The largest loss of life in New England waters during World War II came only two weeks before the end of the war.

The USS Eagle 56 was a small, old, smooth-sided patrol boat built by Henry Ford during the previous war.  Ford probably should have stuck with cars:  out of the 60 Eagle-class patrol boats he built, none saw action during World War I, all were unpopular because of poor handling, and only eight were still around for WWII.

According to the Navy website, the Eagle 56 was assigned to the Brunswick Naval Air Station near the end of the war.  On April 23, 1945, it was towing dive bomber targets about 5 miles off Cape Elizabeth with 67 men aboard.  A sudden explosion took the lives of 54 crew and sunk the vessel.  Of the 13 men who survived, some claimed to have seen the conning tower of a German submarine.  They even saw an emblem painted on the sub:  a trotting red horse on a yellow shield.

In 1898, the famous USS Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana harbor, and the government blamed the loss on the Spanish government.  Later research showed that the Maine probably exploded because of an onboard fire that set off the ship’s ammunition stores.

The opposite situation happened with the Eagle 56:  the Navy blamed the loss on an exploding boiler for more than 50 years, when in fact the ship was sunk by the German submarine U-853.  This made the Eagle 56 the last U-boat casualty of the war.  The 54 men who died on Eagle 56 did not lose their lives because Germany still thought it could win – it didn’t – but because Germany hoped to raise enough hell with American shipping to demand easier surrender terms.

The truth about the Eagle 56 came out through the efforts of Paul Lawton of Brockton, Massachusetts, who is a lawyer, naval historian and diver.  He heard the story of the conning tower with the trotting horse from the sons of one of the Eagle’s survivors.  In a textbook about U-boat sinkings, Lawton found a footnote that claimed the Eagle 56 was probably sunk by U-853. He began doing intensive research on the sinking and even tracked down the remaining survivors.

His work eventually came to the attention of Cal Cavalcante, a senior archivist for the Navy.  Cavalcante had access to classified documents that Lawton had not seen.  He determined that the U-853’s insignia was indeed a red horse on a yellow shield.

Thanks to this research, the Navy reclassified the Eagle 56’s destruction to enemy action, and all 67 crew members received Purple Hearts in 2001.  The ship’s remains, wherever they were, could now be classified as a war grave.

The U-853 was sunk on May 7, 1945, off the coast of Connecticut. The sub’s remains, 130 feet down, are popular with wreck divers.  When the wreck of the Eagle 56 was finally located last year, it had broken into two pieces 350 yards apart, and was sitting in water almost 300 feet deep.  The vessel was found by Garry Kozak and Ryan King of New Hampshire.  They worked with The Discovery Channel to explore the wreck under very difficult Maine conditions.  A 4-inch deck gun and a rack of depth charges helped to identify the Eagle 56.

Hopefully, the discovery of the wreck has brought some closure to the families of the men who died on board.

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