Just after midnight on March 11, 1942, Jim Gaskill, 22, mate of the ore carrier Caribbean, absented himself from watch and surrendered for the night. the Caribbean and her crew of 28 had left Santiago, Cuba, on March 2, and the ship would soon arrive in Norfolk with her precious cargo of manganese. The freighter had slowed, waiting until daybreak and with it air cover, to pass Diamond Shoals – which in March 1942 had seen such carnage from German U-boats that it became known as Torpedo Junction. As Gaskill left the bridge, he looked perhaps in the dark towards his not too distant home on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

The car dealer Caribbean before World War II. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

Three days later, Christopher Gaskill was strolling along the beach at the south end of Ocracoke when he noticed a large rectangular frame had washed up on the shore. He held a certificate – a license from the United States Department of Commerce certifying James Baum Gaskill as a mate on board an ocean steamer. Christopher hadn’t heard from his cousin Jim since the war started four months ago, and now he was worried. He quickly showed his uncle Bill Gaskill and his family at the Pamlico Inn in Ocracoke what he had found, then drove to the local U.S. Coast Guard station, fearing the worst.

Later, on the dock of the Pamlico Inn, a wooden spar from a ship was found hitting the pilings. Bill Gaskill fished it out of the water and to his dismay saw that there was a carved and painted nameplate of the Caribbean. But by then, everyone on the island knew: Jim’s ship had been torpedoed.

The Pamlico Inn on Ocracoke Island, showing the wharf where the Caribbean nameboard was found. (With kind permission of the author)

Only seven members CaribbeanThe crew survived, and Jim Gaskill was not among them. He and 21 other people died when U-158 torpedoed their ship. Gaskill became one of hundreds of sailors to die off the American coast during Operation Drumbeat, the American submarine offensive off the east coast in early 1942. In March, the islanders of Ocracoke familiarized themselves with the horrors of World War II, as recounted in December. 2016 issue of naval history magazine. They had already seen the bodies of torpedoed ships like the tanker imperial gem brought ashore and had been awakened at night by the sounds of explosions offshore, but Jim Gaskill’s death brought a new, grim reality to the otherwise calm fishing community: no one would escape this war unaffected.

Today the Caribbean lies in 90 feet of water 35 miles off Cape Lookout, North Carolina, her wreck site documented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of its mission to research and preserve historic resources off the American coast. His wreck is a popular site for divers, but on Ocracoke the links are more personal. Its nameplate is prominently displayed in the Ocracoke Preservation Society museum.

The golden cross made from the wreckage recovered from the Caribbean in the Ocracoke United Methodist Church. (With kind permission of the author)

But this is not the only element of the Caribbean who stay on Ocracoke. Pastor Richard Bryant of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church showed the author a golden cross adorning the altar of the church which was carved into the wooden stringers to which the nameplate was found attached. The church was built during the war and it seems only fitting that its centerpiece should serve as a unique and poignant reminder of the sacrifice for the community.

Close up of the plaque on the altarpiece of Ocracoke United Methodist Church. (With kind permission of the author)