Note: This book review appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram on July 17, 2005.

Three decades ago my friend, the late Horace G. Morse, a well-informed maritime enthusiast, told me in no uncertain terms that a Navy vessel he called “an Eagle boat” had been torpedoed off Cape Elizabeth toward the end of World War II.

According to him, the official inquiry had been a “cover-up,” with blame being put on a boiler explosion. Though I’ve never been big on conspiracy theories, I knew Horace was honest and had a solid grasp of history. So I believed there was at least a core of truth to the statement.

“Due To Enemy Action,” a new book by Boston writer Stephen Puleo, proves Horace’s account to be quite accurate, though the “cover-up” part remains under-examined.

On April 23, 1945, the subchaser USS Eagle 56 was sunk in these waters by a German submarine, almost certainly U-853. Forty-nine Eagle crewmen were killed and 13 rescued from the icy waters. A court of inquiry was hastily convened and, in spite of the crew members having spotted the U-boat, the loss of the vessel was officially given as “due to the explosion of its boilers.” The survivors were quickly reassigned, and as far as the authorities were concerned, the incident forgotten.

However, in the minds of the crew and in local folklore, a U-boat had sunk Eagle 56. It took Paul M. Lawton, an attorney whose father served as a World War II infantryman, to unravel what happened.

With the help of survivors, historians and politicians, Lawton produced enough evidence to have the findings of the original board of inquiry corrected. It proved a newsworthy event when, on May 1, 2001, the director of Navy history informed the secretary of the Navy that Eagle 56 was sunk “due to enemy action” and that the crew should be awarded Purple Hearts.

Puleo does a remarkable job chronicling Lawton’s research and exactly what happened before, during and after the fatal day. Using the recollections of participants and official records, both American and German, he identifies the U-boat, its commander and the Nazis’ last-ditch efforts.

He also notes that the U.S. Navy’s “secret room” (which cracked the German code) was well aware of the arrival of U-853 in the Gulf of Maine. Indeed, general warnings had been sent to the base commander at Portland. However, because the alert was not specific (intelligence did not want to tip its hand concerning the breaking of the code), no special precautions were taken.

Built in 1919 as one of 60 subchasers, Eagle 56 already had an active World War II record, having rescued survivors of the destroyer Jacob Jones II off Delaware in February 1942 and having been engaged in various projects off Florida. Assigned to the U.S. Naval Frontier Base Portland, she had just been refitted and was working as a towing vessel for targets. By weaving the lives of sailors and families, German submariners and U.S. intelligence operatives together, Puleo gives the reader an intimate understanding of the event.

What is missing is why the Eagle was at a dead stop in the water when sunk and why the board of inquiry chose to ignore evidence. Indeed the reader is made privy to precious little about the vessel’s skipper, Lt. James Early (who was killed with all but one of the vessel’s officers), Portland base commander Earnest Freeman or commander of the First Naval District Adm. Felix Gygax. Indeed, the latter appointed the court of inquiry (and was apparently skeptical of the findings). We are also missing the context of Portland in its years as a major Navy base.

As good as the book is in answering what happened, the whys remain elusive. If we accept that this is beyond the scope of this volume, then perhaps what we really need is a comprehensive overview of World War II in the Gulf of Maine.

Portland played major roles in the battle of the Atlantic. Included would be the Todd-Bath shipyards, the Montreal Pipe Line and the actions of the destroyer arms and convoys.

One could also look into such incidents as the destruction of U.S. Navy Blimp K-14 off Mount Desert in 1944. In Capt. Alexander W. Moffat’s “A Navy Maverick Comes of Age” (Wesleyan University Press, 1977), it is claimed, persuasively, that a U-boat shot down the blimp. It is time that the fog of the second world war was lifted from our waters.

William David Barry of Portland is a writer and historian.


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