The Town Council approved for a new granite monument to be erected in Fort Williams Park for the USS Eagle PE-56, which was sunk in 1945 by a German U-Boat at the end of World War II, killing 49 sailors.

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council unanimously approved a new memorial to be placed in Fort Williams Park, honoring the sailors on the USS Eagle PE-56, which was attacked off the coast of Cape Elizabeth by a German submarine during World War II.

On April 23, 1945, toward the end of World War II in Europe, the USS Eagle PE-56, which was leaving Portland to tow a practice target for United States aircraft bombs, was torpedoed by German U-853, causing it to explode and sink in Casco Bay, said Naval historian Paul Lawton.

Currently, a memorial stands “to the right of the lighthouse, when facing the water, between
the two binoculars,” said newly appointed Town Council Chair Valerie A. Adams at the Dec. 9 meeting.

The new monument would be placed next to the existing one, which was erected in 2005, said Lawton. He, along with Cape Elizabeth resident Steve Lyons, requested the new granite monument at the Nov. 21 Fort Williams Park Committee meeting, according to the Town Council’s notes.

There will also be a commemoration event at the park on Saturday, May 2, 2020, honoring the 75th anniversary of the torpedo attack, and family members of the sailors will be attending, said Lawton.

He said that the history of the attack was largely unknown to the general public and eventually lost to history until 2001, when Lawton was able to verify the facts and help change the official record.

“The Eagle PE-56 is, ironically, the only and final major combat loss in American coastal waters during the war, and a lot of people didn’t know about it because the Navy blamed it on a boiler explosion,” he said. “[The sailors] were denied Purple Hearts.”

The first time Lawton heard about the attack was when he said he met some of the family members, whose relatives had been on the ship.

Using German records and tracking the documented sightings of the German U-Boat (U-853) throughout the coast of the Northeast United States, Lawton said he launched a five-year investigation.

“The ships built in 20th century were steamed powered, didn’t explode,” he said. “[Boiler explosions] happened in the 19th century. It was physically impossible for a boiler to sink a steel-helm warship.”

The Naval records of the event left the surviving 13 men “bitter,” said Lawton, as many people perceived the sailors to be negligent on the ship, allowing an alleged accident to kill so many people.

“It wasn’t a matter of money,” said Lawton. “At the time all Navy personnel were entitled to $10,000 of insurance money. They wanted it acknowledged that [the sailors] died in combat.”

According to Naval historian Paul Lawton, Engineering Officer, Lieutenant j.g. John Scagnelli, the only surviving officer, and the only survivor from the bow half of the USS Eagle (PE-56), shown at the gyro compass binnacle next to the bridge of the PE-56 (right), and recovering from injuries sustained in the explosion, at the Grand Trunk Naval Dispensary in Portland.” Courtesy of Paul Lawton

In a document describing the events, Lawton wrote, “After petitioning the U.S. Navy to re-open the Court of Inquiry, the Chief of Naval Operations sent the evidence gathered by the civilian team to the authorities at the U.S. Naval Historical Center. On June 26, 2001 Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Gordon England signed the formal recommendation that the cause of the loss of the USS Eagle PE-56 be changed from an accidental boiler explosion, that a torpedo attack by the German U-boat U-853. As a result of that that precedent setting correction of the official record, the men killed and injured aboard the PE-56 were changed to having been the result of “enemy action” making them entitled to receive the Purple Heart.

“On Saturday June 8, 2002 the three survivors, their families, and the families of more than a dozen other PE-56 casualties met aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Salem (CA-139) in Quincy, Massachusetts, and received their long overdue Purple Hearts.”

Lawton said he believes this is the only time the Navy has covered up an attack such as this.

“The local commander of the Portland Naval base was trying to protect his own reputation because it would have looked very bad,” he said. “Hitler was in his bunker and Berlin was completely encircled by the Russian army. Everyone knew that the war would have ended in a couple of days. In the final days of war, no one had figured that the Germans would plan an attack on the East Coast.”

With the torpedo attack being on five miles off of the coast of Cape Elizabeth, the explosion was so loud that people could hear it, Lawson said, and there were reports of cabinets shaking from the concussion.

The new monument will feature the names of all the sailors on board during the attack, said Lawton. It will be paid for by the families.

The names of all the sailors who died in combat nearly 75 years ago as well as the survivors will be displayed.

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