Saturday, May 23

World War II in Maine

News of a memorial created for those lost during WWII off Cape Elizabeth aboard the USS Eagle, brings back some other memories

Sam Smith - The Atlantic coast was far more dangerous during WWII 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, ME 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.

The U-boat story even came closer to home than that. 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 in 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.

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.

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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