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Due to Enemy ActionThe True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56
By Puleo, Stephen
The Lyons PressCopyright © 2005 Puleo, Stephen
All right reserved.
April 23, 1945, 12:14 p.m., Helmut Froemsdorf, aboard the U-853
Helmut Froemsdorf had the U-853 operating under power of her electric motors as she crept toward the Eagle-56, the sound masked by the noisy wake of the American destroyer Selfridge seven miles away. He could hardly believe his good fortune. The American subchaser was at a dead stop, and made an easy target for his torpedoes.
"The honor of our flag on board is sacred to us," [Admiral] Doenitz had reminded the U-boat officers and captains two weeks earlier. "No one thinks of giving up his ship. Rather, go down in honor...The Kriegsmarine will fight to the end. Someday its bearing in the severest crisis of this war will be judged by posterity. The same goes for each individual."
The U-853 was approximately 600 yards from the Eagle-56 when Froemsdorf ordered his torpedo crew to fire.
The U-853's torpedo detonated under the Eagle-56's starboard side amidships, lifting the subchaser out of the water, which broke her keel, tore her in half, and unleashed a geyser of water that shot nearly two hundred feet in the air. The blast killed 49 members of her crew, most of whom were rendered unconscious by the explosion and entombed forever in the ship's bow section, which sunk in seven minutes.
John Scagnelli wasthrown from his bunk and smashed his head against a nearby bulkhead, which most likely saved his life; he was the only Eagle-56 officer to survive and the only crewman to escape from the forward section of the ship. The stern stayed afloat for nearly fifteen minutes, allowing men time to jump into the frigid North Atlantic water. Many clung to debris for a few moments, and then succumbed to the terrible cold, slipping beneath the surface and drowning before rescue ships could arrive. Johnny Breeze, Harold Peterson, Oscar Davis, and nine others from the stern section of the ship held on long enough to be rescued. Along with Scagnelli, they would become known as "The Lucky Thirteen."
As they jumped from the fantail of the doomed ship's sinking stern, at least six men, including Breeze and Davis, saw a dark-colored submarine momentarily surface several hundred yards away, before it dove and quickly disappeared. "Look, Breezy, there's a sub," Oscar Davis said to Johnny Breeze as they prepared to jump. Breeze said: "It was completely surfaced and all black. But it didn't stay there very long." Radarman 3rd Class John A. Wisneiwski later testified, "I saw the submarine, roughly speaking, I would say about 500 yards away." In his testimony, Seaman 1st Class Daniel E. Jaronik added: "I looked at the sub for a couple of seconds. It looked all black and I could see red and yellow markings." At the time, not even the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), had any way of knowing that one particular German U-boat operating in the Gulf of Maine, the U-853, bore a red-and-yellow conning tower insignia.
Voices from Due to Enemy Action -
the final chapter in the Battle of the Atlantic
"How can he be missing? How could you have lost him ? He was with me last night."
Phyllis Westerlund, April 1945, Brockton, Mass., when informed that her husband,
Eagle 56 crew member Ivar Westerlund was missing and presumed dead
"Look Breeze, there's a sub."
Eagle 56 crew member Oscar Davis to his buddy, Johnny Breeze, as they prepared to jump from the sinking Eagle into the water
"I looked at the sub for a couple of seconds. It looked all black and I could see red and yellow markings."
Eagle 56 crew member Daniel E. Jaronik testifying before the Court of Inquiry
"One U-boat estimate in the Gulf of Maine from the PE (Eagle 56 Patrol Escort) incident."
Previously classified ULTRA document, from U-boat tracking room ("Secret Room")
to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, April 25, 1945 (declassified 1987)
"A boiler explosion? A physical impossibility - It just couldn't happen. Yet they let a decision like that stand for more than fifty years. An unbelievable outrage."
Johnny Breeze, Eagle 56 crew member
"What's right is right. This took a long time to get right, but it's finally happened. Every time I'd think of those guys, and I did it often, I'd be sick to my stomach that the official word was 'boiler explosion.' Now, when I think of them, when I see their faces in my mind, I see guys who died as heroes, serving their country. It means something, not just to us, but to everyone. The truth is important to everyone."
Harold "Pete" Petersen, Eagle 56 crew member
Excerpted from Due to Enemy Action by Puleo, Stephen Copyright © 2005 by Puleo, Stephen. Excerpted by permission.
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