous storms that are present in this location much of the coal may have just simply washed away over the years and some pieces of coal have been seen inside the bow section where the holds are accessible. Unfortunately, the vessel is totally upside down concealing all other structures that would assist in a positive identification and divers have not yet been able to enter the engine room area and locate anything of significance with which to identify the vessel.
The shipwreck is right where it should be if the reports from the Lightship crew on Merak's location during these events are correct. The wreck is torn right in the engine room with little other damage to the hull. However, we now know the Merak was sunk by Torpedo and aiming at the engine room dead center is the method of choice in most torpedo attacks.
It is my opinion is that the SS Merak has been found and identified, but not absolutely, positively identified, yet... Either way it is an interesting dive and one that offers up the possibility that on future visits some clue or artifact may present itself to completely solve the mystery.
Sources used to develop this web page:
1. Shipwrecks of North Carolina, Hatteras Inlet North, Gary Gentile, ISBN #0-9621453-7-8
2. Graveyard of the Atlantic, Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast, David Stick, ISBN #0-8078-0622-6, Version - Seventeenth printing
4. U-140 KTB, Original document from 1918
5. GERMAN SUBMARINE ACTIVITIES ON THE ATLANTIC COAST OF THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA, Government printing office, 1920, Via US Navy research library
6. Personal dive experience of Captain Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras
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