- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001


For more than a half-century, the Navy said a boiler was to blame for an explosion that sank the USS Eagle within sight of the Maine coast, killing 49 sailors. But now the Navy is rewriting its record to reflect what survivors said all along: A German submarine's torpedo sank the ship.

The new evidence was presented to Navy Secretary Gordon England, who in June ruled that the sinking was due to enemy attack. The change means those who died or were seriously injured will get Purple Hearts.

Harold Petersen, a second-class machinist's mate who is one of two crew members still living, said he's gratified by the change but sorry it took so long. He still thinks of the parents of the sailors who died and wishes they could have known the truth.

"They had to think all these years, 'Who was so negligent that they allowed the boilers to explode and kill my child?'" said Mr. Petersen, 79, of Rochester, N.Y. "That's a hard thing."

The Eagle sank April 23, 1945, just two weeks before Germany surrendered. The 200-foot submarine chaser was sailing off Portland, Maine, when the blast broke it apart and sent water 300 feet into the air.

Petty Officer Petersen was below deck when the explosion occurred, sending him crashing headfirst into a metal locker. He made for the ladders but stopped to carry a sailor too injured to move. With water pouring in and dozens of sailors jostling to get to safety, Petty Officer Petersen lost the injured man off his back, then was confronted by a panicked sailor who said he couldn't swim.

He said he told the sailor, "'Whether you can swim or not, get away from this ship.' So, we both go. He never came up."

Petty Officer Petersen made it overboard, clinging to wreckage in the chilly waters until rescuers arrived about 15 minutes later. He was one of 13 who survived.

A Navy Court of Inquiry was convened in Portland a week later. Five survivors testified that they saw a submarine surface briefly after the explosion, according to Navy records. Some said they saw a red-and-yellow marking on the submarine's conning tower.

"I only saw it momentarily," said John Breeze, 78, of Milton, Wash. "We didn't know what we'd hit or what had hit us. You don't think about things like that. All you think about is saving your own life."

Survivors testified that the Eagle's boiler had been overhauled just two weeks before the explosion. And no failures were reported with the same type of boilers on the 59 other ships in the Eagle class, said Paul Lawton, a Brockton, Mass., lawyer who teaches maritime history.

Rear Adm. Felix Gygax, commandant of the 1st Naval District in Boston, wrote on June 1, 1945, that there was "at least equal evidence to support the conclusion that the explosion was that of a device outside the ship, the exact nature of which is undetermined. It might have been an enemy mine or an enemy torpedo."

Still, Adm. Gygax ultimately endorsed the finding that the sinking "was the result of a boiler explosion, the cause of which could not be determined."

No one knows for sure why the Navy stuck with that conclusion. It is clear that Navy investigators did not have access to later declassified information showing a German sub was in the area. Additionally, there likely was a reluctance by Navy officials in Portland to acknowledge that an enemy boat struck in their territory, said Mr. Lawton.

Twelve days after the Eagle's sinking, a German sub and its crew of 55 was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island. Before it was destroyed, it sank another U.S. ship — a collier headed to South Boston — killing 12 men.

A key break came when Bernard F. Cavalcante, a Navy archivist. uncovered records showing German submarine U-853 was operating in the Gulf of Maine at the time of the explosion. It had an insignia of a red horse on a yellow shield.

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