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What really happened to a U.S. ship that sunk off of Maine in WWII


In April 1945, a U.S. naval patrol boat sank off the coast of Maine and was lost for more than half a century. Maine Public reporter Nick Song tells us how a historian discovered what really happened to that vessel and its crew.

NICK SONG, BYLINE: Just a couple weeks before Nazi Germany formally surrendered in World War II, the USS Eagle, PE-56, was out on a routine military exercise off the coast of Maine. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the center of the ship and tore the Eagle in two. The ship sank and took with it the lives of 49 crew members. Massachusetts lawyer and naval historian Paul Lawton started investigating the USS Eagle 56 in 1998.

PAUL LAWTON: I knew that there was an Eagle boat that exploded up here.

SONG: The wreck hadn't been found, so Navy investigators attributed the sinking to a faulty boiler. They blamed the engineers aboard the Eagle for overlooking the mechanical error. And since the sinking occurred out of combat, the Navy denied all requests to issue Purple Heart honors to the crew. All of this didn't add up to Lawton.

LAWTON: This was a rather old boat, but it worked on very low-pressure boilers, and it had a steam turbine. There was no way that those boilers could have failed and caused the massive explosion that lifted the ship out of the water and broke it in two.

SONG: In 1999, Lawton received documents that hadn't been included in the Navy's original report. In them, he found new evidence that the Eagle was sunk by a torpedo. The Navy reinvestigated and attributed the attack to a German U-boat later found patrolling New England. And so the Navy formally reclassified the Eagle as having sunk due to the result of enemy action. The lost crew and the 13 survivors were awarded Purple Hearts. When divers finally discovered the wreck of the Eagle in 2018, they found the ship's boilers fully intact.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to the USS Eagle memorial ceremony. Today we remember and honor those who lost their lives on this day 79 years ago.

SONG: The Navy originally planned the ceremony a few years ago, but it got pushed back due to the pandemic. When they finally held it this April, the organizers chose the grassy park near the Portland Head Light lighthouse, within sight of where the Eagle sank. Military personnel from different branches and eras attended the memorial, including the crew of the USS John Basilone, a guided missile destroyer to be delivered to the Navy later this year. The Basilone's commanding officer spoke at the podium.

CARNE LIVINGSTON: My intention is that we offer tribute to the fallen, but we take time to commemorate resilience. We take a moment to reflect on lessons from this tragedy, and that we renew our commitment to support and honor service members, express our gratitude and pledge to uphold the values that define the legacy of USS Eagle PE-56 and the United States Navy.

SONG: Today, there are two memorials at the Portland Head Light honoring the Eagle and its crew. The first one was erected in 2005. Lawton attended that first dedication and remembers seeing one of the survivors, Lt. John P. Scagnelli, the engineering officer.

LAWTON: He had to carry that burden that he was somehow responsible for the loss of the ship because, the engineering officer, he was responsible for all of the crew and the machinery. And he was relieved, after 56 years, that his name was finally cleared, that it wasn't his fault, that it was a result of enemy action, and that all of his men died as heroes.

SONG: Scagnelli and the rest of the survivors have since passed away. Their absence is especially apparent when the Basilone's commanding officer concludes the ceremony by laying a wreath at the memorials. History now remembers the USS Eagle as the second-to-last ship sunk by Germany in World War II. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the Eagle's sinking, each successive year increasing our distance to the past. For NPR News, I'm Nick Song in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nick Song
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