During World War II, two planes crashed in Maine within four hours of each other, and each crash was the worst in Maine history.
Pilots during World War II were almost as likely to go down in Maine as they were overseas. Ten thousand warplanes flew from or over Maine en route to Europe during the conflict, according to one estimate. The state had three U.S. Army air bases, two auxiliary airfields and a training facility at Brunswick Naval Air Station. Plu,s civilians in small planes patrolled the coast for U-boats from Portland and Trenton.
Flying carried far more danger then, even in civilian airspace. Radar was just being developed in secret at MIT. Pilots with little more than a high school diploma rushed through minimal training, and airplanes had little of the today’s safety equipment.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that more than two planes crashed in Maine during World War II. In fact, 48 planes crashed in Maine during the war, killing 143 people. On the afternoon of July 11, 1944, 29 died when two planes crashed in two different places.
The Day Two Planes Crashed
Just after midnight a B-17 Flying Fortress left Kearny, Neb., with 10 men aboard. They headed for Dow Army Air Field in Bangor where they would stop on the way to the 8th Air Force Base in the English midlands. Nineteen other B-17s left Kearney that same night.
On the way to Bangor, pilot John Cast, a second lieutenant, flew low over his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, and dipped the plane’s wings near his home. His wife and 5-month-old son watched.
The crew had incorporated that detour into the flight plan, as well as the bad weather they would encounter in New England.
Turbulence over the Appalachians threw their compass off kilter and, unable to raise a radio signal, they flew off course. After 12-1/2 hours, Cast realized the bomber was running out of fuel. He flew below the fog to look for recognizable landmarks and after an hour or so of circling realized they’d flown near Rangeley. Cast banked the plane toward Rangeley’s small airstrip, but the left wing caught on a treetop, and the bomber broke up as it cartwheeled through the forest. All 10 crewmembers died instantly. Cast, at 27, was the oldest of them.
When the B-17 failed to arrive at Dow, more than 100 civilian and military spotters set out to find them. On the morning of July 14, they located the wreck. Search teams recovered the bodies of the men and sent them home for burial. In 2000, volunteers erected a memorial at the site.
(For a detailed account of the crash, click here.)
The 2nd Crash
The B-17 crash in Rangeley was Maine’s worst aviation accident ever, but another crash would eclipse it within hours.
The second plane crashed in the same stormy weather, but in Portland.
Philip Russell had been a standout athlete at South Portland High. He married his high school sweetheart and enlisted in the Army. By July 1944 he had received a commission as a second lieutenant and was a flight instructor at Barksdale Field in Louisiana.
He got permission to take a training mission to Portland to see his wife and 3-month-old daughter. On the afternoon of July 11, they waited for him in an observation tower as a patchy fog rolled in. The airport closed at 4:35 pm due to the fog, but six minutes later his family heard his voice requesting landing instructions.
The next thing they saw was his A-26 Invader light bomber appear out of the fog at 200 feet altitude. The airport then radioed him to climb to 1500 feet. Some people said they saw one of his engines smoking, but no one really knows what went wrong. The plane hit the ground past the runway. It cartwheeled into a government-run trailer park for shipyard workers with an enormous boom and exploded.
One hundred foot flames shot into the air, and mothers frantically tried to rescue their children from the inferno. Some people caught fire as they ran from their trailers. In the end, 17 trailer park residents, mostly mothers and children, died, and 20 more were injured. Searchers found the bodies of Russell and his navigator, Staff Sgt. Wallace Mifflin, in the wreckage.
Fifty-six years after the second plane crashed that day, volunteers erected a memorial to the victims.
This story was updated in 2020.