Due to Enemy Action by Stephen Puleo



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Due to Enemy Action tells for the first time a World War II story that spans generations and straddles two centuries, a story that begins with the dramatic Battle of the Atlantic in the 1940s and doesn't conclude until an emotional Purple Heart ceremony in 2002. Based on previously classified government documents, military records, personal interviews, and letters between crew members and their families, this is the saga of the courageous survival of ordinary sailors when their ship was torpedoed and their shipmates were killed on April 23, 1945, and the memories that haunted them after the U.S. Navy buried the truth at war's end. It is the story of a small subchaser, the Eagle 56, caught in the crosshairs of a German U-boat, the U-853, whose brazen commander doomed his own crew in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to record final kills before his country's imminent defeat. And it is the account of how one man, Paul M. Lawton, embarked on an unrelenting quest for the truth and changed naval history.

Author Stephen Puleo draws from extensive personal interviews with all the major players, including the three living survivors (and a fourth who emerged as the book went to press); a senior U.S. naval archivist who worked with German historians after the war to catalog U-boat movements; and the son of the man who commanded America's sub-tracking "Secret Room" during the war. Due to Enemy Action also describes the final chapter in the Battle of the Atlantic, tracing the epic struggle that began with shocking U-boat attacks against hundreds of defenseless merchant ships off American shores in 1942 and ended with the sinking of the Eagle 56, the last American warship sunk by a German U-boat.

Excerpt:

Under a piercing blue sky, bright late-morning sun splashed across the main deck of the moored USS Salem and danced upon her gray anti-aircraft guns. High above the ship, white seagulls glinted as they wheeled in lazy circles amid faint cloud wisps. Light traffic thrummed across the short drawbridge nearby that traversed Quincy’s inner bay, and the Salem’s American flag whispered in the soft wind. A hushed crowd aboard the Salem listened as eighty-two-year-old John Scagnelli read the names of his former comrades, men who had perished on another warship, the USS Eagle PE-56, nearly six decades earlier. After each name, Scagnelli’s fellow Eagle 56 survivors, Johnny Breeze and Harold “Pete” Petersen, took turns tolling the ship’s bell in memory of men they had known in another lifetime, shipmates who would remain forever young.

Flanking Scagnelli, the invited VIPs sat ramrod straight, their chairs lined across a low platform stage, facing the families of the deceased Eagle 56 crewmen, loved ones who, in many cases, had traveled thousands of miles to attend this special ceremony aboard the Salem. A sprawling canopy shielded these relatives from the hot sun, protecting them as surely today as their fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and uncles were left vulnerable and exposed fifty-seven years earlier.

As the lone surviving officer of the Eagle 56, Scagnelli’s job was to read the names of the forty-nine men who had gone down with their ship in the final days of World War II, but as he neared the end of the list, his strong, clear voice caught in his throat and he blinked back tears. In his mind’s eye, he saw each of these young men, their faces flashing one after another, some smiling, most still in their twenties, and he was overcome with emotion. With Scagnelli literally unable to speak for a few moments, Breeze and Petersen struck the clapper against the bell again and again, pausing a respectful two seconds between each. The clarity and resonance of each peal reverberated across the Salem’s decks and into the harbor beyond, until finally the forty-ninth clang faded like a memory in mournful tribute to those crew members of the Eagle 56 who never returned home from World War II.

On April 23, 1945, just two weeks before Germany’s surrender, the Eagle 56 had sailed from the U.S. Naval Frontier Base in Portland, Maine, at 8:15 a.m., with sixty-two men aboard. She had been towing a target buoy at the end of a 500-yard line for naval aircraft bombing exercises. With the war in Europe nearly over, Navy and Marine pilots practiced to stay sharp in case they were needed to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.

Shortly after noon, with the Eagle 56 at a dead stop less than five miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth off the rocky Maine coast, she suddenly exploded amidships, sending a geyser of steam and water two hundred feet skyward. She broke in half and sank within minutes. Forty-nine men perished in the terrible blast, either from the explosion itself or from drowning in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Of the “Lucky Thirteen” who survived, only Scagnelli, Petersen, and Breeze were still alive in 2002. Each of them, along with their ten shipmates who had been pulled from the water by rescue ships, had testified in 1945 as part of a hastily convened and clearly biased Court of Inquiry (COI) investigation, which ultimately concluded that a faulty boiler had caused the explosion. Soon afterward, the Navy modified its findings, officially attributing the destruction of the Eagle 56 to “undetermined causes.”

The Lucky Thirteen knew otherwise. As they plunged into the icy North Atlantic to save themselves, their ship torn in two, several men spotted a German U-boat that—against all rules of engagement—had surfaced near the wreckage of the Eagle 56. Even those men who did not see the U-boat testified unanimously that the rocking, concussive power of the blast left little doubt in their minds that it was caused by an external force, either a torpedo or a mine, but certainly not by a ruptured boiler. The thirteen survivors also knew, and many testified, that the Eagle’s boilers and engines had been completely overhauled two weeks earlier, and were in perfect working order.

Yet, their accounts were ignored by the Court of Inquiry and the Portland commander. The Navy brass, while skeptical of the COI’s findings, was reluctant to overturn the official ruling and went along with the decision. Top-secret U.S. intelligence intercepts that showed a German U-boat, the U-853, prowling in the Gulf of Maine during April of 1945 were not declassified until many years later. Scagnelli, as the Eagle’s lone surviving officer, wrote condolence letters to the families of his dead comrades, but was prohibited from mentioning a cause for the explosion.

The 2002 ceremony aboard the USS Salem signified that everything had changed. A year earlier, the Navy had grudgingly acknowledged its mistake, fifty-six years after the Eagle 56 was sunk, thanks primarily to the efforts of one man, attorney and naval historian Paul M. Lawton. His dogged persistence revealed the truth about the Eagle 56 and convinced the Navy to alter its official history. For the first time ever, the Secretary of the Navy had overturned a Court of Inquiry decision and revised the official cause of the Eagle’s sinking to “due to enemy action.” The ruling entitled most of her crew to Purple Heart medals, awarded by the military to servicemen wounded or killed in action. The Navy awarded those medals posthumously to the forty-nine sailors who died on April 23, 1945; many of their family members accepted them with reverence at the ceremony aboard the Salem, eloquently sharing their feelings about the importance of the emotional day.

Scagnelli and Petersen also received Purple Hearts for injuries they sustained when the Eagle 56 was torpedoed. Breeze, who spent twenty minutes in the freezing water and suffered hypothermia, was not awarded the Purple Heart, nor were the other ten members of the Lucky Thirteen who had died since; the Navy apparently believed that their ordeal was not sufficient to earn the medal. Johnny Breeze, however, had little concern about a medal and an abiding passion for the truth. To him, the ceremony aboard the Salem was a vivid testament to that truth, albeit a half-century too late.

The Navy’s reversal vindicated Scagnelli, Petersen, and Breeze. Scagnelli served as the Eagle 56’s engineering officer, and thus had responsibility for the vessel’s operation and maintenance. He supervised the boiler-room crew, and the Court of Inquiry’s findings haunted him for years afterwards. Petersen and Breeze were proud members of the ship’s “Black Gang” who reported to Scagnelli, the men who worked belowdecks in the boiler and engine rooms. All three believed that the Navy had perpetrated a miscarriage of justice when it blamed the explosion on faulty boilers; all three took the 1945 decision personally. They had always known that their shipmates had not died due to carelessness. Now the families of the deceased Eagle 56 crew members knew it, too.

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