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Kure Beach, N. C., July 25, 1943, at around 3 a.m., Germany attacked the United States when a surfaced submarine fired five rounds at the local Ethyl-Dow chemical plant intending its damage.

The rounds landed in the Cape Fear River near Brunswick County.

I believe this happened, and thus was the only German military attack on America during World War II.

Officials blanked the media, never providing facts. Public rumors persisted. It took post-war chance and persistence to divulge this remarkable story.

Reaction gathered believers and skeptics, from “sure” to “mythology,” enlivening speculative interpretations: It did, or did not.

Following our interviews and site tours, John Hanc, writing for the New York Times (2016) and Smithsonianmag.com (2017), offered mediation. Weighing the yeas, nays, could-bes, and maybe-nots, he skewed probable.

Otherwise, internet references and media re-writes appear primarily sourcing analysis in my 2003 book, A Sentimental Journey. Anything new out there?

Presuming not, let’s settle the issue.

Why Ethyl-Dow? The plant produced bromine from seawater, a valued additive to aviation and high-performance gasolines – a natural target. Located one half mile north of now central Kure Beach, it stretched one half mile across Federal Point from an ocean intake to river docks.

What was witnessed?

Ralph Horton, on plant duty that night, said, “We were blacked out on the ocean side. Their aim wasn’t that good, We heard the whistling sound. We were on the fourth floor and could see the shells exploding at the water’s edge.”

Horton later operated a metals business here and served as county commissioners chairman.

“It’s a tradition among Kure Beach old-timers that this happened,” said John Gregory III, at his family’s 1930s Atlantic Avenue cottage.

That night, while his grandparents rocked, a spotlight on the surface blinded their porch, scanning the beach. They heard “artillery fire.” The light extinguished.

Gregory’s grandmother told him, “‘The whole thing happened in a minute or two.’ They sat petrified. Nothing they could do. They had no telephone.”

The next morning, neighbors spoke of seeing the light or hearing the firing. Gregory’s grandfather told an Army officer their experience. The response: “‘Nothing happened. You didn’t see anything.’ But they knew what they and their neighbors saw – a German submarine.”

Having ‘reasonable proof’ of the attack

Army Lt. Carlton Sprague, 558th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion training at nearby Fort Fisher that night, remembered the attack.

A. B. Love Jr. – The StarNews reported in March 1946, “That a German submarine tried to shell the Ethyl-Dow plant at Kure’s Beach was given ‘reasonable proof’ yesterday by a letter” from Love to his father. The attempt took place on the morning of July 25, 1943, at 3 o’clock.”

Love worked for Ethyl-Dow, later moved to Michigan, and saw a German U-boat painting hanging in a barber shop. The owner, a former Army pilot who spotted the submarine while patrolling that day, knew of Love’s Wilmington connection. The pilot said it fired five rounds but “was sunk the following day.”

Location/verification of that particular sinking is difficult.

Plant official Robert Cantwell said this information was probably correct. An Army guard told him the alert was “the real thing.”

Lt. Cmdr. Louis Hanson, Coast Guard Auxiliary, sighted a submarine silhouette while patrolling around Masonboro Inlet that night, and substantiated Love. Hanson lived across the street from me.

Noted local historian Lewis T. Moore accepted and reported Love’s and Hanson’s accounts.

Something was “not right”

Catherine and Margaret Crowe. That night an air raid siren awakened these First Presbyterian Church pastor’s daughters. Shipyard lights went out, “which they never did in a practice raid,”

Catherine Crowe said the next Sunday their dinner guests, two British submarine-chaser officers operating here, said that night while patrolling off Wrightsville Beach, they almost hit a German submarine.

Luther Jordan. As volunteer head of Carolina Beach civilian defense, an emergency call that night summoned him to the office. “After the war he told us about the submarine firing,” said daughter Frances Jordan.

George Burrell Byers. That night he noticed shipyard lights extinguished with “dead silence.” A fighter plane roared south. “Something was not right.” Later he heard.

Shipyard lights stayed off until about 5:30 a.m., a drastic move at an around-the-clock facility, and probably its only shut-down.

Some doubts still remain

Twenty years ago, David Carnell, studying the plant’s history, found no relevant U-boat after-action reports, and vociferously disputed claims. But he cited manager Monroe Shigley’s assertion a submarine was sighted that night but dived quickly. The plant shut down. Patrol craft made no contacts.

Okay, so wasn’t that our sub?

Shigley, however, in a Federal Point Historical Society interview about just technical subjects, never mentioned this. If the U-boat later sank, its logs went down.

Historians uncovering no recorded East Coast submarine deployments that night should consider this. A lone, long-range Type-IX boat on a specific assignment fired this last “Auf Wiedersehen” shot before departing for open ocean. Mission failed.

And now. Expect only a historic marker along U.S. 421. Apartments cover the plant’s Atlantic facing. Because of impassable thickets, avoid exploring any skeletal remains along Dow Road.

But visit the Gregory cottage Kreigsmarine sign and ponder. Germany attacked the United States.

Wilmington native, author, military historian, and retired Navy captain Wilbur Jones grew up here during WWII. He conceived and led the recent national project which designated Wilmington as America’s first WWII Heritage City. Further information: wilburjones.com.