On April 13, 1942 the destroyer USS Roper (DD-147) spotted the Type VIIB U-boat, U-85, sitting in shallow water off the coast of North Carolina.
After receiving heavy fire from Roper, the captain of U-85 scuttled the U-boat and the crew abandoned ship. Roper dropped eleven depth charges after U-85 was abandoned, believing that other U-boats were nearby, killing the entire of crew of U-85.
27 bodies were recovered and buried with military honors at Hampton National Cemetery on April 15th. Prisoners from Fort Monroe prepared and filled the graves. The ceremony took place at night in order to keep it a secret, but I did hear from somewhere that word got out anyway and people came to sneak a peak at the funeral.
The reason I tell this story is that recently we pulled a life jacket from storage to display at a lecture and it came from one of the deceased sailors of U-85. it was taken off when the bodies were recovered and donated to us in 1949.
Originally when I looked at the life jacket I did not think much of it, but then as I began to research and learn more about it, it took on a whole new life and peaked my interest. To think of the sailors who lost their lives that day, even if they were the enemy at the time, and to know that one of them was wearing this is very sobering. It is the stories behind artifacts that give them so much life and meaning. Being able to pull those stories out and give the artifacts a voice is what I love about my job.