AUBURN — Almost two decades after their son James died in a military plane crash, Thomas and Bethel Shields wanted something more to mark his existence.
“There was no place to show this man was ever on the Earth,” Bethel said.
Some longtime friends don’t know the local couple had a third son. A marker at North Auburn Cemetery with the name James Bryant Shields sits atop an empty plot. His body was never recovered from the 1991 mid-air collision that occurred 10 miles off the San Diego coast.
“In our case, there was nothing tangible.” Bethel said. “He was a part of this community.”
On Saturday — as Lewiston-Auburn remembered its fallen soldiers at Veterans Memorial Park — the Shieldses unveiled a public reminder of their son that’s written in stone.
A granite bench engraved with James’ full name and the logos of the Navy and his P-3 Orion squadron now sits in the public park.
“It’s been 19 years, but it’s still painful,” said Thomas Shields, a retired physician and a former member of the Maine Legislature.
James, nicknamed “Jeb,” was the youngest of the Sheilds’ five kids of two girls and three boys. He was well-liked, smart and busy.
He attended Hebron Academy and followed his father and grandfather to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., graduating in 1987.
Jeb was going to be a stockbroker, but he learned to fly, eventually joining the Navy and attending flight school in Pensacola.
As an aviator, he wanted to fly fighters.
Instead, the Navy sent him to P-3 Orions.
His oldest sister hoped he would be safer in the slow-moving propeller-driven planes, Bethel said.
Lt. j. g. Shields had been serving as a navigator aboard P-3s for at least a year when the accident happened.
A nighttime training mission took his plane, with its crew of 14, past San Diego and out over the Pacific.
It should have been a safe, familiar place for the maritime patrol plane and its crew, whose primary job back then was hunting for submarines.
The Navy has never disclosed what went wrong. A mostly redacted report would be released months later.
Sometime during the early morning hours of March 21, James’ plane collided with another P-3. Despite searches by several Navy ships — including the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln — no one was ever found.
All 27 men aboard the two aircraft died.
All that was ever recovered was a pilot’s helmet and a black box, Bethel said.
Memorials with all 27 names sit at the now-closed Moffett Naval Air Station and at Arlington National Cemetery.
After all of these years, she minds her grief by reaching out to other mothers of servicemen and women who have died. She leads the Maine chapter of American Gold Star Mothers.
And she tells her story, even to people she has known for a decade or more.
“If you weren’t there at the time, if you didn’t happen to see the newspaper that day, you may not have made the connection between Jeb and us,” she said.