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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 18, 2022

The Graveyard of the Atlantic: Exploring history aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Maple 

By Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Marano and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kimberly Reaves

Watch! Over several days, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Maple visited sites of two sunken Coast Guard ships and a German U-boat. 

Coast Guard members create a sea of blue on the dusty gray buoy deck of Coast Guard Cutter Maple as droplets of ocean spray accumulate on their boots. The sun beams down, turning the droplets into white flakes of salt that contrast with the color of the weathered black leather. Mud and rusty chains are spread out sporadically on the deck almost perfectly spaced out from one another. Each person holds a salute as a wreath is laid into the choppy waves at the site of the sunken Coast Guard Cutter Jackson. This is the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The Outer Banks in North Carolina is considered a dangerous area for mariners traversing its shifting shoals and shallow waters. During both World Wars, the dangers of navigating these waters intensified with the United States entering each conflict. Specifically, Germany using unrestricted submarine warfare targeting military, civilian and merchant vessels, brought an active combat zone within sight of North America. With over 2,000 shipwrecks in this area, there is no wonder why it has been dubbed the Graveyard of the Atlantic. 

With the discovery of another historically significant Coast Guard vessel, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear off the coast of Cape Sable Nova Scotia, the U.S. Coast Guard is currently developing its capabilities to identify, locate, and document historic and archaeological sites scattered around the globe. A recent mission off the Outer Banks sought to test the service’s in-house maritime archaeological capabilities using existing staff, equipment, and vessels while providing insight into the ability for the service to perform similar projects in other locations. This project also worked to highlight Coast Guard history, serving as an educational and professional networking opportunity for participants.

This mission also provided the opportunity to perform condition assessments that may aid in identifying illicit activity or significant environmental degradation of these sites. As military vessels and known war graves, these sites are protected under U.S. law.

Petty Officer First Class Joshua Marano, a reserve boatswain's mate attached to Coast Guard Station Miami Beach, Florida, was selected to lead the mission. As a civilian, Marano works as a professional maritime archaeologist for the U.S. National Park Service, making him the only maritime archaeologist in the Coast Guard. Marano worked alongside the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian’s Office to develop the project.

Given the scope of the mission and operational and budgetary constraints, efforts focused on the capability to locate known wreck sites with remote sensing tools such as side-scan sonar and perform limited visual inspection using remotely operated vehicles that members of the Coast Guard’s Regional Dive Locker East operate.

In addition to viewing the sites, a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary chaplain, Pastor Ted Bost, provided memorial services at several sites where there had been a considerable loss of life. These memorials were not only meant to honor the dead, but also to educate the crews working on the site. The mission was performed over several days at sea aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple (WLB-207) a 225-foot Juniper-Class seagoing buoy tender homeported in Morehead City, North Carolina. 

The link between the past, present, and future could not have been better highlighted than during the memorialization held at the site of the U-352. On the buoy deck, 110 feet above the wreckage of the U-boat, the crew of the Maple, along with the mission team, discussed the history of the site and its significance to the Coast Guard’s history. Here, Marano acknowledged that the memorialization effort sought to pay respect, “not as victors, but as mariners in arms” and that as sailors, “we are all here today, performing the job that our nations have asked us to do.” Also on deck was Cmdr. Philipp Mandau of the German navy who was serving as the Assistant Naval Attaché to the United States for the Federal Republic of Germany and participated in the ceremony. Mandau noted that while the sailors aboard the U-352 served an illegal regime, we honor them as sailors doing their duty for their country. 

Coast Guard Cutter Jackson and Coast Guard Cutter Bedloe were lost at sea due to suspected rogue waves during a hurricane while escorting the torpedo damaged liberty ship George Ade in 1944. The two cutters were sister ships, both outfitted for wartime service with additional armament making them top heavy and likely less stable in rough seas. 

“While archaeology is the study of human beings based on their surviving material culture, its purpose is to learn things that are not necessarily written down in textbooks and to give voice to those who no longer have one,” said Marano.

To date, there has not been a singular effort to determine the service’s capabilities to undertake archaeological surveys without assistance from outside agencies or governments. While each of the archaeological sites visited on this mission had been located and positively identified through previous historical and archaeological research, they serve as appropriate training sites to test the Coast Guard’s capabilities. This mission provided vital lessons and insights that will shape Coast Guard participation in future missions. 

“The deployment of Coast Guard Cutter Maple to survey the World War II wrecks of these ships serves to remember the men who went in harm’s way, never to return,” said Dr. William Thiesen, historian for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command. “We fervently hope that those interested in seeing these wrecks will respect their sanctity and view, but not disturb the sites.” 

Preservation of the sites, especially given their status as war graves, is of the utmost importance to archaeologists like Marano who acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges to conservation of these and other sites lies in education. 

“People will not protect what they do not care about, and they will not care about what they do not know about,” Marano said. “Education and outreach is the key to developing well informed, vested stewards of our shared cultural heritage.”