On March 14, 1942, Chris Gaskill was walking the beach on the south end of Ocracoke Island when he spotted a rectangular object washing up with the surf. He decided to investigate and discovered it was a large frame that held an official‑looking certificate. To Gaskill, it looked like other documents may have once been inside the frame, but now there was only one. He examined it more closely. The document was a license issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce to certify the qualifications of a third mate aboard an ocean or coastwise steam vessel.
When Gaskill read the name of the person to whom the license was issued, he was at first puzzled then gravely worried. "How did this end up here," he might have wondered. The license belonged to his cousin, Ocracoke native son Jim Baughm Gaskill, third mate on the SS Caribsea, a 250-foot-long steam freighter, which was operated by a New York shipping company. Chris Gaskill hadn't known of his cousin's whereabouts since the war began, but finding the license washed-up on the beach was an ominous sign. Gaskill promptly returned to the village, notified the family and then the Coast Guard.
Jim's father, the late William D. "Cap'n Bill" Gaskill, had for many years owned and managed the Pamlico Inn, a popular hotel located on the edge of the Pamlico Sound and Teaches Hole Channel south of Silver Lake. Cap'n Bill was lost at sea while fishing in 1935 but the family continued to operate the inn. It was there, the day after Chris Gaskill found Jim's mate certificate, that someone at the inn noticed a floating piece of wreckage that appeared to be a spar or an oar banging against the pilings of the inn's pier. The timber was retrieved, and a ship's name was discovered etched on one side—"SS Caribsea." By then, Jim Baughm Gaskill's family and friends knew of his tragic fate.
Four days earlier, the SS Caribsea had been steaming past Cape Lookout on her way to Norfolk from Santiago, Cuba, with 3,600 tons of highly combustable manganese ore in her cargo holds. Believing that the greatest threat from German U-boats lay 60 miles ahead, the Navy asked the Caribsea's master to reduce speed to four knots so that the freighter would not approach Cape Hatteras until after daylight. Third mate Jim Baughm Gaskill's watch had ended, and he was asked by the officer relieving him if he was going to remain in the wheelhouse until they raised the Ocracoke lighthouse off the freighter's port bow. Gaskill replied that he had seen the lighthouse often enough — his father's hotel was practically next door — and that he needed some sleep. Gaskill retired to his berth. A short time later, two torpedoes struck the ship — the first hitting #2 hold; the second exploding the ship's boilers. Only the seven men on deck or in the wheelhouse survived. Twenty-one men were killed instantly, including Gaskill, as the ship went down bow first in less than three minutes. Had Gaskill waited to see his beloved Ocracoke lighthouse one more time, he might have lived. His body was never found.
Among the pieces of wreckage floating in the sea after the ship violently blew apart were Gaskill's third mate license and the oar marked "Caribsea." It took three days, but these two artifacts somehow floated to Ocracoke Island more than 43 miles away against great odds, heavy seas, and a contrary current. The license and the oar were the only artifacts of the Caribsea to be found. The oar's travels were particularly remarkable, having miraculously navigated the serpentine channel through Ocracoke Inlet and against the daily tidal outflow of Teaches Hole Channel, avoiding sandbars and shallow bays to land at Jim Baughm Gaskill's birthplace, his father's Pamlico Inn.
"It was unusual for a thing like that to happen," said 82-year-old Owen Gaskill, Jim's cousin, in a 1997 interview. "The many people who comb the beach, it happened to be his first cousin that found his license. My brother found the big frame and all the licenses were gone but Jim Baughm's. His was the only license left in the big frame, and that wasn't storm damaged at all from the water."
Ten hours after drifting on pieces of the ship's wreckage, two officers and five crewmen were rescued by a passing ship and were taken to Norfolk. Gaskill's sisters — Mary, Lillian and Nellie — traveled to Norfolk to visit the Caribsea's survivors in order to learn more about their brother's final hours. "They went up and talked to the captain, and he told them that Jim Baughm had just been relieved from his watch, and he had just about had time to get to bed and get to sleep when the torpedo struck about directly through his berth," Owen Gaskill said solemnly. His cousin was thought to have been killed instantly.
Ocracoke resident Homer Howard was given the oar so that a cross could be fashioned out of it. Ever since, the cross has stood upon the altar of Ocracoke's Methodist Church. For the typical visitor, and from a distance, the plain wooden cross appears unremarkable. Not until one looks closely at the base can he see two small plates with the inscriptions: "In memory of Captain James B. Gaskill, July 2, 1919 - March 11, 1942. This cross constructed from salvage of the ship upon which Capt. Gaskill lost his life."
Editor's note: The torpedoes that attacked the Caribsea were fired from the German submarine U-158, skippered by the German officer Erwin Rostin. After the attack on the Caribsea, the German sub went on to sink a total of 12 Allied ships, more than 62,000 tons, killing 187 merchant sailors, "making it the 5th most successful U-boat patrol of the war," Kevin Duffus reports in "War Zone." Duffus opens the story about Jim Baugham Gaskill with this anecdote:
Kapitänleutnant Erwin Rostin would pay dearly for his deeds. He would die, as would his entire U-boat crew of 53 men, in a frightful fashion feared by all submariners. On June 30, 1942, U-158 was surprised on the surface and attacked with depth charges dropped by a U.S. Navy Martin PBM bomber-flying boat, 445 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras. Rostin and his men were crushed, then drowned inside their crippled U-boat as it plunged 16,000 feet to its eternal grave on the ocean floor.
It was a just reprisal, Ocracoke residents would someday say, for Rostin had earned the hatred of the entire population of their island. They despised the German U-boat captain because Rostin had killed one of their own.
"War Zone — World War II Off the North Carolina Coast"
In his new book, North Carolina writer Kevin P. Duffus recounts experiences off the North Carolina coast in 1942, many told from the perspective of everyday people. The book is 304 pages, richly illustrated, measuring 7½ by 10 inches. $24.95 in bookstores. For signed copies, contact The Lost Light, (800) 647-3536 or visit www.thelostlight.com.