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 400 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 some time and 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 was his wartime total. The Merak was at long odds against this attacker and his submarine.
As soon as the U-140 came to the surface, her deck guns were manned and an attack on the Merak 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, none were reported to have struck the Merak.
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
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. The Merak crew immediately took to the boats and the 43 men of her crew escaped the freighter in two lifeboats. The report of the Merak running aground has been replicated in many reports and books. This scenario is possible, but may not be all that likely as this fact was not related by crew members during their interrogation by naval authorities after the event. According to Second Mate Monti's testimony, after about thirty shots had been fired at them they knew escape was impossible and abandoned the vessel when the U-boat was still approaching and several miles off but had turned attention to the Diamond Shoals Lightship. No mention of a grounding was made during his 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 the opportunity arose.
With the Merak stopped and crew fleeing the ship, the U-140 freely dealt with the Diamond Shoals Lightship, LV-71, that was very nearby and making radio transmission reports about the attack. The Diamond Shoals crew had heard the cannon fire and spotted the U-Boat shelling the Merak. 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 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 attack the now stopped Merak. The Submarine supposedly approached the abandoned Merak and came alongside her.
The crew of the Merak were still close enough to their ship to see the U-Boat pull up to the Merak and they reported that submarine crew members boarded her. It was believed the Germans went aboard to place explosives in the bilge of the engine room and that is what sunk the ship. The U-Boat then 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. With no reason to doubt the official record of Fregattenkapitan Waldemar Kophamel, it appears Merak was actually Torpedoed. 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 are the other potential candidates). She is about the right tonnage and build, 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. Going against the Merak Identification is the lack of large amounts of the coal cargo the Merak was carrying. 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. 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. If as reported, the large submarine came alongside the Merak and placed explosives onboard to sink her. Would the experienced U-Boat commander have endangered his vessel in shallow shoal water to do so? Probably not. Also, the wreck is torn right in the engine room with little other damage to the hull. This is the exact location where explosives would be placed to do the most immediate damage to the ship. However, we now know the Merak was sunk by Torpedo, but aiming at the engine room dead center is the method of choice in most 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. Personal dive experience of Captain Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras
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