The Coastal Packet: World War II in Casco Bay

Saturday, June 13

World War II in Casco Bay

Edgar Allen Beem, Island Journal - It would be hard for most people to imagine that during World War II, Peaks Island—and, indeed, all of Casco Bay—was a hotbed of military activity. There were 58 military structures on Peaks alone, ranging from gun emplacements and watchtowers to range-finding bunkers, fire-control posts, barracks, and searchlight bases.

... The coast and islands of Casco Bay are encrusted with the remains of old forts meant to defend Portland Harbor and the bay against all manner of enemies, foreign and domestic. One of the most prominent, the truncated octagon of Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge in the middle of the harbor, dates to the Civil War, but it was not completed before that war ended. Many of the forts along the shore, from Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth and Fort Preble in South Portland to Fort Levett on Cushing Island and Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island, date to the late 19th and early 20th century, but they were pressed into service during World War II, often updated with new artillery and antiaircraft guns.

Sam Smith - During World War II, the Navy formed transatlantic convoys and moored as many as 60 vessels off Portland. The islands provided a natural barrier to storms and enemy subs, with anti-submarine netting strung between them completing tto complete the task.

The Atlantic coast was far more dangerous than Americans realized. Years after the war it would be revealed that in the first months 46 merchant ships were sunk off the east coast. Another 126 would be sunk before the war was over. And Portland was among the first targets for U-boats after war was declared. At least three U-boats were sunk near Casco Bay - one five miles southeast of the Portland sea buoy, one off Small Point and the other seven miles off Halfway Rock after being spotted by shore gunners on Bailey's Island.

On April 23, 1945 - as Stephen Puleo describes in Due to Enemy Action - the 200 foot USS Eagle was sunk less than five miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth by U-853. Thirteen of the crew survived only to be informed by Navy officials that the sinking had been caused by their ship's boiler having exploded and thus they were not entitled to the Purple Heart. It was not surprising the Navy wanted to cover up the cause; after all the war was almost over and no naval vessel had yet been lost off the New England coast.

On May 5, the captains of U-boats received word from Berlin that they were to surrender. The commander of one wrote later, "Henceforth we would be able to live without fear that we had to die tomorrow. An unknown tranquility took possession of me as I realized that I had survived. My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended."

The commander of U-853, however, either did not get the word or chose to ignore it. That afternoon he sank a freighter off Point Judith, RI commencing a chase that ended with the sub on the ocean floor with all crew members dead.

A day later, the war was formally over.

It would take over a half century of dogged effort, however, for the survivors of the USS Eagle sinking to finally receive their Purple Hearts for an incident the Navy hadn't wanted to admit had occurred.

Emily Rhoades lived part of the war on Bowman's Island off the end of Wolf Neck. One night, around midnight, she went out to get some water at the well. Standing by the well was a man all dressed black including a black mask. He put his finger to his mouth and pointed her back to the house. There was little doubt about how he had gotten there.

Among the Navy ships using Casco Bay was the battleship Missouri which moored right off Clapboard Island. Years after she had departed, the mammoth buoy of the vessel on whose deck the Japanese surrendered remained as a memento as it lazily filled with water and finally sank.

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