MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. -- Kurt Krueger remembers struggling to swim in the ocean off the North Carolina coast after his U-boat was hit by depth charges during World War II.
The 84-year-old German veteran also recalls the chilling message of the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter that blasted his submarine and machine-gunned the crew members after they came to the surface.
"He shouted down through the megaphone the friendly words: `I wish you good evening down with the sharks,"' Mr. Krueger said in an interview taped for a documentary broadcast.
Their roles easily could have been reversed. The German U-352 fired a torpedo at the Coast Guard cutter Icarus. The torpedo exploded prematurely, giving away the U-boat's position and sealing its doom.
After attacking the sub, the Coast Guard ship disappeared, then returned an hour later, and Mr. Krueger became one of the first German navy prisoners of war in the United States in World War II. The incident began a four-year odyssey that took him to Fort Bragg and around the United States as a POW before he was reunited with his parents in Germany.
Fifty years later, he came back to the North Carolina coast where his U-boat once lurked as an enemy.
Mr. Krueger represents the rapidly vanishing living memory of the U-boat sinking on May 9, 1942, in the Atlantic Ocean about 26 miles south of Morehead City.
He was among nine German sailors who came to Morehead City seven years ago for the 50th anniversary of the sinking. Four or five Coast Guard veterans from the Icarus attended.
During the reunion, Mr. Krueger developed a friendship with George Purifoy, the diver who located the U-boat in 1975.
Mr. Purifoy found the U-352 in 1975 after years of searching by himself and with other wreck divers. Mr. Purifoy, 54, a native of Morehead City, grew up listening to tales of fires at sea and bodies washing up from the U-boat war. He found Mr. Krueger to be a grandfatherly type who could reveal a treasure-trove of firsthand information.
"I've never seen anybody like him," Mr. Purifoy said. "It's like a book unfolding before you. He personifies what I always thought of the German mentality -- methodical and correct."
During Mr. Krueger's second visit, Rick Allen, 35, a freelance videographer from Fayetteville, recorded an interview with Mr. Krueger for a documentary on the U-boat war off the East Coast and its effect on North Carolina residents.
One area off the state's coast was known as "Torpedo Alley" because of the danger from U-boats preying on allied shipping.
Mr. Allen reflected on his warm personal relationship with Mr. Krueger in contrast to the hatred between the two countries in the 1940s.
"If I'd been born 50 years sooner, we'd have been trying to kill each other," Mr. Allen said.
In the video, Mr. Krueger, a retired accountant, speaks fluent English with warmth, humor, precision and an uncanny ability to recall exact dates from his war years.
The interview affords a rare look at the war off the North Carolina coast from the German point of view.
"People have no idea the war was so close to home," Mr. Allen said. "The war came as close to our shores as you can without being invaded."
The U-352 was commissioned in October 1941, according to Gary Gentile's Shipwrecks of North Carolina from Hatteras Inlet South. The boat sailed with three officers, a midshipman, 18 petty officers and 24 sailors, according to the book.
Asked about life on the U-boat, Mr. Krueger replied: "Hell on earth."
There were 46 men in a steel tube surrounded by water with no water inside for washing. Everyone grew beards. There were scarcely any toilets.
Outside, there were people trying to kill you. Inside, the stale air reeked of food, oil and urine.
Then in 1942, things really began to get rough.
The Allies began using radar to detect submarines on the surface. Allied airplanes and radar became a U-boat's worst enemies. A U-boat's only warning came from the lookout's eyes. It became dangerous to venture outside the sub in the fresh air on the surface because an airplane could attack faster than a U-boat could dive.
"Eat, work and die," Mr. Krueger said grimly in the taped interview.
To make life even more miserable, the captain was an avowed Nazi who meted out harsh punishments for minor offenses. More than a half-century later, the gentle Mr. Krueger still swears about his former commanding officer.
Mr. Krueger was a sonar technician with extra duty as a medic. He listened for the noise of surface ships.
U-boats normally laid low during daylight. But Mr. Gentile, author of the shipwreck book, speculates that the commander, Hellmut Rathke, was so desperate to sink something that he made an insane daylight attack against the Coast Guard cutter.
Mr. Krueger detected the Icarus at about 3:30 p.m. The commander fired the torpedo at about 4:15 p.m.
"This torpedo was our mistake," he said in the taped interview. "When the torpedo exploded, our commander believed (it) to have hit the target."
But the Icarus motors began operating on high speed.
"Within the next moment, our boat was shaken," Mr. Krueger said. "That was because our commander didn't change the course."
Mr. Krueger knew immediately that all was lost. The lights went out and the emergency light finally came on.
"We were lucky to get the boat up from the bottom," Mr. Krueger said.
The commander ordered his sailors to abandon ship.
Mr. Krueger told the three men who worked with him to go out, and he put the code wheels into his pants pocket to prevent those from falling into enemy hands.
Mr. Krueger gave his life preserver to another sailor who could not swim. He said he did not feel lucky to be alive. He had lost his freedom.
Today, the U-352 rests on the sandy ocean floor about 115 feet below the surface. Upon its sinking, it joined a rich legacy of sunken ships off the North Carolina coast dating back to Blackbeard, the English pirate of the early 1700s.
Mr. Purifoy quit keeping track awhile back, but he believes he has made about 1,500 dives on the U-352.
The boat, which leans slightly to the right on the ocean bottom, has deteriorated since Mr. Purifoy discovered it 24 years ago.
"It's a very picturesque wreck," he said. "It's like diving in a huge aquarium with a German submarine sitting there."
On one dive, Mr. Purifoy even found Mr. Krueger's 11 mm pistol. Mr. Krueger told himself he would shoot the captain if he were ever threatened with punishment.
Mr. Purifoy reviewed the Coast Guard briefing on the sinking of the U-boat and interviewed survivors of the Icarus and the U-352.
"Each one of them saw that episode from a different perspective," he said. "It was like three different novels that weren't connected."
"People have no idea the war was so close to home. The war came as close to our shores as you can without being invaded."
-- Rick Allen,freelance videographer
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