Man's quest exposes the truth, rewrites history
Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 10:09 p.m.
BROCKTON, Mass. - Paul Lawton's quest to rewrite history began in a Brockton bar on a cold March night in 1998.
Warmed by Budweisers and shots of Yukon Jack, he listened as his lifelong friends, two brothers, told the tale of a U.S. warship blown to pieces just south of Portland, Maine, late in World War II, 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. 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.
But their mother never believed the official version. And so she told her children what survivors told her - that moments after the explosion, as they were diving into the frigid water, they glimpsed something dark and sinister. It rose to the surface for an instant, but they would never forget the sight - a submarine conning tower painted with a mischievous red horse trotting on a yellow shield.
Lawton, a lawyer and military historian, is obsessed by submarines. As a child he spent hours drawing intricate replicas of U-boats and battleships. He has taught courses in U-boat history. He can recite every detail of every battle and loss in the Atlantic.
But he had never heard this story before.
Lawton knew the trotting horse was the insignia of a German U-boat, the U-853, which the records said had sunk just one ship in New England waters - a coal tanker called the Black Point. But the brothers insisted that the U-853 also sank the USS Eagle.
Lawton's head was reeling. Forty-nine men died in the Eagle disaster. If they had died in enemy action, they were entitled to Purple Hearts. They were entitled to more than being simply written off as victims of a freak accident.
Back at his apartment, Lawton pulled out his U-boat "bible," a 2-inch thick book by German historian Jurgen Rohwer. A footnote 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?"
Lawton started digging through the archives, calling military historians, writing letters to various branches of the Navy. He requested the report from the court of inquiry into the sinking, witness statements, deck logs. Sorry, the replies said; the files were missing, presumed lost.
Lawton requested the records of other ships operating in the area at the time, including the USS Selfridge, a destroyer which had rescued 13 men from the sinking Eagle. Buried in the military jargon of its deck logs he found references to sonar detections, and to a hunter-killer task force of destroyers and bombers assembled to track down a sub immediately after the sinking.
Inspired by Lawton, the Westerlunds placed a small notice in The Boston Globe, saying they were looking for survivors of the USS Eagle.
Two people contacted them immediately. John Breeze, a former naval engineer and USS Eagle survivor vividly recalled the sinking, the rescue, the dark silhouette of the submarine. Alice Hultgren, a former WAVE remembered taking notes at the hastily convened court of inquiry at naval dispensary where the survivors were treated.
Both were shocked when Lawton told him the official Navy explanation.
"Boiler explosion!" Breeze exclaimed over the phone. "We all knew it was a sub. How could the Navy deny it?"
"The fellows all said there had been a sub," Hultgren said.
Their testimony filled 18 pages. Still, Lawton's letters to the Navy continued to be dismissed.
"The cause of the sinking has been determined to be the result of a boiler explosion," was the reply he received, over and over.
Lawton felt hopeless.
And then one morning in October 1999, a package arrived, a 76-page document dated June 1, 1945. The Court of Inquiry report, the formal record that the Navy insisted was missing. Lawton would never know for sure who sent it. He didn't need to.
In page after page, 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.
Lawton was elated. Surely now the Navy would listen to him.
But nothing changed. A year passed. Lawton continued writing letters to everyone he could think of - the Navy, the secretary of defense, the White House. And he continued to be told that nothing could be done.
Lawton's father, a retired judge and former state representative, became so incensed at the way his son was being ignored that he called his old friend, Congressman Joseph Moakley.
Just read the research, he asked. See what you can do.
In late fall 2000 Moakley petitioned the Navy to reopen the Eagle investigation. Though the Navy didn't agree to Moakley's request, it did forward Lawton's research to the Naval Historical Center.
There, it landed on the desk of Bernard Cavalcante, an archivist who had spent 10 years working with German historian Jurgen Rohwer piecing together a detailed list of all military activity on the Eastern Seaboard.
The USS Eagle was on that list, along with its sinking by the U-853.
Cavalcante read Lawton's work in shock, marveling at the research, appalled by the Navy's response. Whatever the justification in wartime, Cavalcante thought, it was time to set the record straight.
"Cal made me believe that we could rewrite history," Lawton said.
For the next few months, that is what they tried to do. Cavalcante dug up personal notes from his research with Rohwer as well as declassified war records that Lawton hadn't been able to find - records that documented the U-853 operating off the coast of Maine when the Eagle went down.
Lawton tracked down two more Eagle survivors, Harold Petersen of Rochester, N.Y., and John Scagnelli of Morris Plains, N.J. Like Breeze, both remembered being torpedoed by a sub.
In May 2001, Cavalcante's sent a letter to Navy Secretary Gordon England, enclosing a synopsis of Lawton's research and documents backing up the case. And he enclosed a recommendation the historical record be changed to state the USS Eagle was sunk as a result of enemy action.
Finally being acknowledged
The ceremony was simple and solemn, tinged with sadness and with triumph. Aboard a naval museum ship in Quincy on a steamy day in June 2001, the families of the men of the Eagle gathered for a final tribute.
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 as 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 and included a brief description of the "forgotten disaster" and one man's quest to set the record straight.
It ended with the words, "We thank you from the bottom of our hearts."
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