Warship discovery lays to rest mystery of the unheralded war on Portland’s doorsteps

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Reverend G. Ernest Lynch

By Paul Mills

The revelation just a few days ago that the wreckage of the Navy’s USS Eagle 56, lost five miles off Cape Elizabeth in the final days of World War II, has now been located is an occasion to recall one of the more vivid personas associated with the episode. Meet Reverend G. Ernest Lynch.

I first met Lynch and his wife Ellen in the 1980s just after they had retired to Farmington Falls. The odyssey that led Lynch to the Farmington area followed a somewhat improbable path. The Fall River native and Duke University graduate began his first career as a professional jazz musician with future Bob Hope swing band leader Les Paul. Lynch was then called – via a Harvard divinity degree – to various roles as an ecclesiastical dignitary. He did this first as a Unitarian and then as an Episcopalian. The capstone of his career was the more than 25 years he had served as rector of Trinity Church in Indianapolis where he also founded and for many years led one of the Midwest’s most prestigious private elementary schools.

This notable figure was a fountainhead of fascinating reminisces. I often wished that he’d write a book of them. If he had, one of the more memorable chapters would be from the Second World War years he spent in Portland. It was here that he won eminence as host of the First Radio Parish and minister at Congress Street’s First Unitarian Church. He was also chair of a three member labor arbitration board for the South Portland Naval Shipyard. It was a position that helped sustain the continuity of military shipbuilding during a war waged by “the Greatest Generation.” (The other two board members included Attorney Barney Shur, representing management interests. Employee grievances on the board were represented by Francis O’Brien, a well known Portland book retailer, Lynch being the neutral third member.)

Perhaps owing to the security clearance Reverend Lynch held as the arbitration board leader he was called upon to officiate at a funeral for several naval personnel who had been killed near Portland under circumstances that were cloaked in secrecy. This occurred in late April 1945, just two weeks before the German surrender. When in the 1990’s he told me about this he continued to be intrigued by uncertainty as to the circumstances. He wondered what they might be and why the deaths – not reported in news media at the time – were such a hushed up event.

With the recent discovery of the Eagle warship missing since April of 1945 new light has now been shed on the mystery that once beset Lynch, myself and others for a number years. Though the Navy did reveal in 2001 that the Eagle, itself a submarine chaser, had been sunk by a German U-Boat – reversing a previous Navy report that those aboard had died as the result of a mere boiler explosion – not until now has its remains been located and direct physical verification of an actual U-Boat attack been obtained.

It was the largest loss of Navy personnel in New England during World War II. Forty-nine perished. Only 13 were rescued. It was, however, by no means an isolated episode. Lynch’s own son, Terry, now a retired high school social studies teacher and military historian, recently recalled for this columnist being with his parents on board a Canadian merchant marine ship in early 1942 that was also hit by a German torpedo.

There were no injuries in the episode the Lynch family experienced. However, the German navy had already been knocking on our doors with significant devastation. From mid-1941 through the end of 1942 there were some 330 attacks on US Navy as well as merchant marine vessels, most of them within less than a few hundred miles of the North Atlantic seaboard. In the first seven months of the war, nearly 5000 American seamen and passengers were killed by the Nazi Navy. That is a figure twice the number killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A number of isolated attacks occurred within sight of the US shoreline. The threat that these attacks represented were downplayed by the War Department so as not to impair state-side morale. The prospect of aerial bombing was more seriously entertained as a risk. Mainers were more concerned, for example, that the bombing of Bath Iron Works was almost as inevitable as the German attacks on shipyards in England. The South Portland Naval Shipyard was also considered a likely target.

As a child, Reverend Lynch’s son Terry recalled accompanying his father there to labor arbitration meetings where he was permitted to wander at will among American ships under construction. More memorably he was also once allowed to board a captured German submarine that had been hauled into port there. In it, he operated the most prized item on board, the famous encryption device known as the Enigma machine worth, as the younger Lynch remarked last week “far more than a mint-condition submarine.”

Reverend Lynch continued to be intrigued until his death in 2000 by the mysterious circumstances that led to the death of the sailors whose clandestine funeral service he had conducted. I wish I could share with him the posthumous closure which has now just occurred.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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