A Poem from Torpedo Junction

North Carolina Public Radio this morning featured a report on efforts to get veteran status for Tar Heels who ferried supplies along the East Coast during World War II. Merchant marines and small boat captains dodged German U-boats in an area off of Cape Hatteras that came to be known as Torpedo Junction. During the first four months of 1942, nearly 70 US naval and merchant ships were sunk by German U-Boat attacks.

The radio report got us digging around in the North Carolina Collection for materials on Torpedo Junction and the battles that took place there. We came across a poem, supposedly written by U-boat commander Johann “Jochen” Mohr as he reported to his superiors yet another sinking of an American vessel.

The new-moon night is black as ink
Off Hatteras the tankers sink
While sadly Roosevelt counts the score –
Some fifty thousand tons – by

Mohr and the crew of U-124 are credited with sinking four ships off the North Carolina coast on May 12, 1942. He and his crew were killed 11 months later when a British naval vessel sank U-124 off the coast of Portugal.

We’ll leave it to others to figure out why Mohr’s poem rhymes so well in English when we suspect he wrote his dispatch in German.

4 thoughts on “A Poem from Torpedo Junction”

  1. Lew,
    My great-uncle, Alonzo C. Hall, published a book of epitaphs he collected. It’s called Grave Humor and long out of print. But we have a copy in the North Carolina Collection. Your epitaph is similar to one I remember from the book:
    Here lies the body of Henry Moore
    He got in the way of a .44.

    My favorite as a child was:
    Here lies the body of our dear Anna
    Done to death by a banana
    It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low
    But the skin of the thing that made her go.

    But I digress….

  2. Lew’s comment coaxed me into doing a little more research. Mohr’s poem is quoted in several books, including Homer Hickam’s Torpedo Junction. Thankfully, Hickam cites the source of the poem. It’s from Sea Wolves: The Story of German U-Boats at War. The book was written by Wolfgang Frank, who served on the staff of Admiral Karl Doenitz. Doenitz commanded the U-Boat fleet during World War II. As you might expect, Sea Wolves was originally published in German. The English version was published in 1955 and translated by Lieutenant Commander R.O.B. Long, R.N.V.R. (which apparently stands for Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve). I’m wondering if Lieutenant Commander Long might have taken a little poetic license (literally).

    Interestingly, I found a book by Admiral Doenitz on the same shelf as Sea Wolves. His book, too, was originally written in German and was published in 1958 (After the war, Doenitz, who assumed leadership of the German Reich after the deaths of Hitler and Himmler, was convicted of war crimes and held in Spandau Prison until 1956). The English translation of Doenitz’s book, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days, includes several references to Mohr, including a quotation of one of the dispatches he sent to Doenitz. But there is no mention of the poem Mohr supposedly sent to his commander sometime during the night of March 17-18, 1942.

  3. That’s intriguing stuff, John. I’ve never really understood how poetry (even the kind that doesnt rhyme) survives translation.

  4. According to one source, Mohr did indeed dash off a “ditty,” and the English rendition was generated later:

    “When Mohr compiled his final score, he was ecstatic: ten ships (eight tankers) sunk for 64,000 tons. He submitted his sinking report to Dönitz in the form of a ditty, which the propagandist Wolfgang Frank later rendered into English, downgrading his tonnage”

    The author notes that actual losses were lower – Mohr sank 7 ships including 5 tankers for 42,000 tons; the remaining 3 tankers were damaged and not sunk (totaling 26,000 tons). Nevertheless this was a very successful patrol for the U-boat

    Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942
    By Clay Blair
    Quote from p. 519

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