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

(Continued from page 4)

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)

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.

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."

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