When the USS Eagle 56 sank five miles off the coast of Maine on April 23, 1945, just 13 were saved out of its crew of 62.
It was just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany, and though the disaster was initially attributed to a boiler explosion below decks, the U.S. Navy would change its story in 2001.
The World War I-era patrol boat had been torpedoed by German submarine U-853, a boat in Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine. Despite this clarification, the Eagle 56 had not been seen since it sank into the Atlantic. Many different divers had attempted to find the wreck, and all had failed.
In 2014, a trio of part-time technical divers teamed up to solve the mystery once and for all.
Ryan King, Danny Allan, and Jeff Goodreau started the New England-based Nomad Exploration Team, later joined by Donald Ferrara, Bob Foster, Nate Garrett, Josh Cummings, and Mark Bowers. They staged dozens of dives over the following years, all focused on finding the Eagle 56
“I’m a shipwreck nerd, always have been,” Goodreau told Business Insider. “The Eagle 56 was always the shipwreck to find. That was the great ghost of New England. A lot of people looked for it. Nobody could find it.”
Their dives combed the ocean floor off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, perhaps some of the rockiest terrain that can be found off the North American East Coast. And, their target wasn’t that large to begin with.
“It’s kind of like the equivalent of dropping a soda can into canyon and putting on a blindfold and going and finding it, because you can’t just look down and see it,” Goodreau said. “Visibility’s 10 feet. It’s pitch black.”
Making matters more difficult, the magnetometer the team intended to employ was rendered useless by the high iron content of the boulders below.
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Year after year, the Nomad Expedition Team spent their summers underwater, hoping for a glimpse of the Eagle 56, each time coming up empty handed before packing their equipment away for the winter. They spent the off season learning about the ship’s crew members. Ferrara, himself a Marine veteran, developed such a strong connection to those stories, he could almost consider the missing sailors his friends.
Then, in June 2018, the Eagle 56 was found. The members of Nomad Expedition Team became the first humans to lay eyes on the boat and its drowned crew in 73 years.
“You don’t want to disturb them,” Ferrara said. “You want to be very respectful, when you’re there.”
Their quest has since been featured by the Smithsonian Chsnnel’s documentary series, “The Hunt for Eagle 56.”
Thirteen months after the rediscovery of the Eagle 56, a Purple Heart ceremony was held for Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham, a crew member who was 21 years old when he went down with the boat in 1945. The divers were invited.
The Nomad team has become well acquainted with Cunningham’s story, just as they have with many of his crew mates. But stories are all they have of those who once manned the Eagle 56. The 13 survivors of the wreck passed away before the Navy corrected its story of the boat’s sinking.
Goodreau and his colleagues believe some of them must have died carrying a great deal of shame with them.
“Some of the survivors were engineers,” Goodreau said. “Some went to their graves feeling that people blamed them for the explosion.”
The Nomad team is now hoping to bring closure to the story of the Eagle 56. In their future dives, they will be looking for the German torpedo that sealed its fate.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.