Seventy-four years ago the USS Eagle 56 was towing targets for the U.S. Navy to perform bomber exercises a few miles off the coast of Maine when it was attacked by German submarine U-853. Several decades later the Eagle’s wreckage was discovered by Ryan King and a team of amateur divers looking to make history while providing long overdue closure to the families of those who were lost that day while serving their country. The full story of how this sunken treasure was uncovered comes to life in the Smithsonian Channel’s upcoming three-part special The Hunt For Eagle 56 which begins Sunday, September 22nd at 9pm ET/PT.
Ahead of this weekend’s special, CBS Local’s Matt Weiss spoke with King to discuss what prompted him and his crew to look for the Eagle in the first place, the moment human eyes bore witness to the Eagle for the first time in decades and what most likely lead to the ship’s attack on April 23rd, 1945.
MW: I’m excited to talk to you, this story is incredible.
RK: It’s been a lot of fun being part of and really excited that it’s finally coming out and the stories of the Eagle 56 sailors will be told and I think it’s going to be great. I’m excited to get out to as many people as are able to see it.
MW: Right, right. So obviously we’re talking about USS Eagle 56 both that it sank and it laid dormant for 70 years until you and your crew of guys discovered it, so what made you want to pursue this in the first place, what made you decide this what you wanted to go after?
RK: Honestly when we started out we read the book Due To Enemy Action; Danny Allen, Jeff Goodreau and myself. You’re getting to talk to me right now but there were about eight guys and without any one of them this would’ve never happened. Each of them contributed in their own way and you pull any one of those out and we might not be having this conversation right now. Danny, Jeff, and I had just been talking about you know, it would be great to go looking for Eagle 56 and we had seen the story in Due To Enemy Action and in 2014 decided this is the year to go and take a look for it. We actually started doing research and as we did more research we started to feel more of a connection to the crew and it seem more like something we should do because it needed to be done for the crew and for the families. So we spent a lot 2014 and 2015 looking for it and using the magnetometer, doing a lot of scanning diving a lot of targets that turned out to be a rock pile or some random piece of debris on the ocean floor and we got fairly discouraged.
In ’15 and ’16 and we decided to come a little closer to home and look for another wreck and that’s when I started to bring in the rest of the team. We’re looking for a bunch of like-minded guys who will be willing to go out on any given Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and possibly burn a bunch of fuel and never see anything other than mud or not even get in the water at all because there would be nothing interesting to go look at. That’s when the rest of the team came together and finding that wreck back in 2017 the William H Machen off the coast of Maine, we realized it’s time to start to focus on the Eagle again.
We have a good team, we have the right equipment and the right procedures in place and so 2018 was the year we set out to decide we go out and look for the Eagle. We started looking and doing more research, and there’s tons of research on this, we identified a number of targets that we thought were interesting. We talked to a few other people that had information or scans of the area and they gave us some targets that they thought might be interesting. Our plan was just to go out diving and third or fourth dive of the year we ended up on the bow.
Being able to dive a new wreck, for a wreck diver is just incredible because it’s the first time anybody’s ever seen that since the wreck went down. When you get down to the Eagle 56 you realize this is not just a wreck it’s a war grave and there are men entombed there and it’s incredibly humbling. Once we found the bow there was really no way we were going to stop and not find the rest of it. We were excited at that point to bring this to the Navy and be able to bring some closure to the families and bring the story to everyone else.
MW: I know it wasn’t an easy journey over the years. You mentioned how most of the time you’re basically just finding mud and little pieces of debris. On top of that most, if not all of the crew had nine to five regular day jobs throughout the week. Once you finally go through all the hardship and you see the Eagle, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you realize ‘oh my gosh this it, we finally did it?’
RK: Well you probably can’t print those words [laughs]. But we’ll go with awe inspiring, it was absolutely awe inspiring. The first time we saw her, the first two divers to get down there, they’re looking around in the mud and all of sudden they started seeing a little bit of debris, not sure exactly what it is and then a giant wall of steel. As soon as you start coming up that giant wall of steel and you see this massive 16 foot gun sitting on top of the forward crews quarters we were pretty certain we found the Eagle 56.
There’s so much relief so much excitement and you’re really, I don’t think we ever, we all thought we were going to do it, you gotta have that positive attitude, but I think that first dive, I know Danny and I and Jeff and Bob when we’re hanging on the line together I don’t think any of us could put into words what we were feeling because it was just so much relief in having found it but also so much excitement knowing that there’s more out there.
MW: You found the Eagle just a few miles off the coast of Maine, has there been any explanation of how or why it was torpedoed so close to shore?
RK: There’s a lot of different theories. At the end of the war the German U-Boat U-853 was sent over, basically sent out with the job to go to the U.S. east coast and start to wreak havoc. There hasn’t been a lot of information as to whether or not they just didn’t receive the radio traffic that basically said that the war was over and they should be surrendering. At the end of WWII there they were sending U-Boats to do what they could and I think most of the commanders realized that this was a lost cause but they were still sending men out to do that whether they didn’t get the message or not or they decided to ignore it is something that’s up for debate.
Based on the experience that we had over in Germany and talking with the family of the captain of the 853 I think I would just lean towards they didn’t get the message. The Eagle 56 was sitting, she had gone out at 8:00 in the morning from Portland, Maine and was going to throw targets for bombers and basically she was in between bombing runs. They just had lunch and they were all sitting there, they just happened to be dead in the water, which is unusual for a ship in wartime, but you’re seven miles off the coast of Maine right? So the U-853 torpedoed her and then the U-853 actually went down and torpedoed a ship just off of Block Island just as the war ended. Just as hostilities with Germany ended. She was subsequently sunk and left and lies on the floor of the ocean just off of Rhode Island.
MW: You mentioned you got to talk to some of the families on the German side. Have you spoken to any family members from the USS Eagle 56? I’d assume it must be a nice form of closure that this boat was finally located.
RK: We have actually talked to a number of the survivor’s families because those were people that reached out to Paul Allen and we actually talked to the Westerlund brothers who lost their father in the wreck and they’ve been incredibly appreciative. Actually, since the story came out we’ve been contacted by three other families who lost love ones on the wreck and their so appreciative of the closure, they’re so thankful, they’ve just been incredibly gracious and sharing the stories of their love ones with us. That’s been probably the most rewarding part of this project.
One of the things we’re hoping will happen as result of some of the additional media publicity is that we will be able to reach out to reach out to some of those other families that weren’t awarded Purple Hearts that their family members earned after the Navy recognized this was an act of war due to enemy action versus an accident. So we have three family members three additional family members that have contacted us, we’re working with them right now to get through the system with the Navy to try to get those purple hearts awarded.
MW: Obviously an amazing story for them and hats off to you and the rest of the guys for an incredible discovery. Thank you for the time to speak with me today Ryan and I’m looking forward to learning even more about this on the Smithsonian Channel when this show comes out.
RK: Thank you!
The Hunt for Eagle 56 premieres Sunday, September 22 at 9pm ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel. Check your local listings for more information.