It’s known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic — the treacherous waters off the coast of North Carolina have claimed the hulks of countless ships, and it is with as much passion they claim the curiosity of Kevin P. Duffus.
Duffus — scholar, research historian, filmmaker, and author — recently released his sixth book, “Into the Burning Seas: The 1918 Mirlo Rescue.” The story brings together tales of war, German subterfuge, the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, and the steely will of the men who patrolled the coast during America’s first world war.
“That is just the nature of the Outer Banks,” Duffus says. “The capes were very dangerous obstacles to mariners, so there were numerous deadly shipwrecks.”
One of those shipwrecks was the Mirlo, a merchant vessel hauling fuel from New Orleans to Britain during the waning months of World War I. But this wreck was a casualty of human treachery. By 1918, the Germans knew they were losing. So when the United States sent all of its Naval resources to Great Britain to protect its merchant vessels, the Kaiser dispatched six deadly U-boats to create a campaign of terror along the U.S. and Canadian coasts.
The German forces laid mines along the coast, and according to official reports, it was just such a mine that ripped open the hull of the 6,679-ton Mirlo, setting the cargo in flames, and sending survivors from the crew of 51 to the lifeboats.
It was a heroic tale of rescue by six surfmen from the Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station. Under Capt. John Midgett, the men in their surfboat entered the conflagration repeatedly, plucking seaman from the flaming waters and choking smoke to tow lifeboats ashore. It was a seminal moment for the fledgling Coast Guard, proving its value to the country and the mettle of the men who served.
But that was not the whole story. Duffus uncovered the truth: that the German U-boat had been laying mines along the coast, when they happened to detect the ship passing. The commanders decided to fire a torpedo, and consequently sank the Mirlo.
“The Navy decided to tell the public it had been sunk by a mine,” Duffus says. “I had to completely unravel this to find the real story. It is kind of fascinating. I had to analyze the evidence to try to understand why the Navy, in 1918, wanted the American public to think that the ship sank by a mine rather than a torpedo.”
The answer, then as now, was public relations. More specifically, to calm the fears of the populace.
“The public knew the Navy could easily sweep up mines, but there was no way to defend against U-boats. That is why, and is a great example of the many parallels to how we operate today.”
This is exactly the kind of story that has fascinated Duffus ever since he discovered his first sunken ship when he was only 17, lying at the bottom of a river 10 miles from his house. Later, he tracked down what some called one of the “great-unsolved mysteries of American lighthouse history,” the discovery of the original Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which had been “lost” for 140 years.
“Every topic of history I research, I discover dozens of things that were interpreted incorrectly,” he says. “I find that to be a lot of fun, when you find the document that no one has ever read, and at that moment you are the only person in the world who knows the answer to that mystery.”
Duffus then puts it all in a book, written in a style he calls “literary nonfiction.”
“I like to write history as if it is a story,” he says. “I try to put the reader right into the middle of the action.”
The accessible style camouflages the incredible amount of research, poring over original texts and media accounts, spending hours in archives and libraries. Some of his most powerful tools are the eyewitness testimonies of survivors.
“I like to use the words of the people that were actually there to recreate the scene,” Duffus says. “I try to paint a picture with words, to describe the scene and what it felt like to be in it — so that every reader can imagine being there.”
His approach works, and he has a pile of testimonials to prove it. Some of the most moving are from young people who read his works when they were kids, and now have gone into maritime studies or archeology because of the spark Duffus lit in them.
“That ultimately is the most rewarding, to know you have had an impact and touched somebody,” he says.
Of course, Duffus loves to literally rewrite history. Another of his books digs into the legend of Blackbeard, a hot topic again, thanks to the 300th anniversary of the legendary pirate’s last days — which will be celebrates in October at the Pirate Jamboree on Ocracoke, Blackbeard’s old stomping grounds.
“In the end, that is what is really satisfying–solving these historical mysteries.”