They were the deadliest ships of World War II--nine German commerce raiders disguised as peaceful cargo ships, flying the flags of neutral and allied nations. In reality, these heavily armed warships roamed the world's oceans at will, like 20th-century pirates. They struck unsuspecting freighters and tankers out of the darkness of night or from behind a curtain of fog and mist. For almost three years they led the Royal Navy on a deadly chase from sea to sea, seeding Allied ports with hundreds of mines and, on one occasion, even bombarding a shore installation.
Masquerading as unarmed merchantmen, the raiders carried an awesome array of weapons cleverly hidden behind false structures and concealed inside empty packing crates on their decks. Seaplanes and motorboats helped them seek out their victims on the vast seas. They then fed off of these unsuspecting targets, pumping fuel from their prey into their own tanks and taking food from captured pantries to feed their own crews and the thousands of prisoners that they picked up along the way. These secret ships also acted as supply ships for U-boats, helping their fellow hunters remain at large for longer periods. At sea for months--or even years--those raider sailors lucky enough to survive were hailed as heroes when they returned home.
The postmarks, Virginia Beach, VA., and dated in 1942, were puzzling, as was the official return address: 111th Infantry C.T., Mobile Defense Force. While the 111th regimental combat team could be deciphered, the Mobile Defense Force was not a recognizable term.
The letters inside instructed her on the duties of a coast watcher, and evoked memories stored since childhood: The sickening thump of torpedoes striking U.S. ships just off the Currituck Outer Banks and the flare of flames, particularly when a tanker was hit, that were clear even to a youngster on his front porch 8 miles inland. Each boom and pillar of fire revealed that more men were dying in the freezing waters off North Carolina's barrier islands that winter.
How did the United States get into such straits that its life was threatened as the Axis juggernauts rolled across Western Europe and Asia? What transpired during the crucial years when the outcome of the war could go against the United States as Axis aggression flooded the Atlantic with U-boats striving to cut the stream of ships laden with weapons, troops, and food flowing to the beleaguered British Isles - the last Allied outpost near the Continent?
How did the Allies achieve victory first against the U-boats, then the war, for as Napoleon observed: "It is only a step from victory to disaster. "