It’s been 30 years since the tragic news of a plane crash in Auburn that took the life of Samantha Smith of Manchester. She had become known internationally at the age of ten as “America’s youngest diplomat.”
Her legacy lives on, remembered mostly as a child’s letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and her visit to Russia in 1982. It had a remarkable impact around the world.
Some powerful memories of the investigation details a few hours following the crash were brought back this week for Bob Tiner, who was on official duty at the Foster Road site.
Tiner, former Auburn police chief who was APD captain and deputy chief on that rainy Aug. 25 night, recalled searching through the fire-blackened debris. He retrieved several objects connected with Samantha and her father, Arthur Smith, who was among the six passengers and two pilots killed that night. It’s thought that faulty altimeter settings may have contributed to the crash.
Those memories caused Tiner to do some online research in recent days.
“I never realized the tremendous effect of her visit to Russia, and the respect they had for her,” Tiner said. “They put up statues in her honor. There was even a Russian ship named for her.”
This anniversary prompted Tiner to review his notes and other information related to that night. The smell of aviation fuel around the Bar Harbor Airlines Beechcraft debris was still vivid to him.
Samantha Smith’s unique and important appearance on the political stage of the Cold War era emphasized how one little girl’s worry about nuclear war could influence world leaders.
“Actually, the whole thing started when I asked my mother if there was going to be a war,” Samantha wrote in her book, “Journey to the Soviet Union.” Jane Smith encouraged her daughter to write and ask that question directly of Andropov.
“My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old,” she wrote, and within a few words she asked the highest official of Russia, “Are you going to vote to have a war or not?” She then wrote, “This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.”
Pravda, the famous Soviet newspaper, published her letter and referred to “the misleadings of a ten-year-old.” Samantha wrote a second letter to Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, saying “I thought my questions were good ones and it shouldn’t matter if I was ten years old.”
Incredibly, between December 1982 and April of 1983, the two letters triggered top-level international attention. Andropov sent Samantha a two-page detailed, thoughtful and apparently heart-felt response. He also invited Samantha to visit Artek, an international children’s camp in Russia.
A visit to the camp, as well as to Moscow and Leningrad, was arranged, and immediately worldwide media had seized on this initiative of a little girl from Manchester, Maine. A lot of the stateside publicity displayed cynicism about Russia’s sincerity.
What followed was a whirlwind of news stories and TV interviews, including an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show. Samantha delivered a speech in Kobe, Japan, at the Children’s International Symposium in December 1983.
Her fame also led to a significant role in a new TV action-adventure series, “Lime Street,” starring Robert Wagner. It was filmed in England, and the fateful plane crash came soon after her return to the U.S.
Tiner said a gold bracelet was found among the personal effects in the wreckage. It was inscribed “S.S.” on one side and “Samantha – Middleburg, Va. – 7/27/85 – ‘Lime Street’ – Love – R.J.”
R and J were Wagner’s first and middle initials.
Along with the bracelet, there was an amount of money returned to Jane Smith. There was also a five-pound English banknote, apparently saved as a souvenir.
Her funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people and messages of condolence were sent by Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Maine legislation requires that this state’s schools teach about Samantha Smith. There is a lot of online information about her, especially at www.samanthasmith.info.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.