Survivors after a German torpedo hit and sank the Chenango in 1942 off the coast of North Carolina. (National Archives)

Somewhere off North Carolina’s Outer Banks lies the wreck of a passenger ship, City of New York, sunk by a German U-boat on March 29, 1942.

Twenty-four people were killed in the attack. A pregnant woman who went into labor in one of the lifeboats survived, as did her baby. But the wreck has never been located.

Also off Cape Hatteras is the wreck of Dixie Arrow, a tanker, torpedoed three days earlier. The ship’s helmsman steered it into the wind, to keep the flames off survivors, but was himself burned to death.

Scores of other vessels, along with a few U-boats, litter the bottom off North Carolina, part of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls one of the unsung American “battlefields” of World War II.

Now NOAA wants to protect the area by including it in one of its National Marine Sanctuaries. The agency is hosting a public meeting on the idea at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Navy Memorial in downtown Washington.


The proposal is to extend NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary — which protects the wreck of the famous Civil War ship USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras — to include ships sunk in what is known as “Torpedo Alley.”

No restrictions on diving or fishing would be imposed, said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage in NOAA’s office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Rather, the sanctuary would honor the area and tell its story, as if it were a battlefield on land.

In a recent statement, NOAA said the area off the Outer Banks contains “the single greatest concentration of World War I and World War II shipwrecks in American waters and includes sunken vessels” from the United States, Britain and Germany.

After Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, the German navy dispatched waves of its deadly submarines — U-boats — to the U.S. East Coast to prey on allied shipping.

Many of the U-boats converged on Cape Hatteras, because it was so heavily traveled and because it was close to deep water in which the subs could escape after they attacked.

The hunting was good. Off North Carolina, about 90 ships were lost, said Joe Hoyt, a NOAA underwater archaeologist. “And most of those are tankers and freighters that were sunk by U-boats,” he said.

The area is the so-called “torpedo alley,” where the U-boats wrought havoc in the early months of 1942, after the Nazis declared war on the U.S. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration )

But an armed British trawler, the Bedfordshire, also was among those lost. It was sunk by a torpedo fired by U-558 on May 12, 1942. The Bedfordshire’s entire crew of 37 perished.

The site of the Bedfordshire wreck, and many of the others, is known. But about a dozen wrecks have never been found.

“We’ve done a fairly exhaustive historical inventory, and archaeological inventory, of the sites that are out there,” Hoyt said in a telephone interview last week.

“I know exactly what the [missing] ships are, and where they approximately ought to be,” he said. “But no one’s had a look for them and been able to identify them.”

One of those is City of New York.

The American ship was bound from Trinidad to New York with a load of ore, wood, wool, hides and asbestos, according to the website Uboat.net.

It was also carrying 41 passengers, including Desanka Mohorovicic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav consular officer in New York, according to Hoyt and news accounts.

The ship was about 40 miles east from Cape Hatteras in heavy seas when it was spotted by U-160, skippered by 27-year-old Georg Lassen. The sub fired two torpedoes, which struck home and sank the ship in about 20 minutes.

Among those who escaped was Mohorovicic, 28, who went into labor and gave birth in the lifeboat. She named the baby boy, Jesse Roper Mohorovicic, after the Navy destroyer that rescued those in the lifeboat.

“There are countless stories that are out there to be told,” Hoyt said. “We’re just starting to just scratch that surface.”

Desanka Mohorovicic survived the war years and died in 1992. Her son died in 2005. Lassen, the U-boat captain, died in 2012, at the age of 96.