Doomed WWII warship reveals its secrets: How 'the lucky 13' survived the sinking of the USS Eagle
On April 23, 1945 patrol boat USS Eagle PE-56 was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German submarine, the U-853, just a few miles off the coast of Maine. Split in half by the blast, Eagle quickly sank to the seabed and most of her 62-strong crew lost their lives in the attack, save for a small group of survivors dubbed ‘the lucky 13.’
One of the last US warships sunk by a German sub during WWII, eerie footage of the ship recently offered a glimpse into the ill-fated patrol boat’s final resting place. The exploration of the wreck was featured in the Smithsonian Channel's three-part series “The Hunt for Eagle-56.”
Eric Breeze’s father, John Breeze, a machinist’s mate first class, was one of the “lucky 13” that survived the attack. “He was in the boiler room at the time of the explosion,” Eric told Fox News. “He always remarked that he commented to a shipmate that ‘we’ve been hit by a fish’ – a ‘fish’ being a nautical term for a torpedo.”
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“He recalled heading for the ladder with another shipmate in front of him – he recalled pushing him on the backside because he could feel that the ship was sinking,” Eric said. His father and his shipmate then climbed up the ship’s stern, got to the Eagle’s fantail and leaped into the water, from where they watched the ship go down.
Clinging to flotsam in the cold North Atlantic water, Breeze was soon aware of the enemy vessel that sank his ship.
“He said that they saw a submarine surface close to them, the hatch opened, some German sailors came out and they took pictures of the survivors to confirm the ‘kill,’” Eric said.
The young sailor fully expected the German sailors to use the machine gun on the U-boat’s bow to kill him and his shipmates, leaving no survivors from the attack. “They were very close to probably being shot,” Eric told Fox News. However, a U.S. destroyer that appeared in the distance may have prevented the U-boat crewmembers from turning the gun on the survivors. Breeze told his son that, with the destroyer racing to the scene of the sinking, the German sailors quickly got back into the conning tower, and closed the hatch, with the U-boat then diving beneath the waves. “They wanted to get the heck out of there,” Eric said.
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John Breeze passed away in 2010 at the age of 88.
Jeremiah Foster, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, told Fox News that it was about 30 minutes before the USS Southridge reached the men and started to pull them out of the water.
The sinking was originally blamed on a boiler explosion, although Foster notes that, like Breeze, a number of the survivors reported seeing the sub.
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The Navy determined in 2001 that Eagle had been sunk by the U-853. The wreck of the patrol boat, however, was only located last year.
Research undertaken by Paul Lawton, a Massachusetts attorney, naval historian and diver, and Bernard Cavalcante of the NHHC played a key role in confirming the Eagle’s sinking by U-853.
The attack is also the subject of Stephen Puleo’s 2005 book “Due to Enemy Action: The True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56.”
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In a review of the book on Amazon, Sharon Atkins writes that her father, Oscar Davis, was one of the 13 survivors of the ship’s sinking.
“He always maintained that he spotted a submarine as they jumped from the sinking PE-56,” she writes. “In fact, he told me of even seeing the all-black sub with a trotting horse emblem on it's [sic] conning tower and he testified to this during the Court of Inquiry and he visited the widows who were living in the area to express his condolences and to tell them the real story.”
Atkins writes that her father said the Navy wanted to “keep the public from panic” given that the German sub was so close to the U.S. coast.
Citing an eyewitness account of the attack, Paul Lawton told Fox News that the events of April 23, 1945 were more consistent with a torpedo strike than a boiler explosion. The Eagle was physically lifted out of the water amidships by the strike, he said, which was accompanied by a 350-foot water column.
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Lawton said that about 3 dozen of the ship’s crew made it into the water, only half of whom survived the ordeal.
“There were about half a dozen men that saw the submarine,” Paul Lawton told Fox News, adding that the sub was about 500 to 600 yards away from the survivors. Some of the survivors clearly saw the sub’s insignia, which was a yellow shield with a red trotting horse, with “U-853” painted in black within the shield.
The Naval Historical Center notes that Eagle was towing targets for Navy dive bombers when she was attacked by the U-boat. Her sinking came just two weeks before V-E Day.
“While there is no precise way to determine how or why the court-of-inquiry came to their decision in 1945, the evidence presented in 2001 led the Navy to conclude that USS Eagle 56 sank as a result of enemy action," a spokesman for the Navy History and Heritage Command told Fox News, via email. "Thanks to the research presented by Paul Lawton of Brockton, Mass., and the further research of U.S. Navy and German records by Bernard Cavalcante, a former senior archivist at Naval History & Heritage Command, the Navy reclassified the accident as a combat loss and confirmed that Eagle 56 was in fact sunk by a German U-boat, U-853. In recognition of this loss and the crew’s extraordinary service and sacrifice, the Navy recommended the Sailors for the Purple Heart.”
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Researchers are working to ensure that the families of Eagle crew members receive the Purple Hearts earned by their loved ones. “Many of the Purple Hearts went out to families in 2004 and 2005,” diver Ryan King of Brentwood, N.H. told Fox News last month, adding that officials are still working to get medals to families.
Eric Breeze told Fox News that his father never received a Purple Heart.
“He said ‘I did my job, it is what it is, I am one of the ‘lucky 13,'” he explained. “He never felt any ill will toward the Navy.”
“My dad was always very proud of his service,” Eric added.
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Lawton has been pushing for the Breeze family to receive a Purple Heart for their father’s service on the Eagle. Although not wounded in the torpedo strike, Lawton notes that Breeze suffered hypothermia after jumping into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. “Hypothermia can kill you, it throws you in a state of shock and causes cardiac arrest,” he said.
Hypothermia, he added, caused the death of at least one other Eagle crewmember plucked from the ocean.
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The U-853 was later sunk off Block Island on May 6, 1945, by depth charges from USS Atherton and USS Moberly. All hands were lost in the sub’s sinking, which occurred two days before V-E Day, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Mystery still swirls around the fact that U-853 was continuing its operations at that time.
“We know that U-853 had actually been given an order to surrender to allied forces a couple of weeks before,” Foster told Fox News. “That’s something that we’re still trying to figure out, on some of the U-boats that were given the order to surrender, they were still fighting.”
“That’s still an open-ended question,” he added. “There will have to be an evaluation of German records and discussions with scholars that have specialized with German records.”
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Eagle PE-56 was located by a private dive team last year, ending a decades-long mystery about the ship’s location. The ship’s bow was spotted in about 260 feet of water in June 2018 and its stern the following month. The last pieces of the wreck were found in May 2019, King recently told Fox News.
Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers