The ghost ship of Harpswell

Sam Smith – Maine is one of the few places that still remembers the War of 1812. As Wikipedia explains:

British army and naval forces from nearby Nova Scotia captured and occupied the eastern coast from Eastport to Castine, and plundered the Penobscot River towns of Hampden and Bangor. Legitimate commerce all along the Maine coast was largely stopped—a critical situation for a place so dependent on shipping. In its place an illicit smuggling trade with the British developed, especially at Castine and Eastport. Claims to “New Ireland” were finally dropped in the Treaty of Ghent, and Castine was evacuated, although Eastport remained under occupation until 1818. But Maine’s vulnerability to foreign invasion, and its lack of protection by Massachusetts, were important factors in the post-war momentum for statehood.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary some of us gathered near Porter’s Landing in South Freeport on Casco Bay to listen to a program of  nautical ballads. The spot was near where  the privateer Dash had been built, of which the Freeport Historical Society notes: “With seven voyages under four captains taking fifteen prizes, she was one of the most successful privateers of the War of 1812.  Her record was never equaled.”

For me, it was a vessel of more than distant history.  In 1975, I had been sitting next to my mother at Sunday lunch with my family. She looked out at sea and said to no one in particular, “Oh look, there’s the ghost ship of Harpswell.” My reaction was to think, there she goes again. And then to think no more about it.

A few hours later, down on the shore, my father had a heart attack and died. As we returned from the hospital and parked the car, my mother suddenly cried, “The ghost ship of Harpswell.” “You’re right,” I said, because now I remembered, too.

We went inside and pulled out a volume of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems and found it. The ghost ship of Harpswell had been the privateer Dash, which had been lost at sea after compiling its remarkable record.  It would be later said that women saw the vessel just before their husbands died, but would make nothing of it. Whittier called it The Dead Ship of Harpswell:

And men shall sigh, and women weep,
Whose dear ones pale and pine,
And sadly over sunset seas
Await the ghostly sign.
They know not that its sails are filled
By pity’s tender breath
Nor see the Angel at the Helm
Who steers the Ship of Death.

My mother’s vision of the Dash was not the only one. Recounts Jill Stefko in Suite 101:

In August, 1942, while the U.S. and the British His Majesty’s Navies patrolled the Atlantic Coast, a siren sounded in Casco Bay, Maine a warning that there was an invasion. A blip had appeared on ships’ radar screens in the protected waters. Homer Grimm and his girlfriend were enjoying the afternoon on Punkin Nubb at the time.

Pandemonium broke loose. Gongs sounded, guns were readied and sailors and soldiers ran to battle stations. The HMS Moidore sped out of Cumberland Cove, firing its big gun as it came. One shell landed on Punkin Nubb a few yards from where the couple was. They looked around the corner of a shattered rock ledge to see a schooner sailing past them. Homer realized it was the Dash and could see sailors on her deck.

In the distance, the HMS Moidore, US Navy and Coast Guard vessels were pursuing her, heading toward Freeport. When the military’s ships were ready to converge upon the phantom schooner, she vanished.

The Dash is far from the only maritime legend of island-studded Casco Bay. In the lower corner of the bay is Portland, one of the east coast’s great natural harbors, with a channel deeper than that of Boston, Philadelphia or New York. During World War II, the Navy formed transatlantic convoys and moored as many as 60 vessels off Portland. The islands provided a natural barrier to storms and enemy subs, with anti-submarine netting strung between them completing tto complete the task.

The Atlantic coast was far more dangerous than Americans realized. Years after the war it would be revealed that in the first months 46 merchant ships were sunk off the east coast. Another 126 would be sunk before the war was over. And Portland was among the first targets for U-boats after war was declared. At least three U-boats were sunk near Casco Bay – one five miles southeast of the Portland sea buoy, one off Small Point and the other seven miles off Halfway Rock after being spotted by shore gunners on Bailey’s Island.

On April 23, 1945 – as Stephen Puleo describes in Due to Enemy Action – the 200 foot USS Eagle was sunk less than five miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth by U-853. Thirteen of the crew survived only to be informed by Navy officials that the sinking had been caused by their ship’s boiler having exploded and thus they were not entitled to the Purple Heart. It was not surprising the Navy wanted to cover up the cause; after all the war was almost over and no naval vessel had yet been lost off the New England coast.

The U-boat story even came closer to home than that. Emily Rhoades lived part of the war on Bowman’s Island. One night, around midnight, she went out to get some water at the well. Standing by the well was a man all dressed black including a black mask. He put his finger to his mouth and pointed her back to the house. There was little doubt about how he had gotten there.

On May 5, the captains of U-boats received word from Berlin that they were to surrender. The commander of one wrote later, “Henceforth we would be able to live without fear that we had to die tomorrow. An unknown tranquility took possession of me as I realized that I had survived. My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended.”

The commander of U-853, however, either did not get the word or chose to ignore it. That afternoon he sank a freighter off Point Judith, RI commencing a chase that ended with the sub on the ocean floor with all crew members dead.

A day later, the war was formally over.

It would take over a half century of dogged effort, however, for the survivors of the USS Eagle sinking to finally receive their Purple Hearts for an incident the Navy hadn’t wanted to admit had occurred.

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