Monday, July 22, 2013

Maine’s . . . and America’s . . . Youngest Ambassador: Remembering Samantha Smith - Dispatches from Maine

Even though there is no longer commercial air traffic in and out of the Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport, planes still regularly pass over us here at True’s Point, on the eastern shore of Sabbathday Lake.  Runway 4 is just five miles northeast of here.

This was not the case on August 25, 1985, when it was a regular stop on Bar Harbor Airlines flights between Boston’s Logan International Airport and Bangor, Maine.  That evening six passengers and a crew of two boarded Flight 1808 for the short flight to Bangor with intermediate stops in Augusta and Waterville.  Due to air traffic delays in Boston that day, an earlier flight to Auburn/Lewiston had been cancelled and the airlines amended its routing for Flight 1808 to accommodate the delayed passengers.

The Beechcraft 99 took off from Logan at 9:30pm.  At 10pm, an air traffic controller in Portland advised a course correction for a southwest approach to Auburn/Lewiston where a light drizzle was reported with obscured visibility of one mile.  The aircraft passed near Sabbathday Lake but apparently failed to make the necessary course correction.  Five minutes later it crashed into a dense line of trees near the Poland Spring Road and less than a mile from the end of Runway 4.  There were no survivors.  Two of the passengers were Arthur Smith and his 13 year old daughter Samantha, who were headed home to Manchester, just outside of Augusta.  But the story is much larger than the tragedy of a father and his young daughter dying in a plane crash. 

Samantha was born in Houlton, Maine, near the Canadian border, in 1972 and lived the life of a regular American girl.  Finishing second grade in the spring of 1980, she moved with her family to Manchester, Maine where she enrolled in the local elementary school.  Her father taught literature and writing at the University of Maine at Augusta, while her mother Jane worked for the Maine Department of Human Services, in Augusta, the state capital.  Just an average American kid like all of her classmates.

All of this changed, however, in November 1982, when Samantha, who was then ten years old, asked her mother something any curious kid might ask a parent during the Cold War and the crumbling detente of the early 1980s.  Why do the Russians and Americans want to fight a war?   But she took it one step farther.  She wrote to Yuri Andropov, who had recently ascended to the leadership of the former Soviet Union following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, to congratulate him “on your new job” and to tell him that she was concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries.  “Are you going to vote to have a war or not?”  She also inquired why he wanted “to conquer the world or at least our country.”  She hoped that the United States and the Soviet Union might “live together in peace and not to fight.”  Perhaps an unusual letter for an average ten year old girl to write?  Maybe not.  When she was five, Samantha wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II to tell her how much she admired her.  Maybe Samantha was not that average after all.  Andropov eventually wrote back to Samantha calling her “a courageous and honest girl” and reassuring her that he had no plans to go to war against her country.  He invited her and her family to visit his country the following summer, wishing her “all the best in your young life.”

Soon Samantha became a media darling as reporters from around the world documented her 1983 peace mission to a land our leaders were assuring us was an “Evil Empire” bent on world domination.  She traveled throughout the Soviet Union in July 1983, visiting Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and a Soviet youth camp in the Crimea.  Andropov, who was seriously ill at the time and who would die the following year, did not meet with Samantha although they spoke on the phone.  It seemed neither the American nor the Soviet media could take enough photographs of young Samantha, or to ask her too many times what she thought about the Soviet people she had met.  “They are just like us,” she would say.

Returning home in late July, Samantha was feted by her fellow Mainers and heralded as "America's Youngest Ambassador."  She continued her role as a peace activist, visiting Japan in late 1983 to attend the Children's International Symposium in Kobe. She later wrote a book about her trip through the Soviet Union and was cast in a role for a new television series being filmed in London.  She was returning home from England when she and her father were killed.

Samantha Smith was mourned during a large funeral in Augusta.  A representative of the Soviet Embassy in Washington read a personal message of condolence from Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed the Soviet leadership following Andropov’s death, calling Samantha a young American girl who “dreamt about peace, and about friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union".  She and her father are buried in a small cemetery near her hometown of Houlton. The Soviet Union issued a stamp in her honor.

This month  marks the 30th anniversary of that historic visit by an average American girl.  And Samantha Smith would have celebrated her 41st birthday on June 29th, the day we first arrived here at True’s Point for our summer hiatus.   I think of her as I stand  on the end of our dock watching the sun set beyond Sabbathday Lake.  What a shame her young and special life ended so early and so tragically just north of here.  There is a statue of Samantha Smith holding a dove in front of the Maine State Museum in Augusta. "Maine is proud of her native daughter, and we remember the message she brought,” reads the inscription.  “One child can play a powerful part in bringing peace to the world.”

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.


  1. Beautiful piece, Steve. Ginna is one day older than Samantha would be.

  2. Thank you!