The ultimate sacrifice; wreck sites a reminder of military plane disasters

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LEWISTON — Norman Houle’s father didn’t know what to think when a plane flew over his store in the fall of 1943 and left a component behind in his bedroom.

Houle, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Maine Aviation Historical Society, said in an article written for the society’s newsletter that his parents owned a store near the Lewiston-Auburn Naval Air Station, the present-day Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.

A small detachment of Navy planes arrived in 1942 to provide anti-submarine patrols, and found that there wasn’t much in the way of facilities. The airmen set up barracks at a nearby tavern and Houle’s mother was quickly recruited as the base’s cook.

By the time of the incident, the airport had become a flight training facility for the British Royal Navy. Houle said that in buzzing the store, the pilot forgot he was trailing an antenna. The device, extended behind the plane to improve radio range, was anchored by a lead weight to keep it from whipping about in the wind.

Though the pilot and plane were unharmed, the lead weight crashed into the store’s roof and separated, continuing through to the family’s apartment and coming to rest on the dresser in Houle’s parents’ bedroom. Houle’s father, who was napping before working his second job at a South Portland shipyard, fled the building in his long johns before he realized what had happened.

The Lewiston base, whose assigned personnel later included future President George H.W. Bush, was one of several military bases established in Maine for coastal defense.

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Peter Noddin, who runs a website cataloging military aviation incidents and crash sites in the state, said three Army Air Force bases were built in the run-up to World War II. And, the Navy established the Brunswick Naval Air Station and several auxiliary fields, including Lewiston.

The number of active bases has since shrunk to one: The Brunswick station is the only active military aviation site left in Maine, and that base is scheduled to close next year.

As Houle’s account demonstrates, not every flight that left those bases came back under ideal circumstances. Noddin’s site includes a list of dozens of statewide incidents, with the Lewiston station accounting for numerous mishaps, such as runway overshoots or premature landing gear retractions, which damaged or destroyed planes but fortunately never killed any crewmen.

Debris fields remain

Other incidents in western Maine include an F-84 losing its tip tank, which wound up at the Lewiston Public Works Garage, during a parade flyover in April 1949, and a detached B-52 tank hitting the side of Sugarloaf Mountain in July 1966.

Some flights never came back. A few World War II-era planes presumably remain at the bottom of Sebago Lake after their pilots were forced to ditch.

In November 1967, two F-101 fighters out of Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts collided. One made an emergency landing at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor; the other crashed into Mount Abraham near Phillips after the crew of two ejected.

Noddin said that after a military plane crash, investigators tended to remove any human remains and classified material from remote locations and leave the rest of the debris on site. Several crash sites remain littered to this day, well-preserved by shade and snow cover.

Visiting such sites is a way for Noddin to research the history of an aviation incident, but going to a site has a different impact on each visitor, he said.

“To many veterans and family members, these sites are like a cemetery plot (some sites literally are) and are a solemn location to connect with lost loved ones or members of their military unit,” he said in a recent e-mail interview. “Others mainly visit the sites because they are unique and interesting. Most leave their first crash site with a new understanding of the cost of freedom.”

To that end, the Maine Aviation Historical Society, of which Noddin is a member, has built seven memorials at military plane crash sites and plans to put up more in the future. Though the debris fields can be subject to theft, especially of guns and personal effects, the society members aim to preserve the sites as they are. Wreckage is only removed in the event of land development or if a piece may help solve an aviation mystery.

“We try to preserve the crash sites as memorials and historic sites in deference to those who served and died in the skies over Maine,” Noddin said.

Thirty-one people have been killed in military aviation accidents in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, according to Noddin’s list. Most of the fatalities occurred in 1944, 1960 and 1978. The debris from two of the planes still rests on the slopes of Oxford County mountains.

Parkertown Township, B-17 Flying Fortress

In the summer of 1944, a B-17 Flying Fortress left Kearney Air Force Base in Nebraska en route to Dow Air Force Base in Bangor. The 10-man crew was delivering the bomber to its point of embarkation. It was their last mission before the aviators, along with their plane, would be shipped across the Atlantic to join combat operations in Europe.

Western Maine was getting pummeled by a severe thunderstorm when the plane came through the area. Residents in Rangeley reported a bomber flying at a low altitude during the storm, apparently circling the area. The plane never showed up at its destination and was reported missing.

It was July 11. Coincidentally, the worst plane crash in Maine’s history happened on the same day as this incident, which would turn out to be the second worst plane crash in the state. In South Portland, a B-26 bomber had crashed into the Redbank trailer park, a housing project for shipyard workers, during a landing attempt. Both crew members and 17 people were killed in that disaster, and 20 were seriously injured.

Two days later, after a search by more than 100 spotters from the Civil Air Patrol, the Army Air Force, the Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, the B-17’s wreckage was found on the side of Deer Mountain in Parkertown Township in northern Oxford County.

Personnel from the Army Air Force, as well as members of the sheriff’s departments in Oxford and Franklin counties and a medical examiner from Rumford, trekked to the site with assistance from a Maine Forest Service plane. None of the crew members survived.

The investigation concluded that the bomber got lost in the inclement weather, and that the thunderstorm may have contributed to a radio failure. In addition, investigators said the pilot got confused “to such an extent that he possibly became panicky.” The aircraft eventually dropped below the clouds, clipped trees, cartwheeled into the mountain, and exploded. The wreck was about 500 feet from the summit.

The prevailing story is that the bomber’s wreckage was bulldozed over after the crew’s bodies were removed. Noddin said the debris is still there, and he believes the story may have been invented to prevent theft at the site.

An independent group put up a small roadside memorial to commemorate the crash in July 2006.

Newry, KC-97 Stratotanker

On the evening of June 27, 1960, two KC-97 Stratotanker refueling planes with the 380th Air Refueling Squadron left Plattsburg Air Force Base in New York. The planes were doing a test mission to refuel a B-47 under simulated combat conditions. The drill was to last four hours.

One tanker successfully met up with the bomber, and the aircraft descended to 15,500 feet. At that point, the bomber crew noticed a stream of flame from one of the tanker’s four turboprop engines. A white-hot spot appeared on the engine, and it burst into flames.

As the bomber moved away from the burning tanker, the crew tried unsuccessfully to put out the blaze. The plane went into a spin and crashed on Jonathan Smith Mountain, a hill east of Puzzle Mountain in Newry. The flash of the fire was seen from as far away as Lewiston and Bridgton, and several people witnessed the crash, including hundreds of moviegoers at the Rumford Point Drive-In.

Along with Air Force personnel, local firefighters, Maine State Police, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, and game wardens descended on the scene. Once again, a Rumford medical examiner was called in, and a Catholic priest from that town came in to give last rites to the crew. The Air Force later sent a letter to the Newry Board of Selectmen, thanking townspeople for the “cooperative and helpful spirit displayed.”

All five crew members were killed, though two were found wearing unopened parachutes. The cause of the crash was determined to be a failure of the lubrication on the engine’s impeller shaft. A subsequent fuel leak and fire destroyed the wing’s integrity.

Wreckage from the crash was spread over 5 acres. Much of it remains 50 years later, just off a snowmobile trail accessible by Rosenfield Road. The Maine Aviation Historical Society dedicated a memorial at the site in October 2001.

Poland, P-3 Orion

The loss of a P-3 Orion over Poland did not occur in a remote area. The four-engine, anti-submarine aircraft, part of Patrol Squadron Eight, left the Brunswick Naval Air Station on Sept. 22, 1978. The eight-man crew was taking the plane to Trenton, Ontario, where it would be put on display for an air show.

As in the Newry crash, hundreds of people heard an explosion and saw the aircraft plummeting to the ground in pieces. Some factors, including an apparent radar track and several witness statements, suggested that the Orion had collided with a second plane. Even a week after the incident, a Navy spokesman said that he could not discount the possibility, though no conclusive evidence of a second aircraft ever materialized.

Much of the debris came down near the intersection of Route 11 and Megquier Hill Road, but pieces were scattered in a wide area around the site. No homes were hit, but the nearest residences to the wreckage were only a few hundred feet away. The blast blew out some of the windows in a nearby house.

Volunteer firefighters immediately raced to the scene. Ernest Fitts recalled that he was working at the Poland Town Hall when the explosion shook the building. He was one of the first two people at the scene with a fire engine.

“It was just a ball of fire,” he said. “There was one body lying there, I remember, and the rest were inside the plane.”

Harold Bartlett, a dentist and New Gloucester deputy fire chief, was finishing work on a patient when he witnessed the crash. He said a crash truck from the Auburn airport was brought in to pour foam on the burning wreckage.

“We were kind of waiting for the military to get there,” he said.

The Auburn fire chief circled the area in a plane commandeered from the Auburn airport to point out woods fires sparked by the crash. Military investigators roped off the site and later removed the debris to Brunswick for examination. Most of the wreckage was subsequently taken to a Navy facility in Alameda, Calif., for further investigation.

The crash was especially troubling because it was the third Brunswick-based Orion to go down in a 10-month period, with the lost crew bringing to 28 the number of people killed in the accidents. One plane had crashed into a mountain in the Canary Islands in December 1977, killing 13; another had plunged into the Atlantic off the Azores in April 1978, killing seven.

“There’s a feeling that the wing has been hexed, jinxed or is under some supernatural spell, and it’s almost impossible to fight because we don’t know why our planes have crashed,” Rear Adm. Ralph R. Hedges said at the time.

Another Orion ditched in the Pacific Ocean off Alaska about a month after the Poland crash, bringing to 33 the number of aviators killed in P-3 crashes in a year. Ten men were rescued by a Soviet trawler in that crash.

Navy officials kept the planes flying, pointing out that even with the crashes, the Orion logged more miles and had fewer incidents than any other aircraft in the branch. In the end, the crashes appeared to be unrelated. The cause of the Canary Islands crash was determined to be poor visibility and a navigational error, while the Azores crash remained a mystery because most of the plane sank in deep water. The Poland and Alaska crashes were blamed on engine trouble.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, the Orion that crashed in Poland broke apart because one engine failed in turbulence and separated from the plane, along with 11 feet of the left wing. The pieces tore off the left stabilizer, and the other engines and wings separated because of aerodynamic forces.

No memorial exists in the area where the Orion crashed. A group is seeking to incorporate a chapel and nearby memorial garden into a museum following the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. A plaque bearing the names of the crew in the Poland crash is included in the garden, and the chapel is where a memorial to honor the deceased was held in 1978.

“They were all dedicated to their work, intent on doing their part to preserve the peace of the world while serving in the highest traditions of the Navy,” the base chaplain, Capt. William B. O’Connor, declared at the service.

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Flight crews

The following men were killed in military plane crashes in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties:

Royal Navy Corsair I collision, Sebago Lake, May 18, 1944

  • Sub-Lt. Reginald Vaughn Gill
  • Sub-Lt. Raymond L. Knott

U.S. Army Air Force B-17, Parkertown Township, July 11, 1944

  • Sgt. James A. Benson
  • Sgt. Gerald V. Biddle
  • 2nd Lt. John T. Cast
  • 2nd Lt. John W. Drake
  • 2nd Lt. William Hudgens
  • Cpl. John H. Jones
  • Staff Sgt. Wayne D. McGavran
  • Sgt. Cecil L. Murphy
  • 2nd Lt. Robert S. Talley
  • Sgt. Clarence M. Waln

Royal Navy Corsair I, Mt. Vernon, July 21, 1944

  • Sub-Lt. Peter John Cann

U.S. Navy GH-2 single engine transport, Rangeley, May 10, 1945

  • AMM3c Louis E. Ceurvor
  • Pvt. 1st Class James V. Haney
  • Lt. Eugene V. Slocum
  • Unidentified fourth occupant

T-33 Shooting Star, Denmark, July 8, 1956

  • Capt. Gordon L. Draheim

U.S. Air Force KC-97 Stratotanker, Newry, June 27, 1960

  • Lt.William Burgess
  • Technical Sgt. Robert Costello
  • Lt. Raymond Kisonas
  • Lt. Lewis Turner
  • Master Sgt. Harold Young

U.S. Navy P-3 Orion, Poland, Sept. 22, 1978

  • Lt. Commander Francis W. Dupont, Jr.
  • Lt. j.g. Donald E. Merz
  • Aide-de-camp Larry R. Miller
  • Lt. j.g. George D. Nuttelman
  • Aviation ASW Operator 3rd Class Robert I. Phillips
  • Aviation ASW Operator 3rd Class James A. Piepkorn
  • Aviation ASW Operator Striker Paul.G. Schulz
  • Lt. j.g. Ernest A. Smith

Feb. 25, 1944: Avenger I out of Lewiston makes forced landing in New Gloucester due to engine failure. Crew uninjured; plane moderately damaged.

April 14, 1944: Corsair I out of Brunswick makes forced landing near the shore of Sebago Lake after striking ice while flying low. Plane seriously damaged.

May 16, 1944: Mid-air collision of two low-flying Corsair I planes from Brunswick over Sebago Lake near Raymond; planes missing. Crash kills Sub-Lieutenants Reginald Vaughn Gill and Raymond L. Knott.

June 9, 1944: Mid-air collision between two Lewiston-based Corsair I planes over Lewiston; both are able to land and crews are uninjured.

July 11, 1944: Nebraska-based B-17 crashes into Deer Mountain in Parkertown Township kills 10 (2nd Lts. John T. Cast, John W. Drake, William Hudgens, and Robert S. Talley; Staff Sgt. Wayne D. McGavran, Sgt. Cecil L. Murphy, Sgt. James A. Benson, Sgt. Gerald V. Biddle, Cpl. John H. Jones, Sgt. Clarence M. Waln); second worst aviation accident in Maine history, on same day as worst (military crash in South Portland killed two in plane and 19 on ground).

July 16, 1944: Brunswick-based Corsair I destroyed when it flies into Sebago Lake; crew condition unknown.

July 21, 1944: Corsair I out of Lewiston crashes in Mount Vernon woods (Cottle Hill area) following engine failure, killing Sub-Lt. Peter John Cann.

May 10, 1945: Lewiston-based GH-2, overloaded for runway length, crashes on takeoff from Rangeley airstrip. Kills Lt. Eugene B. Slocum, AMM3C Louis F. Ceurvorst, Pfc. James V. Haney of USMC and one more unidentified.

May 20, 1946: J4F-2 float plane out of Brunswick makes forced landing on Sebago Lake due to engine trouble and suffers moderate damage. Crew uninjured.

April 1, 1949: Tip tank of Dow AFB-based F-84B comes off during parade flyover and hits Lewiston Public Works Garage.

July 8, 1956: T-33A (based out of Lackland AFB in Texas) crashes into side of Pleasant Mountain in Denmark, killing Capt. Gordon L. Draheim. Cause determined to be disorientation and fuel exhaustion.

June 27, 1960: KC-97 out of Plattsburgh AFB in New York crashes on Jonathan Smith Mountain in Newry. Crash kills Lt.William Burgess, Lt. Lewis Turner, Lt. Raymond Kisonas, Master Sgt. Harold Young, Technical Sgt. Robert Costello.

June 4, 1965: C-119G destroyed in crash in field near turnpike in Sabattus after double engine failure. Crew bails out and is uninjured .

July 18, 1966: Tank on a B-52 out of Pease AFB comes off and lands 4,000 feet up on Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield.

Nov. 11, 1966: F-84F out of Logan Airport goes into flat spin during simulated combat over Porter and crashes on Colcord Pond Road in Freedom, N.H. Capt. Edward S. Mansfield has minor injuries; plane is destroyed.

Nov. 14, 1967: Mid-air collision of two F-101Bs out of Otis AFB over Mt. Abraham during cross-country formation flight. One destroyed in crash after crew ejects, minor injuries to two crew; other makes emergency landing at Dow AFB; plane moderately damaged but crew OK.

Sept. 22, 1978: P-3C out of Brunswick crashes in Poland near Tripp Corner, killing Lt. Cmdr. Francis W. Dupont Jr., Lt. jg Donald E. Merz, Lt. jg George D. Nuttelman, Lt. jg Ernest A. Smith, Aide-de-camp Larry.R. Miller, Aviation ASW operator third class Robert I. Phillips, Aviation ASW third class James A. Piepkorn, Aviation ASW Operator Striker Paul G. Schulz.

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