“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing,” Winston Churchill once said, “after they’ve tried everything else.” In the course of World War II, nowhere was that more true than in the Battle for the Atlantic, in which American responses to the Nazi U-boat threat in the pivotal year of 1942 ranged from the inept to the catastrophic before finally the ship of state righted itself with a new airplane, the Lockheed A-29 Hudson, and a new policy of escorting merchant ships across the oceans in vast protective convoys.

Ed Offley’s subject in “The Burning Shore” is primarily those months of chaos and disaster as the U-boats began their attacks on the American Atlantic coastline from Canada to Florida. It is a theater of that vast war about which comparatively little has been written and about which most Americans know even less. We think of ourselves as having been almost impregnable during the war, separated from the Axis enemy by the Atlantic and Pacific, the one terrible exception being the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But in fact we were under direct and repeated attack as U-boats sank merchantmen in the Atlantic: “From mid-January [1942] to late June,” Offley writes, “the U-boats rampaged practically unopposed along the East Coast, sinking 226 Allied merchant ships totaling 1,251,650 gross registered tons.” Meanwhile, the Japanese kept up the pressure in the Pacific, especially with an attack on the mainland near Santa Barbara that “threw the entire West Coast population into a state of near hysteria,” a “five-hour mass panic that resulted in three deaths, dozens of injuries, and widespread property damage,” as well as further intensifying prejudice against Japanese Americans, some 110,000 of whom already were being herded into internment camps.

It was the assault on the East Coast, though, that was most prolonged and damaging. Offley, a former journalist for the Norfolk Star-Ledger who now lives in Florida, came across the tale of U-boat U-701 some four decades ago and wrote about it for his newspaper. He continued to do so in subsequent years, and now those reports are “the foundation of this book.” It will be, I think, a real eye-opener for readers who assume that the war was fought in Europe, Asia and Africa, but not here. To be sure the civilians of the United States enjoyed a freedom from war’s devastation and terror that was the envy of much of the rest of the world, but the U-boat force was a dangerous, resourceful enemy, employing vessels far more sophisticated than anything in the American Navy in 1942 and commanded, for the most part, by bold, courageous men.

One of these was Kapitaenleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Horst Degen, who was 27 years old when he first experienced “an actual wartime U-boat patrol” in the spring of 1941 and who was put in command of U-701 later that year. Degen and his crew “forged a tight bond” despite, and because of, the incredibly close quarters in which they lived and worked. “Despite the severe congestion,” Offley writes, “the young men were acclimated to their environment and well versed in their assignments after the months of combat drills in the Baltic.” That was in the good times. The bad ones were something else, as those who have seen the film “Das Boot” do not need to be told. This is what it was like off the North Carolina coast in 1942:

“The forty-six men confined inside U-701’s pressure hull accepted the need to remain invisible, but they suffered for it. The residual heat inside the boat from its batteries and e-motors, combined with the high water temperature outside, quickly spiked the thermometer above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the boat’s air-cleansing system was proving inadequate to rid the boat of carbon dioxide gas. For up to seventeen hours each day, the crew stewed in this hellish environment, slowly waiting for the hours to pass and the safety of darkness to finally arrive before they could surface and ventilate the boat.”

While U-701 prowled the Atlantic Coast, its most important mission being “a mine-laying operation at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, where the Thimble Shoal Channel enters the Atlantic,” a U.S. Navy lieutenant named Harry Joseph Kane Jr. was piloting his A-29 Hudson in search of U-boats. The U.S. military leadership had finally concluded that attacks from the air could be effective against submarines, and Kane and his four-man crew were among the first to undertake the assignment. The A-29 was a tricky plane: It “easily stalled at low speeds” and it had “a strong tendency to bounce back into the air after touching down,” but it was far superior to its predecessor, the B-18 Bolo, as a submarine hunter, as Degen and his crew learned to their horror when, on July 7, Kane spotted U-701 off Cape Hatteras and unloaded its “three 325-Mark XVII depth charges.” One missed its mark but the others struck home.

U-701, which had a record of “four ships sunk by torpedo, gunfire, or mines totaling 21,789 gross tons and another four vessels totaling 37,093 tons seriously damaged,” was dead in the water. Kane ordered his crew to throw their life jackets to the shipwrecked Germans, and then dropped his plane’s inflatable life raft to them. “They were beaten,” he said later. “They couldn’t hurt anyone anymore. We couldn’t leave them to drown like rats. They were like us, they’d had a job to do and they’d done it.” Only seven members of the U-701 crew survived, one of them being Degen. A few days later Kane and his crew were ordered to go to the Norfolk Air Station:

“They entered a large hospital bay, where Kane saw a heavily sunburned man dressed in pajamas and a hospital robe sitting in a chair. One of the [American] officials bent over and muttered something in German to the man, who looked at Kane, then struggled painfully to his feet. He threw Kane a sharp military salute.

“ ‘Congratulations,’ Horst Degen said in clear English. ‘Good attack.’ ”

Degen was closely grilled by American intelligence officers and gave a reasonably accurate account of his activities along the Atlantic Coast, but his “role in mining the Thimble Shoal Channel would not be known for another forty years.” He and his six surviving crew members were sent to “a secure confinement facility in Massachusetts,” then to Camp Blanding in Florida and Camp Papago Park in Arizona. They “found conditions at the camp luxurious compared with day-to-day life on a U-boat.” In Arizona, “Degen’s knowledge of English led U.S. Army officials to appoint him as a trustee who worked in the camps administrative office” and one American officer called him “one of our most trusted and helpful prisoners of war.” At war’s end he returned to Germany, married and had a successful career.

Kane did much the same, marrying a woman from North Carolina and living with her and their children in the growing town of Kinston, where he too had a successful and happy life. Then, “thirty-seven years after their confrontation at sea,” Kane and Degen made contact with each other and “began a lengthy and engaging correspondence” that eventually led to a happy visit by the Kanes with the Degens in Germany. Kane died in 1990, aged 72, while Degen lived six more years, dying in 1996 at the age of 82. It would be foolish to wax sentimental about their story, and Offley wisely refrains from doing so, but it does bring the history of the U-boats to an unexpected and quite gratifying conclusion.


How Hitler’s U-Boats Brought World War II to America

By Ed Offley

Basic. 312 pp. $27.99