The truth about the USS Eagle (PE 56)
Sent: Saturday, April 08, 2006 10:38 AM
Subject: The truth about the USS Eagle (PE 56)
The truth about the USS Eagle (PE 56)
Author sets WWII record straight on East Coast sinking of Naval ship
By Robert Knox,
Boston Globe Correspondent
April 6, 2006
Weymouth author Stephen Puleo discovered the story that became his second book at a ceremony four years ago on the USS Salem, in Quincy. Purple Hearts were being awarded to sailors who had gone down with their ship over half a century before. At that ceremony, he met military historian Paul Lawton of Brockton, who had researched the loss of a US Navy patrol escort (a 200-foot long sub chaser) off the coast of Portland, Maine, in the last days of World War II.
The sinking of the ship and the loss of 49 crew members -- the largest loss of life suffered by the Navy off the East Coast during the war -- had been blamed by the Navy on a boiler explosion, but the ship's 13 survivors believed their ship, a few miles off shore on a routine training drill, had been sunk by a German U-boat. A few of them said they had even seen the enemy submarine.
The Purple Heart ceremony was the result of Lawton's success in persuading the Navy to overrule its own Court of Inquiry, the only such action in Naval history, and officially conclude the ship was lost ''due to enemy action."
Puleo's book, ''Due to Enemy Action: The True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56," takes its title from righting the record. He will speak on his book Monday at the Brockton Public Library. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1592287395/002-8401162-7085667?v=glance&n=283155
''It was an intriguing story," Puleo said. ''An incredibly moving story."
Puleo -- a journalist, public relations consultant, and the author of ''Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919," a Boston-area bestseller -- took off from Lawton's hundreds of pages of research. Puleo interviewed three Eagle 56 survivors, plus family members of some of those lost, and wove their stories into his narrative of the ship's sinking.
His sources include Phyllis Westerlund Kendrick, the widow of Ivar Westerlund of Brockton, who went down with the ship. A casual comment by one of the Westerlunds' three sons over drinks in a Brockton pub first alerted Lawton to the survivors' belief that a German sub -- and not a boiler malfunction -- sank the Eagle 56.
The tale's bite comes not only from the Navy's initial blindness to the cause of the ship's loss, but from the shock of losing a ship to enemy fire off the Atlantic in April of 1945, so near the end of the European war. By then, US counter-submarine forces were so effective that the German command considered it almost suicidal to send U-boats into the Atlantic.
Because they had broken the German code, the Allies were able to anticipate U-boat movements, and US intelligence knew that a few German subs had been sent across the ocean in 1945 in the desperate hope that renewed attacks on American ships could lead to better surrender terms for Germany. But this information was so closely guarded that only generalized warnings were passed to commanders.
Official secrecy was part of the legacy of the disastrous first year of the Battle of the Atlantic when German U-boats sent 600 American merchant vessels -- tankers, freighters, barges -- to the bottom of the ocean in eight months, and civilians on the coast of Massachusetts watched ships burn in the night. Ignorance of these disasters, abetted by wartime censorship, is so widespread that readers have told Puleo they were shocked to learn about them from his book.
One reader told him that as a child living in Scituate during that year he listened to the thud of explosions at night that shook the house. His mother said naval gunners were practicing. In fact, U-boat commanders were feasting on merchant ships in what they called ''the great American turkey shoot."
American productive capacity and a committed labor force had long turned the tide in the Atlantic by the time the Eagle 56 -- a World War I-era ship assigned to lesser tasks -- was given the job of towing targets to sea for practice bombing runs.Puleo's character-driven narrative leaves readers with searing images of a routine day that changed lives forever.
Ivar Westerlund, home on leave, barely caught an early morning bus in Brockton in time to make it back to Portland for the ship's departure; his biggest worry was being marked AWOL. Harold Glenn jumped off a Portland bus to kiss his wife goodbye before going to the ship; she never saw him again. John Scagnelli, the ship's engineering officer, Johnny Breeze, and Harold Peterson -- major sources for ''Due to Enemy Action" -- barely survived a half-hour in the frigid Atlantic water before rescue.
Puleo says he feels ''a certain admiration" for the people in his story, many of whom attended a 60th anniversary memorial for the Eagle last year. ''They don't get thrown by much," he said. Breeze and Peterson, in their 80s, drove the seven-hour trip together from upstate New York to Portland.World War II still casts a long shadow, Puleo said.''This story starts in the '40s," Puleo said of the fate of the Eagle 56, ''and doesn't end until last year."Puleo's address at Brockton Public Library will be at 6:30 p.m. April 10.
Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com
USS Eagle 56 (PE 56)