April 16, 2010

Tragic memories of deadly crash at Redbank

An Army bomber took the lives of 19 people 50 years ago. Today, the impact and the mystery remain.

By Tess Nacelewicz Staff Writer

The story was published originally in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Sunday, July 10, 1994

THE VICTIMS
1. Lt. Philip I. Russell, 23, of South Portland. Pilot.
2. S/Sgt. Wallace Mifflin of Seattle, Wash. Flight engineer.
3. (Family:) Clarence S. Hume Jr., 36
4. Edna M. Hume, 33
5. John Hume, 2
6. (Married couple:) Florence Gorham, 34 or 40
7. Gordon T. Gorham, 42 or 44
8. (Family:) Edward A. Gerrish, (also referred to as Alfred E. Gerrish), 31 or 32, shipyard worker from Orono
9. Virginia M. Wescott Gerrish, 26
10. Roberta Gerrish, 7
11. Rose M. Gerrish, 4
12. (Mother and son:) Rita M. Deschaine Robertson, 24
13. George Joseph Robertson, 10 months
14. (Mother and children:) Hazel V. Little, 24
15. James Little, 4
16. Nancy Little, about 2
17. (Mother and daughter:) Jennie Allen, 52
18. Virginia Warren, 32 (mother of two children)
19. Shirley May Brown, 34 (mother of four children)

MAINE'S OTHER DEADLIEST AIR CRASHES
July 11, 1944: A B-17 Flying Fortress crashes between Deer Mountain and Big Buck Mountain in northern Oxford County. All 10 crew members are killed.
Jan. 24, 1963: A B-52 Stratofortress on a routine training mission from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts crashes near the Moosehead Lake region in Greenville. Seven crewmen die, two survive.
March 15, 1973: A P-3B Orion on a routine pilot training mission crashes into the Gulf of Maine, 40 miles south of Brunswick. All five crewmen die.
May 12, 1973: A twin-engine Cessna 402 crashes into Scammon Ridge in Greenville while attempting to land. The plane was en route from Manchester, N.H., to Greenville Airport. Six people are killed.
April 27, 1975: A single-engine Piper Cherokee carrying six construction workers and a pilot crashes off the coast of Boothbay Harbor killing all seven. The plane was en route from Lawrence, Mass., to Saint John, N.B.
March 21, 1978: Two men and their teen-age sons are killed when a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza crashes at the base of Poplar Mountain in the Carrabassett Valley. The crash took place moments after takeoff in snowy and windy conditions.
May 16, 1978: A twin-engine Beechcraft 402 splits apart, bursts into flames and crashes near Trenton. Four people are killed, including Thomas Caruso, president of Bar Harbor airlines, and his son Gary Caruso, vice president of the airline.
Sept. 22, 1978: A P-3 Orion from Brunswick Naval Air Station crashes in woods near Tripp Lake in Poland. All eight crewmen are killed.
Nov. 15, 1978: A single-engine Piper Cherokee crashes on the Rumford-Andover line killing six people en route from Fredricton, N.B., to Williamsport, Pa.
May 30, 1979: Downeast Airlines Flight 46 Crashes en route from Boston to Owls Head, near the Knox County Airport. Seventeen people die, one person survives.
May 28, 1985: A Cessna 172 crashes 1 1/2 miles from the Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg, killing four.
Aug. 25, 1985: A Beechcraft 99 crashes one-half mile from Auburn Municipal Airport. Samantha Smith, the nation's young peace advocate, her father and the two-person crew are among eight people killed.
April 11, 1987: Four men are killed when the Cessna 172 crashes into the backyard of a home in Berwick. The four were on a short trip from Rochester, N.H.
Nov. 19, 1993: An air ambulance from Airmed Skycare Inc. crashes in Casco Bay. Three people are killed and one person survives. The crew was transporting a burn patient from an Ellsworth Hospital to Maine Medical Center when they ran into stormy weather.

    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.

(Continued on page 2)

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