The Salt Lake Tribune
January 26, 2003
Secrets Surface From Sinking of USS Eagle
BY HELEN O'NEILL
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BROCKTON, Mass. -- The package arrived on his doorstep in the morning
mail. There was no return address, no indication where it had come from or
who had sent it. Inside was the file he had spent nearly two years fighting for; the one that, over and over, the U.S. Navy insisted was
missing. Finally, he held the key to proving the case that had become his obsession. Finally, he could expose the truth -- and rewrite
Something Dark and Sinister: Paul Lawton's quest began in a dark Brockton
bar on a cold March night in 1998. Warmed by Budweisers and shots of Yukon
Jack, he listened as two brothers told the tale of a U.S. warship blown to pieces
just south of Portland, Maine, and of their father, a 32-year-old seaman who
perished in the blast.
Vividly the brothers, Bob and Paul Westerlund, recalled the sadness of the
time -- the tears and disbelief of their widowed mother with four small children
to raise alone. And they remembered the Navy explanation: A boiler explosion had split the 200-foot submarine
chaser, the USS Eagle PE 56, in two.
A terrible accident, the Navy said, all the more tragic because it happened
just two weeks before Germany surrendered in World War II.
But Phyllis Westerlund never believed the official version. And so she told
her children what survivors had told her: that moments after the explosion, as
they were scrambling off the decks and diving into the frigid water, they
glimpsed something a few hundred yards away, something dark and sinister. It
rose to the surface for only an instant, but they would never forget the sight -- a
submarine conning tower painted with a mischievous red horse trotting on a
Sitting in the bar, Lawton gasped. The prancing horse was the insignia of the
U-853, a German U-boat. Lawton, a lawyer and military historian, is obsessed by submarines. He has taught courses in U-boat history. He can
recite every warship, every U-boat, every commander, every detail of every battle and loss in the Atlantic. But
Lawton had never heard this story before.
Bob and Paul Westerlund are like older brothers to 39-year-old Lawton --
he's known them all his life. He knew their father had died on a ship torpedoed
by the U-853. But he always assumed it was the USS Black Point, a civilian
coal tanker that had been making its way to Boston when it was attacked off
Narragansett Bay on May 5, 1945. U.S warships sank the German U-boat the
Puzzled, Lawton questioned his friends. The records say the U-853 sank only
the Black Point, he said. No, the brothers insisted. The U-853 also sank the USS Eagle -- on April 23. Forty-nine men died in the Eagle
disaster. If they had died in enemy action, they were entitled to Purple Hearts.
Back at his apartment, Lawton pulled out his U-boat "bible," a two-inch thick
book by German historian Jurgen Rohwer that documents Axis submarine
successes. A footnote, on page 195, contained a reference to the USS Eagle
and to its probable sinking by the U-853. "I just couldn't believe it," Lawton said. "Why would the Navy say it was a boiler explosion?"
His father, a retired judge and ex-Army paratrooper, who had been awarded
a Medal of Honor for his exploits in Germany during World War II, had his own
theory. "It was just too embarrassing," Jim Lawton said. "Such a huge loss of life, so close to shore."
Paul Lawton started digging through the archives, writing letter after letter to
the Navy. He requested the report from the court of inquiry that investigated
the sinking. Sorry, the replies came back; the files were missing, presumed lost.
Lawton's appeals, under the Freedom of Information Act, were denied on the
same grounds. Frustrated, Lawton tried a different approach. He requested the
records of other ships operating in the area, including the USS Selfridge, a
destroyer which had rescued 13 men from the sinking Eagle.
Buried in the military jargon of the Selfridge's deck logs, he found references
to a hunter-killer task force of destroyers and bombers assembled immediately
after the sinking. The Navy wasn't putting together a hunter-killer force
because of a boiler explosion, Lawton thought.
Mountains of documents piled up in his apartment. But six months into his
research, Lawton told the Westerlunds he was getting nowhere. Furious at the
way their friend was being treated, the brothers placed a small notice in The
Boston Globe, saying they were looking for survivors of the USS Eagle.
In Peabody, Mass., John Breeze's daughter spotted it and phoned her father
in Seattle. Over the phone Breeze told the Westerlunds, and then Lawton, his account.
It was shortly after noon. The 22-year-old seaman was working on a
crossword puzzle with his best friend, Oscar Davis, when a thunderous
explosion lifted the boat out of the water. And he remembered Davis stopping
him for just a moment, before they leaped overboard. "Look, Breezy," Davis
shouted. "A sub." Breeze didn't remember much more, just the bitter cold as he clung to a piece of wood praying to be rescued, the warm glow
when he was finally wrapped in blankets.
What about the court of inquiry? Lawton asked. How was it conducted?
What were you asked? Breeze described the gloom of the naval dispensary in Portland where survivors were taken. There was no formal court
setting. Those like himself, who were not badly injured, were interviewed individually.
He was silent for a long time on the phone when Lawton told him the official
"Boiler explosion!" Breeze exclaimed. "We all knew it was a sub. How could
the Navy deny it?" In Reading, Mass., Alice Hultgren also spotted the notice in
The Globe. Like Breeze, just the mention of the USS Eagle transported her
back to April 1945 when she was a 23-year-old WAVE taking notes at a
Portland naval dispensary.
Hultgren and Breeze agreed to meet with Lawton a few weeks later in
Boston to give sworn depositions about the Eagle. Their testimony filled 18 pages -- eyewitness accounts Lawton thought
couldn't be ignored. But his letters to the Navy continued to be dismissed.
Then one morning in October 1999 the package arrived, a thick manila
envelop stuffed with 76 pages and dated June 1, 1945. The court of inquiry
report, the formal record that the Navy insisted was missing.
For hours he sat in his office, absorbing every sentence. Over and over,
survivors stated they had seen a sub. As telling as the eyewitness accounts was
the convoluted conclusion. Although the report states that the blast "might have
been an enemy mine or an enemy torpedo" it concludes it "was the result of a
boiler explosion, the cause of which could not be determined."
To Lawton, it was clear top Naval officials knew the Eagle had been sunk by
a German submarine. They just couldn't bring themselves to publicly admit it.
Elated, Lawton showed the document to his father and to the Westerlunds.
Surely the Navy could no longer ignore him. But nothing changed. Months
passed. A year. Lawton continued writing to everyone he could think of -- the
Navy, the secretary of Defense, the White House. He continued to be told that
nothing could be done.
Lawton grew increasingly disheartened. His father became incensed.
Jim Lawton called his old friend, Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass. He
buttonholed White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr., son of another old
friend. Just read the research, he asked them.
The response was immediate. In late fall 2000, Moakley petitioned the Navy to reopen the investigation into the USS Eagle. Card weighed in
with a letter to the Navy. For the first time, top officials took notice.
'Tears in Their Eyes': The ceremony was simple and solemn, tinged with
sadness and with triumph. Aboard a naval museum ship in Quincy on a steamy
day last June, the families of the men of the USS Eagle, gathered for a final
tribute and a final reckoning.
The top navy brass was there, sitting next to widows and sisters and brothers
of the men who had died. The Westerlund brothers were there, along with their
mother, Phyllis, 87. One by one, the names of the dead were read aloud. One by one, family members stepped
forward and accepted Purple Hearts.
And when the ceremony was over and the speeches were done, three old
men wearing USS EAGLE caps approached Lawton. Tears in their eyes, they handed him a plaque, cherrywood with a gold trim. It was engraved with a
picture of a warship exploding, followed by a description of the "forgotten disaster" and of one man's quest to set the record straight.
It ended with the words, "We thank you from the bottom of our hearts."