May 27, 2013

Find triggers memory of Maine war tragedy

A local man recalls the 1943 crash that killed two British pilots in training – and has debris that fell from the sky.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

NEW GLOUCESTER - Phil Blake first heard the story of the plane crash as a boy growing up, but it was pushed to the attic of his mind until recently.

click image to enlarge

An artifact found by Phil Blake contains the make, model and serial number of one of the planes that collided, an F4U Corsair JT 190. He found it in a drawer at the house of his late father, Everett Blake, on Penney Road, which was once owned by Phil’s great-grandfather.

click image to enlarge

Phil Blake displays parts of a British fighter plane that were recovered after a midair crash over New Gloucester in 1943. He wants to add the pilots’ names to the town’s planned veterans monument. Town archivist Linda Gard, right, helped Blake research the incident.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Blake's father, Everett Blake, passed away in December 2011. He lived in an old farmhouse on Penney Road that previously belonged to his grandfather, Phil's great-grandfather, Oscar Stinchfield.

In the course of cleaning out the home so the family could sell it, Phil Blake and his son, Tom, pored through three generations' worth of history.

One of the things they found -- tucked in a bottom drawer that hadn't been opened in years -- was a small box filled with metal parts. They were covered in a layer of dust. They looked like junk, Blake recalled.

"My first thought was, 'Why would anyone keep these?'" he said.

But Blake, 63, a Coast Guard veteran, recognized the primer paint on one of the pieces as military paint. Another piece displayed the serial number and the make and model of a plane, an F4U Corsair JT 190.

"Then, I remembered," he said.

The parts belonged to a British fighter plane that collided in midair with another British fighter plane in October 1943 above the Blake family farm in New Gloucester at the height of World War II. The two pilots were among dozens of British soldiers who trained at the newly constructed Brunswick Naval Air Station, about 16 aerial miles away. They were practicing maneuvers shortly before the fiery collision.

Everett Blake was in his 20s when the crash happened in the meadow behind his family's farm. He and his father, Fred Blake, saw the smoke and the wreckage and watched as military personnel flooded into New Gloucester to retrieve the bodies of the two dead pilots.

Their names were Alfred Jack Sewell, a lieutenant commander and ace of the British Navy's Fleet Air Arm who went by "Jackie," and David James Falshaw Watson, a sub-lieutenant and former cricket player at Oxford University.

One of the pilots died instantly. The other tried to parachute from his falling plane, but he died, too, according to a newspaper story that appeared in the Lewiston Daily Sun.

Phil Blake enlisted the town's archivist, Linda Gard, to help fill in the details that he couldn't remember. Gard said it wasn't that difficult to uncover the identity of the pilots. She just searched for two soldiers who died on the same day, Oct. 3, 1943.

Once she was able to identify the pilots and look at their pictures, Gard said the effort to find out more became more personal.

Blake shared the story with fellow members of the New Gloucester Historical Society at a meeting about two months ago. He brought along the plane parts that he had unearthed at his father's home.

A short time later, Blake told the story again to fellow members of the New Gloucester Veterans Monument Committee. That group is in the process of planning a permanent monument and memorial to honor the more than 950 New Gloucester residents who have served their country dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Blake said he thought the two British pilots, Sewell and Watson, should be added to the memorial, even though they weren't New Gloucester residents or even American citizens.

"Their bodies were never returned to England. They are buried at the military cemetery in Portsmouth (N.H.)," Blake said. "They have never had a proper memorial."

Other members of the veterans monument committee unanimously agreed with him.

The monument is still about a year away from completion. The committee needs to raise between $60,000 and $75,000 and so far has received about $28,000 in donations and in-kind services.

But the idea for a veterans monument has generated buzz in the small town. During this year's Memorial Day parade, the town's Republican Party Committee has built a float that will include a replica of the proposed monument, complete with the names.

The artifacts recovered from Blake's family home are now housed at the New Gloucester History Barn on Route 231 behind the Masonic Hall.

Blake said he hopes people will feel inclined to learn a little about a part of history that many of them probably don't know. The only reason he learned about it is from information passed down to him from another generation.

He also hopes other townspeople who were alive in the 1940s will come forward if they have any knowledge of the crash.

Already, one man has done that -- longtime resident and historical society member Pete Wills.

Shortly after Blake shared his story, Wills went home and retrieved a unique piece of glass he found while walking along the railroad tracks near the crash site as a boy. The glass, to the best of Blake's research, appears to be a lens from one of the fighter planes' gun sights.

"There could be more out there," Blake said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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