“War Zone: World War II Off
the NC Coast” by Kevin Duffus
Federal Point History Center
1121-A N. Lake Park Blvd.
7/16, 7:30 p.m. • Free
Indiana Jones. Dirk Pitt. Nicolas Cage’s character in the film “National Treasure.” We love stories about men who dig deeply into history, who discover things that no one else has ever taken the time to uncover. Men who look at history and see not just skeletons and ancient artifacts but a mystery—a story waiting to be told.
Turns out, such a man will be coming to Wilmington, in the flesh. His name is Kevin Duffus, and he is a history detective. Having lived in North Carolina since he was 15, Duffus gained an early interest in our state’s coastline. When he was young, he read “Graveyard of the Atlantic” by David Stick, which aroused a curiosity about shipwrecks. Duffus got his scuba-diving certification at the age of 17 and began looking for missing World War II, German U-boats. “It was all sort of silly,” he admits. “Something a young person would do, but I never lost my interest or passion for the history of World War II.” He would later go on to publish “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: An Illustrated Guide,” something called “a long-awaited sequel” to his own book.
Duffus’ first career began at the CBS station in Raleigh, NC. But in the ‘90s, he went into business for himself and began airing his own historical documentaries on public television. One was called “War Zone,” and focused on a very specific period of North Carolina history: January to July 1942. During these months, more than 65 German U-boats entered the American waters off the coast of North Carolina and began to attack: 397 ships were sunk and more than 5,000 people were killed (twice the number of people that died in Pearl Harbor).
“It’s such a little-known part of our American history,” Duffus explains. “Very few people know that we had the potential to lose World War II within our own waters.”
When he was creating the documentary 12 years ago, Duffus interviewed 18 people who were alive during the war, all of whom had vivid memories of the various events. “It was a great privilege and a great opportunity,” he shares. “Sadly, many of the people I interviewed have now passed on. Their stories would have been lost.”
As varied and amazing as they are tragic and heart-rending, the stories came from men who worked on oil tankers off the coast and were bombed by the U-boats. Some even recalled seeing the flaming bodies of their co-workers falling from the besieged tankers. He interviewed civilians who lived on the coast at the time, who remember seeing the fires at night, hearing the explosions, and even spotting dead bodies that had been washed ashore.
He also shares the amazing story of a 28-year-old pregnant Yugoslavian woman who was on a ship that was passing Cape Hatteras when they were torpedoed. She managed to get into a lifeboat with 20 strangers where she then went into labor. She safely delivered her baby in the graveyard of the Atlantic before they were rescued by a Navy warship. Duffus managed to interview the son, who was born in a lifeboat, in the middle of a German invasion.
“It sounds unusual or remarkable or sensational,” he admits. “But it’s not. There were so many incredible stories right off our own coast—and the stories of heroism, courage and valor are almost endless. If they’re forgotten, then the loss of their lives turned out to be worthless. By remembering, we make their sacrifice worth something.”
Duffus’ documentary became the basis for his latest book, “War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast.” Even after he finished the documentary, he continued to compile information. “The 300-page book is probably the most detailed history of the first six months of 1942,” Duffus says. “It’s vitally important for future generations to know this. History does repeat itself. If they don’t know that the enemy came right to our shores because we weren’t paying attention, then we may make the same mistake again.”
Duffus’ historical prowess and hunger for understanding goes far beyond “War Zone.” In 2002, he solved the mystery of the missing Cape Hatteras Lighthouse lens—lost for 140 years. After extended research, Duffus discovered the warehouse in which it had been abandoned. “But I didn’t find the lens,” the author insists. “That lens, that story, found me.” Moreso, the story connected with Duffus personally. After its discovery, he learned through additional research that his great-great-grandfather was a part of the Union army unit who first realized the vital piece of the lighthouse was lost. “And 140 years later, his great-great-grandson was the one who found the missing lens,” Duffus states. “There’s so much more to this world than we could all imagine.”
His thirst for information led to copious amounts of inspiration in his work. In 2008, he published “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate” after years of traveling to England and hunting down letters. His discoveries bring into question many of the traditional, historical accounts of Black Beard’s life, including his motivations as a pirate and his death.
Through this research Duffus also discovered that North Carolina had unlawfully dug up a member of Black Beard’s crew. He went to court and, after three years, had the man’s remains reclaimed for his living family members, who were finally able to lay him to rest. “Not too many people can say they had one of Black Beard’s pirates in their car,” Duffus laughs.
Duffus’s fascinating tales will be shared at the Federal Point History Center in Carolina Beach on Monday, July 16th, at 7:30 p.m. This program is made possible by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a state-wide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Duffus will offer a 55-minute presentation on “War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast,” which will include several of the interviews he did for the original documentary. The presentation will be followed by a Q&A period. He will also discuss popular, local legends regarding a German U-boat that allegedly shelled the Ethyl-Dow chemical plant at Kure Beach and a German midget submarine that allegedly landed at Carolina Beach before sending German soldiers ashore. “Without giving too much away, I will tell you that I can very definitively state what did or did not happen,” he admits.
For more information, visit www.federalpointhistory.org or Duffus’ own website, www.thelostlight.com.