Saturday, July 27, 2013

Si vis pacem, pare bellum” - Dispatches from Maine

In a recent posting I mentioned the August 1985 plane crash on the northern edge of New Gloucester which claimed the life of 13 year old Samantha Smith, America’s Youngest Ambassador, along with her father and six others.

There was another plane crash in New Gloucester decades ago that did not receive the same media attention and has been long forgotten.  I have been spending my summers in this town since 1988, and as a historian, I like to think that I am fairly familiar with the lay of the land and the local history.  Yet this summer I, along with many who call New Gloucester home and who have lived here far longer than I, have been introduced to a little known chapter of local history that has just now come into proper relief.

During a meeting of the local historical society in late March, Tom and Phil Blake, the town history curator and his father, turned over some interesting artifacts they had found while sorting through the family homestead and farm.  Their grandfather and father, Everett Stinchfield Blake, who had passed away in 2011 at age 91, had lived there since 1933 when at age 13 he had come to help out his grandparents, Oscar and Clara Stinchfield.  He continued to live there and work the farm after his grandparents died in the early 1940s.  Among the things found in a dusty dining room drawer was a box of some metal items and what looked to be old electronic gear.  Upon closer inspection, however, it was determined that the items came from a F4U Corsair fighter aircraft, one of the mainstays of the US Navy arsenal during the final years of World War II.  Memories were jogged and soon the historical society was researching the crash of two of these planes near the Stinchfield farm in early October 1943.    

The aircraft were stationed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station approximately 16 miles east of New Gloucester.  This facility was constructed and occupied in the spring of 1943, primarily to train pilots of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm to fly the brand new carrier-capable Corsair fighters, as well as the F6F Hellcats.  Training missions were also flown from the Naval Auxiliary Air Facilities located on Long Island, in nearby Casco Bay, and in Lewiston (now the Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport and the site of the 1985 crash), Sanford, Rockland and Bar Harbor.  US Navy and Royal Navy squadrons also conducted critical anti-submarine warfare missions from Brunswick.  The base was  deactivated after the war but was recommissioned in 1951 to support the Korean conflict and it remained an anti-submarine warfare facility until its final closure in 2011.

The Fleet Air Arm had received its first batch of almost 100 Corsairs in September 1943, and the first British training squadrons had assembled at Brunswick and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.  Upon completion of their training, these pilots would cross the Atlantic to serve in operational squadrons in Europe and elsewhere.  As it was, the Fleet Air Arm pilots actually qualified the F4U Corsair for carrier operations even before their US Navy counterparts.

It was on one of these training missions on the morning of October 3, 1943 that Lieutenant Commander Alfred Jack Sewell, the commander of 1837 Squadron and a well-known British naval ace, and his wingman, Sub-Lieutenant David James Falshaw Watson, were satisfying the motto of the Royal Navy - si vis pacem, pare bellum [if you wish for peace, prepare for war].  While practicing maneuvers over the Intervale area of New Gloucester north of the old Pownal State School (now Pineland Farms), their two Corsairs - Models JT-190 - which had been manufactured by Chance Vought Aircraft in July and capable of flying at 450 mph, collided head-on at approximately 9:50am.  According to Thomas Fogg, a local farmer, one of the planes careened into the swampy meadow behind the Stinchfield farm and exploded killing the pilot instantly.  The other pilot tried unsuccessfully to parachute and was critically injured and died a short time later.  Both planes struck the ground approximately 100 feet apart and left a debris field covering over 200 acres.  According to local lore, Everett Blake’s father Fred flagged down and offered assistance to the military personnel arriving from Brunswick to investigate the crash and to recover the bodies.  He was rebuffed and soon enough their vehicles were bogged down in the swamp.  Four days after the accident, Sewell and Watson, both 25 years old at the time of their deaths, were buried side by side with full military honors at the Portsmouth Naval Cemetery, in New Hampshire.

So who were these two men?  Lieutenant Commander “Jackie” Sewell of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve served on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in the Mediterranean Sea in 1940-1941, flying Fulmar I carrier-based fighters on combat and convoy patrol sorties against Italian targets and aircraft.  He also flew missions while based on Malta and on the HMS Formidable in the eastern Mediterranean, and commanded a squadron on HMS Dasher in 1942-1943, in support of “Operation Torch,” the joint US-British invasion of North Africa.  He claimed approximately 25 enemy aircraft shot down and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  He later  commanded the training squadron flying the new Corsairs fighters based at Brunswick NAS from September 1943 until his death.  Sub-Lieutenant Watson’s previous heroism and claim to fame was due to his reputation as the star right-hand batsman for the Oxford University rugby team.  Also a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he and Sewell were officially deployed to HMS Saker (British Naval Delegation), a “stone frigate” - Royal Navy facility on land - to which all Royal Navy personnel in the USA were assigned.

Almost seven decades have now passed since that fateful and long forgotten morning, one more chapter of a war that is quickly slipping into the realm of history and myth.  Two brave British pilots died far way from home and family and the battles still to be fought. To honor Sewell and Watson, the New Gloucester Historical Society and the Veterans Monument Committee have decided to add their names to the planned veterans monument and memorial to be erected in the village, along with the names of more than 950 New Gloucester residents who have given their lives in the service of their country since the American Revolution.

My gratitude to the New Gloucester Historical Society and various media reports past and present for providing me with some of the details cited here.  It was an honor for me to present a lecture to the Historical Society last September to help kick off fund-raising efforts for the new veterans monument.  I wholly endorse the plan to add the names of these two brave British pilots to the New Gloucester Veterans Monument and Memorial. 

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