The effort to erect a memorial in South Portland to the state’s deadliest air disaster is in its final stretch.

The memorial will be near the site where a twin-engine light-attack bomber crashed into a trailer camp in the Long Creek area on July 11, 1944. The pilot, Army Air Corps Lt. Philip “Phee” Russell, and 18 others were killed in the crash and the ensuing explosion.

The memorial project needs a total of $11,500, and is $2,200 short of that goal, said John Kierstead, who’s leading the effort.

Kierstead, who grew up hearing about the tragedy, hopes to have the memorial in place for this year’s ceremony on the anniversary of the crash.

Russell, who was a star athlete at South Portland High School, was returning home from Louisiana, where he was as a flight instructor. He was scheduled to land at the nearby Portland airport, but his A-26 Invader came in low, circled and disappeared into a fog bank before hitting the Redbank trailer park — a site that is now the Olde English Village apartment complex.

Investigators never pinpointed the cause of the crash.

The memorial will be a pink granite boulder depicting a pilot walking into the clouds with a little boy and a little girl. It will be placed with a bench by the entrance of Redbank Village.

“I loved it,” Vina Sawyer said of the plan. “I can’t wait to see it. We ought to be able to raise that last bit of money.”

Now 83 and living in Houlton, Sawyer was a teenage mother’s helper in Redbank when Russell’s plane went down. The mother, Hazel Little, and her two young children, Nancy and Jimmie, died. After the crash, Sawyer wasn’t expected to survive, but she recovered enough by Thanksgiving to return home to Linneus, not far from Houlton.

Karen Allen was an adult by the time she put her vague hospital memories in context. She was 2 years old, playing in the yard, when part of the plane went through her trailer.

Allen’s mother never talked to her about the accident, and Allen understood what happened only after an uncle sent her newspaper clippings about it.

“It’s time that people realized that this tragedy happened,” said Allen, who is now 67 and living in Portland.

The memorial project has received several big boosts, including the use of city land, a donated stone and bench from Millennium Granite Quarry & Stoneworks of Wells, and $5,000 from an anonymous donor.

Sawyer, who lives on $633 a month, and her family have provided more than $1,000.

“I was awfully pleased to think they were going to put up a memorial,” she said. “Nothing had ever been done before.”

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]