The story was published originally in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Sunday, July 10, 1994
It was to be a storybook wartime reunion. Lt. Philip I. Russell, 23, a handsome former star athlete at South Portland High School, would land his Army bomber at the Portland Municipal Airport after flying all the way from a Louisiana air base.
His wife, their 3-month-old daughter in her arms, would rush to hug and kiss him. Other family members would crowd around. A photo of the reunion would run in the paper the next day.
But something went terribly wrong. Russell’s plane came in surprisingly low over the airport, circled and vanished into a fog bank. Seconds later, the family heard it crash.
The bomber had caught its wing on the ground and cartwheeled into the nearby Redbank trailer park, disintegrating and setting 16 trailers on fire. Russell and 18 other people died, most of them young mothers and small children.
Instead of a smiling family, the paper the next day carried photos of the charred ruins and a list of the dead and injured.
The tragedy on July 11, 1944, still stands as the deadliest air crash in Maine history. Fifty years later, its cause remains a mystery and its impact is still being felt.
A look back at the events of that fiery Tuesday offers a glimpse into Mainers’ lives during wartime – an era of air-raid drills, mobilized workers and families torn apart by events.
Most people today can’t pinpoint the site where so many people lost their lives.
All trace is gone of the large government-owned trailer park on Westbrook Street, built in 1942 to help house the huge influx of shipyard workers into the area. Less than a mile from what is now the Maine Mall, it was home to about 100 families, including more than 200 children.
Directly across Westbrook street from the trailer colony sprawled the new duplexes of Redbank Village. Today those houses are a privately owned complex called South Portland Gardens.
Redbank was one of the largest housing projects built during the war. It was erected for military personnel and workers at the South Portland shipyards. Of the 500 homes there, 247 of them were officially dedicated on July 11, 1943, exactly one year before the tragedy.
Although christened “Redbank, ” residents called the place “Mudbank” because much of it didn’t have grass, recalls Philip G. Roberts, 65, of Falmouth.
Roberts and his family moved into 60 MacArthur Circle West in Redbank Village in 1943. In many ways they were typical of its residents.
Roberts’ father was one of the more than 25,000 workers who built ships for the war effort. The Robertses had been bumped to the top of the waiting list for Redbank Village because their home on Munjoy Hill had been destroyed by fire in February 1943. Roberts’ 9-year-old brother, David, was killed in the fire.
Memories of that tragedy would be revived when the family witnessed the fiery destruction of the trailers across from their new home.
Although the Roberts family has long roots in Portland, they had at one point moved to Houlton. Like many families from all over New England, they came to the Portland area during the war for jobs. Shipyard workers earned $1.50 an hour, big money back then.
Some came from areas so rural that they didn’t know how to use flush toilets, said Marietta E. Burrows, 59, of Cresskill, N.J., Roberts’ sister.
A lot of the residents of Redbank Village and the trailer park were at home on July 11, 1944. It was just past 4:30 p.m. and almost time for supper.
In one trailer, Vina Hannan, 18, was about to put a steak on. Hannan was a mother’s helper for Hazel V. Little, 24, a shipbuilder whose husband had been drafted. Little was in another room of the trailer as were her two children, James, 4, and Nancy, who was about 2.
Hannan was chatting in Little’s kitchen with Rita Robertson, 24, a next-door neighbor. Robertson earlier had prepared her husband’s favorite meal, stew, for supper. Her 3-year-old daughter, Ann Marie, whom everyone called “Penny, ” was probably playing outside Little’s trailer. Robertson’s 10-month-old son, George J. Robertson Jr., was home asleep in his crib. Her husband, George J. Robertson, 28, most likely was in the trailer with the baby.
The world of those eight people was about to erupt in flames.
A foggy day for reunion
As Hannan and Robertson talked, a family gathering was taking place at the airport, about three quarters of a mile away on Westbrook Street. Lt. Philip Russell’s relatives were waiting to welcome him home.
Russell, whom everybody called “Phee, ” was well-known in South Portland. Outgoing and popular, he had played basketball, baseball and football at the high school and was outstanding in all three sports.
He had graduated in 1939, briefly attended the University of Maine, and held a job for a short time before entering the Army Air Forces.
Russell was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1943 and shortly afterward became a flight instructor at Barksdale Field in Louisiana. For the flight that would be his last, Russell had departed the base in an A-26B-5 Invader, a twin-engine attack bomber that was only three months old. The military report on the accident says he was on a long-range training mission.
The bomber usually had a crew of three. But Russell was accompanied by only the flight engineer, Staff Sgt. Wallace Mifflin of Seattle.
Marilyn Lowell, Russell’s 12-year-old cousin, was among those waiting for him. Lowell, who now lives in Waldoboro, says she had been told that Russell was on a cross-country trip to test the plane and had gotten permission to visit his family on the way.
Also waiting for Russell at the airport was his wife, Alma Sears Russell, 23, and the couple’s 3-month-old baby, Patricia Ann. Alma Sears had been Russell’s high school classmate and sweetheart before they married in June 1943.
She had been with her husband at Barksdale Field until just two days before the crash. She seemed to know something about planes.
“We heard Phee’s voice on the communication system when the ship circled over the airport . . . and Alma, noticing how low the ship was flying, said the plane was in serious trouble, ” a family member said at the time.
The military accident report says the plane’s altitude was about 200 feet. The report also says that the ceiling was 500 feet.
A tower spokesman at the time said Russell’s plane had arrived at 4:41 p.m. – five minutes earlier than scheduled. In one sense, however, it was six minutes late – the airport had been officially closed at 4:35 p.m. because of fog.
`An awful noise’
It is hard to determine just how foggy it was that overcast afternoon. Witnesses said they could see the plane as it circled the airport. The Army’s accident report says visibility was 2 miles in fog.
All accounts agree that a fog bank was rising to the south of the airport. A map included in the accident report shows the fog just over the trailer park.
According to newspaper reports of the crash, the tower told Russell to climb to 1,500 feet when he asked for landing instructions. The operator, who later said he was prepared to reroute the plane to New Hampshire, reported that Russell disappeared into a fog bank and crashed without responding. Russell had been in contact with the control tower for less than a minute.
The witnesses to those crucial seconds included an airport mechanic, Guy Walker. He said the plane came in going directly north over the hangar and administration building and circled the field in a tight bank.
“The fog was rolling in at the south end of the field and the plane ran right into it. That was the last we saw of the ship, ” Walker said. “Fifteen seconds later, we heard the motors stop and almost simultaneously we saw flames shoot 100 feet into the air.”
The fog was like a curtain separating the airport from the trailer park. But Russell’s family could imagine the horror that lay on the other side. Alma Russell fainted when the sound of the explosion reached her.
On the Redbank side of the curtain, Philip G. Roberts, then 15, was going home for supper after swimming with friends at Clark’s Pond.
“Somebody said, `Boy, there’s a low one.’ Then, boom, ” Roberts said.
He dashed to his home on MacArthur Circle and got his Brownie box camera. He took some of the first pictures of the crash, capturing the flames and the thick black columns of smoke.
His sister, Marietta Burrows, says it reminded her of the scenes on war picture cards that came with bubblegum at the time.
Witnesses said the plane “swung around in an arc to escape the administration building and in about 15 seconds a ripping crash resounded and flickering tongues of fire blazed high in the air, ” according to an account in the Evening Express. “The plane struck an embankment and bounced and pitched over rough soil.”
Directly in its path was Hazel Little’s trailer.
Hannan, the mother’s helper who was starting supper, said she was alerted to the crash by “an awful noise.”
“I was thrown onto the floor with fire all around me, ” Hannan said from her hospital bed. “I saw the floor caving in around me and I could see down through right under the trailer as I lay there. I got up and grabbed Jimmie (James Little, 4) in my arms and ran out and put him down.
“I saw the little girl (Nancy Little, about 2) outside with her clothing afire. I ripped off her dress and beat out the fire from her other clothes with my hands. Her burned skin came off on my arm.”
Hannan said Rita Robertson, the visiting neighbor, “was crying for her baby. We found him at the hospital.”
Hazel Little died in the crash. Her two children, Nancy and James, died the next day at Maine General Hospital, now called Maine Medical Center.
Hannan survived with facial burns. But Rita Robertson’s 10-month-old son, George J. Robertson Jr., would die of his injuries that evening. Rita died the next day.
Rita’s 3-year-old girl, Penny, had arm burns but survived. She wonders today how she and her father managed to escape. He could never bring himself to talk to her about the events.
Victims trapped, helpless
The family of Charles Mitchell, a neighbor who help pull Nancy Little from the fire, was much more fortunate.
Mitchell had been knocked from his trailer when a wing of the plane hit the home. He was able to run back in and carry out his 3-year-old son, Edward. His wife, who saw the crash while standing at the back door, rescued their 18-month-old son, James.
“I saw the wing strike first, ” she said afterward, “and then there was a terrific explosion and burst of flame that stunned me for a moment.”
One of the twin engines of the plane ripped through a trailer, barely missing a woman and two children. The engine remained airborne for another 200 feet and tore through the corner of a second trailer 75 yards from where the plane struck. The engine was found partly buried in the ground in front of a third trailer.
Airport officials had called the police ambulance and the fire department as soon as they realized the plane was down.
“The buildings went up like tissue paper, ” Francis Demarino, a South Portland fire captain, said at the time. “We couldn’t see anything because of the smoke. At first all we could do was play water on the edges of the area.”
Many victims were helpless. “Trapped in their homes, the trailer residents . . . were burned to death by flaming gasoline, ” the Press Herald reported.
The trailer camp manager said that 16 of the camp’s 100 trailers had been destroyed by the fire and explosion. About a dozen others were damaged by flying parts of the plane that were hurled as far as 100 yards.
Ernest “Jim” Darling, now 82, of South Portland, was the first South Portland police officer to reach the scene. “It was a horror show, I tell you, ” he said 50 years later.
He was patrolling nearby when he got a call that there had been a crash. “When I got there, it was just a bunch of screaming people and a wall of red flame on the right, ” Darling said.
He stood at MacArthur Circle and Westbrook Street and directed traffic. So many sightseers and concerned relatives had rushed to the scene that ambulances were having trouble getting through.
The body of the pilot was not found until 9:30 that evening, Darling said.
“Russell’s body was found beneath the flooring of a trailer, ” the newspaper reported. “Firemen said he had evidently been blown through a window of the trailer’s foundation. Mifflin’s body (the flight engineer) was found near an open parachute among the trailers and several hundred feet from where the plane finally came to rest. No one reported seeing anyone parachute from the plane but the two chutes were found opened near the bodies.”
Five bodies were so charred that the county medical examiner asked the Portland Evening Express to run detailed descriptions the next day in hope that relatives would recognize them.
By July 14, 18 people were confirmed dead. The 19th and final victim, Shirley May Brown, 34, would die in August of severe burns.
Reports on the number of injured varied, but it appears that at least a dozen were hurt. About 60 people were made homeless, 30 of them children.
Even as survivors wandered around in shock, sightseers were seeking mementos of the crash. “People were souvenir-hunting while they were carrying out bodies, ” said Darling, the police officer.
Charles Merrill of South Portland, then 16, was one of those souvenir hunters.
He was working as a salesman at Benoit’s Prep Hall at Monument Square in Portland when he heard about the crash on the radio. He rushed out of work, hopped on a Redbank bus and was there within a half hour.
Merrill, now a retired Press Herald photographer, said “it was a nightmarish scene.”
He remembers that a woman who lived in the trailer park was on the bus, terrified about what awaited her. The bus took outer Congress Street to Westbrook Street, which extended into Portland before the airport expanded.
“When we got there, ” Merrill said, “the police stopped the bus momentarily. She looked out and screamed `Oh, no!’ and she took her hands and parted those doors. I went right out behind her.”
He wandered around looking for keepsakes. He found small twisted pieces of green metal, parts of the disintegrated plane.
As he was passing a trailer, he saw a hose sticking out. He pulled on it and out came part of the fuel pressure control system for the plane. The device controlled how much fuel went to the left and right engines.
Later that evening Merrill and a friend went back to the scene and found the plane’s propeller. They were walking off with it, wondering how they would get it home on their bicycles, when “a policeman or an Army security person said, `Drop that!’ and we did.”
The next day it was announced that four agencies were investigating the accident: the Army, the FBI, the state attorney general’s office and the city of Portland. However, the plane’s instrument panel had been taken the night of the crash and threatened to derail the investigations.
“Only through an inspection of this vital instrument . . . did any hope exist that the cause of the plane’s fate might ever be known, ” the newspaper reported.
Two days after the accident, the panel was turned over to Portland police by a man from the Deering district who said he had taken it as a souvenir.
Merrill worried that his find also might be crucial to the investigation. He was so scared that he took all his souvenirs and buried them in a shoebox under the woodpile in the basement of his parents’ house. He didn’t remove it until he came across it again in 1979 when his mother was moving out.
Trying to forget
The results of all the official investigations of the crash apparently have never been disclosed.
After the initial stories, the newspaper wrote little more about the event. The most significant follow-up was a brief story in 1946 saying that the U.S. government had agreed to pay a total of $72,000 to the injured and to the families of the 17 civilians killed.
It is not surprising that no one ever pressed for more information about the causes of the crash. It was wartime, a few weeks past D-Day, and the tragedy paled in comparison to what was happening in Europe.
“There is no particular point in assessing blame, ” the Press Herald editorialized two days after the crash. “This is the only near-approach to war conditions that Portland may ever have to make. . . . we had a brief glimpse of what has been going on in many hundreds of European cities and towns on a vast scale.”
And crashes of military planes in the state were common. At least half the U.S. planes that ended up in Europe during the war traveled there by way of Maine. They went through Canada to Greenland and Iceland before reaching England, according to Archie DiFante, an archivist with the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Leo Boyle, the head of the Maine Aviation Historical Society, said there have been more than 1,700 plane crashes in Maine, a number of them during the course of the war.
In fact, a B-17 Flying Fortress crashed in the Rangeley region on the same day that Russell’s plane crashed in Redbank. The entire 10-man crew was found dead.
But perhaps the most compelling reason that the tragedy quickly receded from the public memory was that it was too painful to talk about.
Darling, the police officer, said people of that era did their best to put the memories of such terrible events out of their minds and get on with their lives.
“You buried them, ” he said, “because that was what you were supposed to do.”