Whenever Ryan King comes back from exploring a shipwreck, he gets a one-word question from his wife, Kara Riley-King.
“Gold?” she asks.
King, who has worked in the Masconomet Regional School District for 18 years, admits that it would be nice to find some sunken treasure, in part because scuba diving is an expensive hobby.
But he and the group he dives with, Nomad Exploration Team, are usually seeking a different sort of reward, which they identify first by doing research and talking with other divers.
“We start looking for stories,” King said.
Every shipwreck involves a story about how it was lost and what happened to its passengers, but the best stories belong to vessels that have never been found.
That’s because locating them not only brings the past to life, but may also add to our understanding of what happened when they sank.
“Diving is one of the few hobbies where you can truly go somewhere nobody else has been and see something that nobody has seen before,” King said.
The loss of a Navy vessel, the USS Eagle PE-56, in the last weeks of World War II was a compelling story that had long fascinated King and fellow divers Jeff Goodreau and Danny Allan.
Their five-year search for the ship became the subject of a three-part documentary, “The Hunt for Eagle 56,” which was first broadcast in September on the Smithsonian Channel.
It is available to watch on demand, and the episodes are also available in several other formats.
Uncovering the truth
Eagle 56, which was built during World War I, exploded and sank off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on April 23, 1945, killing 49 members of its crew and leaving 13 survivors. Two bodies were recovered.
A formal inquest determined that the ship’s boilers had exploded, but survivors said that they had seen a German submarine after the attack and recalled unique designs on its conning tower.
A lawyer from Brockton, Paul Lawton, conducted research that was published in 2005 in “Due to Enemy Action: The True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56” by Stephen Puleo. The book eventually led the Navy to reverse its findings and declare that the Eagle 56 had been torpedoed by an enemy vessel.
Lawton found the last three remaining survivors from the ship and recorded their accounts of its sinking, which differed significantly from the Navy’s official version.
Portions of their testimonies appear in “The Hunt for Eagle 56,” although all three have died since they were filmed.
One important consequence of the Navy’s revision of its findings has been to allow crew members who died in the explosion to receive posthumous Purple Heart medals, in recognition of their sacrifice.
But Nomad Exploration Team felt that the story of Eagle 56 was like a crime without a body, and the divers wanted more.
“It was all circumstantial evidence, and we wanted to find the wreck,” King said. “It was great that they did that — it was great that everybody was getting their Purple Hearts — but we wanted to find the wreck, to be able to find a little closure for the families.”
A deep interest
King previously taught middle school science and now works as a technology coordinator in the Masconomet district, where he went to high school while growing up in Topsfield.
He now lives in Brentwood, New Hampshire, where he runs a horse farm, Sea Star Stable, with his wife, who is originally from Boxford.
Both of King’s parents were recreational divers, and when King turned 10, his mother suggested that it was his turn to keep his father company on diving trips.
He enjoys investigating marine life and often shared dive stories with his middle school science students, but the main focus of Nomad Exploration Team is on sunken ships.
“With the Eagle, it really turned into one of those stories where, when we started to do the research, we felt like we knew these guys,” King said. “We needed to find it, because nobody else was looking, and if we didn’t look for them, who would?”
King, Goodreau and Allan formed the original core of the group and started searching for Eagle 56 in 2014 and 2015.
Armed with information from the Navy’s court of inquiry, and testimony from hundreds of witnesses, they started searching in 260 feet of water, about 6 miles from the harbor of Portland, Maine.
“What we’ve learned is that, where people say a wreck is is never where it actually is, but at least it gives us a starting point,” King said.
At first, they used a magnetometer, a device like a metal detector that they towed behind King’s boat, while sweeping back and forth in the ocean.
“Every time we saw a little metal blip, a blip that represented metal, we jumped in the water and wanted to go see what it was,” King said.
But Maine’s rocky coast is filled with metal ore, and most of the things that the divers detected weren’t even man-made.
When they did go down, Maine’s pitch-black water made it hard to see anything beyond 10 feet, even with powerful lights.
“This was definitely a tough dive and a tough place to work,” King said. “Portland, Maine, is not a place that is particularly forgiving.”
King emphasizes that the project was a group effort, in which everyone took turns doing dirty work so others could dive.
‘Year of the Eagle’
In 2016, King, Allan and Goodreau realized that they needed a bigger boat to deal with the choppy waters of Cape Elizabeth, so King traded his 22-foot Eastern for a 27-footer. Around the same time, they expanded the team by adding Bob Foster, Nate Garrett, Josh Cummings, Mark Bowers and Don Ferrara.
The divers also turned their attention for a while to a wreck that was closer to where they all lived, a coal ship named the William H. Machen, which they eventually found in 300 feet of water near the Isles of Shoals, 20 miles off the New Hampshire coast.
The Machen sank in 1942 after a collision with another ship, and searching for it helped the dive team “work the bugs out” before they went back to Maine.
“We were doing a presentation about that at the Portsmouth Library when a guy came up to us, telling us that he had seen the day the Eagle 56 had gone down, seen the plume and everything like that,” King said. “We decided last year was going to be the year of the Eagle. We were going to find this thing, whatever it took.”
The big break came when they consulted with Garry Kozak, who used sonar to scan the ocean bottom while searching for Eagle 56, in an expedition that Lawton had organized more than a decade before.
Kozak had a hunch where they should look and shared the coordinates with Nomad Exploration Team.
“We said, let’s go take a look, and in June of 2018, that’s when we found the bow,” King said.
It was Goodreau who discovered the first piece of wreckage, and the sound of his voice exclaiming underwater is captured in the documentary.
But along with exhilaration at finding Eagle 56 after five years of looking, the divers were overtaken by the fact that they had come upon the final resting place for 47 American sailors.
“There’s a weird feeling, almost like there’s somebody else there,” King said in the first episode of “The Hunt for Eagle 56.”
Piece by piece
When they called Lawton to tell him they had found the bow of the ship, King said, you could have heard a pin drop.
Lawton then put them in touch with Lone Wolf Media, the group that eventually filmed the dive team out on the water, while also incorporating King’s underwater photography into their documentary.
“I did a lot of the point-of-view photography,” King said. “When we were exploring, I was shooting.”
But their primary interest in doing the documentary was to bring to light the fate of those men, whose sacrifice had been misrepresented for so many years.
“That’s really been the rewarding part of this, is being able to provide closure for the families, being able to talk to the family members, and they’ve all been so gracious,” King said.
But Eagle 56 was 200 feet long, and the bow that they found last June was only a fraction of that in length, so the team still had work to do.
It took until July to find the stern, in a location 300 feet from the bow, but the middle of the ship — where the boilers were located — was still missing.
They looked from August to November, but came up empty, and had to wait for the warm waters of spring to resume their search.
“Jeff Goodreau was looking at some images that we had, and he saw two little bumps that were a ways away from the wreckage, and he said, I think these are the boilers,” King said. “They’re actually sitting on top of a rock. They look like grains of rice, sitting on top of a bowl.”
King and Allan dove down in May to investigate and found that Goodreau was right, proving definitively that the boilers were not responsible for sinking Eagle 56.
Instead, when the ship was torpedoed, its two halves separated, which allowed the boilers to simply fall out and sink to the ocean floor.
“As we started to follow that debris trail, finally we see this first boiler and we swim over to it, and it’s perfectly intact,” King said. “It looks like you could pick it up and put it back in.”