The Mystery of the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck

For the past few months, I’ve been helping solve a mystery, one at the intersection of science and history: how a World War II gunboat ended up in the Pamlico Sound. As the outreach intern for the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck project at UNC CSI’s Maritime Heritage Program, I’ve been keeping the public informed about this detective story as Dr. Nathan Richards, head of the program and my mentor, gets one step closer and closer to uncovering the answer.

Directly in the path of the Bonner Bridge extension project in Rodanthe, the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck has been an enigma for decades, with local oral history suggesting that it was a gravel barge that ran aground in the 1960s, but archaeological details suggest a very different original function.  With the support of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Dr. Richards worked with nine graduate students in East Carolina University’s Program in Maritime Studies in a month-long field school in September to assess the site’s historical significance prior to the construction of the bridge.

An aerial view of the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck while the research team maps the site. The wreck sits in chest-high water just offshore of Rodanthe.

I started my internship during the field school, where my role was going to be helping John McCord, UNC CSI’s director of education and outreach, document the field school through photography and video. Unfortunately, the first three days of my internship were bad weather days, which kept us from going onto the wreck. During those days, I learned more about the methods that go into translating the data collected from the wreck into a tangible map of the site and discerning diagnostic details.

After all the hurricanes blew through, I finally got out to see the Pappy’s Lane wreck for myself and observe archeology in action while taking photos. Some graduate students continued snorkeling and recording details of the wreck on mylar sheets, which would later be taken back to the lab and pieced together to create a sitemap, while others helped Dr. Richards begin dredging a cross section of the wreck. I wrote about both of these processes for the UNC CSI blog, which I encourage you to check out if you want to learn more!

After the field school wrapped and the graduate students returned to Greenville, the project found a lead in identifying the wreck. Based on the dimensions of the hull and other details found while dredging, the team was able to narrow down the wreck to two classes of World War II gunboats, either Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) or Landing Craft Support (LCS) vessels. This re-discovery differed from what Dr. Richards originally thought the wreck was, a 19th or early 20th century boat. I wrote a press release about this development, which was sent out to multiple local news sources and published. The story was also picked up by regional newspapers like the News & Observer as well. It was exciting to see some of my writing get such a wide audience!

I also researched the two vessel classes for another blog post, each of which turned out to have a fascinating history during and after World War II.  These watercraft, each built to the same blueprints but with some modifications, were introduced late into the Pacific Theater of World War II and designed for amphibious warfare, specifically to land and support troops on enemy beaches. With a crew of 71 men, LCIs and LCSs supported landings in the Philippines, Borneo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. While most were either scrapped or stayed in the Pacific for minesweeping and other various duties once the war ended, many continued service in foreign fleets, such as France, Vietnam, and Japan. They served less than two years for the United States during World War II, but some spent over two decades in the South Vietnamese Navy, serving as its first real warships.

I recently went back to the site with Dr. Richards and John to capture images to create a 3D model of the wreck through photogrammetry. Photogrammetry uses photographs to make a point cloud in virtual space based on the camera’s calibration and pose, which software then connects to form a geometrical mesh and textures, giving you an accurate, detailed model of an object or area. The photographs are captured with a drone, which can be programmed to shoot the necessary angles automatically. Unfortunately, it was too windy to create a worthwhile 3D model, but I was still given a chance to fly the drone and take pictures, which was both terrifying and exciting.

I’ve really enjoyed the practical experience in science writing I’ve gotten through my internship. After graduation, I plan to go into science communication, so it’s great to work on a real project while simultaneously fostering my love for writing. The story of the Pappy’s Lane wreck has been intriguing to say the least, and I look forward to helping the research team get one step closer to solving its mystery and uncovering its history.