Just after midnight on March 11, 1942, 22-year-old Jim Gaskill, second mate of the ore freighter Caribsea, went off watch and turned in for the night. The Caribsea and her crew of 28 had departed Santiago, Cuba, on March 2, and the ship would soon arrive in Norfolk with her valuable cargo of manganese. The freighter had slowed, waiting until daybreak and with it, air cover, to pass Diamond Shoals—which by March 1942 had seen such carnage from German U-boats it had become known as Torpedo Junction. As Gaskill left the bridge, perhaps he gazed out into the darkness toward his not-too-distant home on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
Three days later, Christopher Gaskill was walking along the beach on the southern end of Ocracoke when he noticed a large, rectangular frame had washed ashore. It held a certificate—a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce certifying James Baum Gaskill for mate on board an oceangoing steam vessel. Christoper had not heard from his cousin Jim since the war had begun four months ago, and now he grew worried. He promptly showed his uncle Bill Gaskill and his family at Ocracoke’s Pamlico Inn what he had found, and then went to the Coast Guard station, fearing the worst.
Later, at the Pamlico Inn’s dock, a wooden spar from a ship was found bumping into the pilings. Bill Gaskill fished it out of the water and to his dismay saw that attached to it was a carved and painted nameplate from the Caribsea. But by then everyone on the island knew: Jim’s ship had been torpedoed.
Only seven members the Caribsea’s crew survived, and Jim Gaskill was not among them. He and 21 others died when his ship was torpedoed by U-158. Gaskill became one of hundreds of mariners to die off America’s shores during Operation Drumbeat, the U-boat offensive off the East Coast in early 1942. By March Ocracoke islanders were becoming increasingly familiar with the horrors of the Second World War, as recounted in this month’s Naval History magazine. They had already seen the bodies from torpedoed ships such as the tanker Empire Gem brought ashore, and had been awoken at night to the sounds of explosions offshore, but Jim Gaskill’s death brought a new, sombre reality to the otherwise quiet fishing community: no one would escape this war unaffected.
Today, the Caribsea sits in 90 feet of water 35 miles off the coast of Cape Lookout, her wreck site documented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of its mission to research and preserve historic resources off America’s shores. Her wreck is a popular site for divers, but on Ocracoke itself the ties are more personal. Her nameplate hangs prominently in the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s museum.
But that is not the only piece of the Caribsea that remain on Ocracoke. Pastor Richard Bryant of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church was kind enough to show the author a gilded cross adorning the altar that was carved from the wood the spars to which the nameplate was found attached. The church itself was built during the war, and it seems only fitting that its centerpiece should be a uniquely poignant reminder of sacrifice for the community.