by Jim Meehan
Not all “historic” accounts are “History” – defined as “a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle.”
Many are more properly labeled “Pseudo-history” – “Any work that claims to be history, but does not use established historiographical methods; especially one that uses disputed evidence and speculation rather than relying on the analysis of primary sources.”
Some should be called Conspiracy Theory – “A hypothesis alleging that the members of a coordinated group are, and/or were, secretly working together to commit illegal or wrongful actions including attempting to hide the existence of the group and its activities. In notable cases the hypothesis contradicts the mainstream explanation for historical or current events.”
For example, it is history that an object crashed in the general vicinity of Roswell New Mexico in June/July of 1947. It is pseudo-history that the object was an extra-terrestrial spacecraft and its alien occupants. It is a conspiracy theory that the United States government and military have covered up the real truth of this incident.
Similar stories are told about Area 51 in southern Nevada – and about the “Bermuda Triangle” in the North Atlantic Ocean – but not about Wethersfield.
“Do you know anything about the plane that crashed at the Wethersfield Country Club?’ someone asked me a while back.
“No, when did this happen?”
“Sometime during the second World War. I don’t think they ever found the pilot.”
Recently I decided to find out about the about the purported incident – using established historiographical methods.
I logged onto the Connecticut State Library website and searched the Hartford Courant archives for “Wethersfield and Country Club and Plane Crash”. I found “Plane Crash Injures 3 in Wethersfield” in the April 26, 1937 edition, and “Fighter Plane Crashes, Burns In Wethersfield” from March 28, 1948’s paper.
My first reaction was “Oh, there were two of them – just like the two meteorites that struck houses in Wethersfield in 1971 and 1982. What a coincidence.” Then I thought, “Hmm, they are eleven years apart – just like the two meteorites that struck houses in Wethersfield in 1971 and 1982. What a coincidence.”
I read further into the articles. Both accidents occurred on the sixth fairway of the Wethersfield Country Club Golf Course – not like the meteorites, which came to earth several miles apart, but nonetheless in the same town. One similarity is an accident. Two could be a trend. And three…?
Is the sixth fairway Wethersfield’s Roswell? Its Bermuda Triangle?
I delved deeper. The short answer is no.
The first incident occurred shortly after noon on Sunday April 25, 1937 when a privately owned three-place, open cockpit, bi-plane made a forced landing on the grassy links of the Wethersfield Country Club. The pilot, Howard Hartman, and his wife Mildred of West Hartford suffered facial lacerations and bruises respectively. Passenger Harold G. Holcomb of Spring Street in Wethersfield received a sprained ankle. Fred R. Jones of River Road in Wethersfield took all three to Hartford Hospital by car. The plane, which was owned by Aviation Service Company at Brainard Field, was badly damaged with crushed landing gear, three wing sections damaged beyond repair, and a splintered propeller.
Prior to impacting the ground the plane had circled the golf course several times. Its motor gouged into the soft earth of the fairway causing the craft to pivot around. Engine trouble appeared to be the cause.
Several golfers on the course at the time, including Raymond G. Schroll, an employee of the Hartford Courant, assisted in removing the injured pilot and passengers.
Eleven years later another aircraft involuntarily touched down on the sixth fairway. This landfall was not so gentle.
“An airplane said to be a fighter plane type crashed, burned and exploded near Wethersfield Country Club today. The explosion occurred at 1:05 a.m.
“The plane crashed in a muddy spot off the sixth fairway. It was buried deeply in the ground.
“State Police said it was an Army-type plane. ‘No one could have lived through the crash unless he bailed out,’ an officer at Hartford Barracks reported.
“[A control tower operator at Rentschler Field – several miles away said], ‘The explosion lit up the whole sky.'”
Witnesses including Mrs. Arthur Watson and Dorothy Scott said that there was no previous warning of the crash.
Raymond Hamel visited the crash site later that day and took this photo. Then in 1991, spurred by “Interest generated by celebration of 50th Anniversary of WW.II, …[and the]….Gift of new metal detector and possible projects to use it on.”, he returned to the accident scene and found three parts of the airplane, which he donated to the Wethersfield Historical Society along with his informal, unedited notes of the research he did that led to his discovery. The complete notes are presented at the end of this article.
The artifacts are encased in a glass-covered wooden cigar box with the words “Cuesta Rey, No. 95, English Market Selection” stenciled on three sides. (Cuesta-Rey (originally ‘La flor de Cuesta-Rey’) is a brand of hand-made Cuban cigar, founded in 1884 by Angel LaMadrid Cuesta and Peregrino Rey.) The container itself is an artifact of Mr. Hamel’s family’s Pharmacy, which was located in Wethersfield.
Following is his remembrance of the day he first visited the crash site in 1948. His annotated golf course layout and hand drawn map of the crash scene illustrate this piece.
“(3/28/48) Read the article of crash in Hartford Sun. Courant, lived 392 West Preston St. Htfd. Sunday morning Easter drove to Prospect St. Wethersfield in new 1947 Pontiac Streamline 8, Club Coupe, parked near what is now Church of the Incarnation followed a few other people crossing Prospect St. out onto fairway and walked to the 6th fairway toward Highland St. The morning was cool and windy for Easter Sunday.
“About 500 feet was roped off on the West side of the
fairway and a M.P. was patrolling the area and would not let anyone but officials into the wooded area of the crash. I could not make out any wreckage at the site of impact but it looked like the earth had been dug up. There were parts of aluminum on the fairway, 2-3 ft. in size about 300 feet from impact and a piece was in one of the trees. About 20 people came and went including myself after about ? hour. Feet were wet and getting cold.”
The pilot was identified as Air Force Lieutenant Joseph F. McMillan of Derry, New Hampshire – a native of Hartford. He had left Mitchell Field Long Island at 12:30 a.m. on the return leg of a training flight to Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester New Hampshire. The weather bureau reported that ideal conditions existed at the time of the accident.
P-51’s are about 33 feet long with a front-mounted engine that appears to take up about one third of that length. The plane “dove into the ground at a steep angle and dug itself approximately eight feet into the soft clay at the scene. The explosion…caused a crater which measured over 12 feet across at the ground surface.”
Wethersfield Medical examiner Dr. Harold A. Howard reported that part of the pilot’s body was found at 6:30 a.m., and a second part was found later on – two fragments of skull and scalp in total.
“‘We assume that the greatest part of the body is deep in the ground and will be found Monday.’ Dr. Howard said. He added that he would sign the death certificate when more of the pilot’s remains are found.
“Air Force regulations state that finding of a body is constituted by discovery of any portion of that body…”
Among the Wethersfield residents on the scene were Karl E. Herzberg of Highland Street, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Rady of Treat Road, Thomas Knapp of Highland Street, and Police Chief Thomas J. Sullivan.
Water applied to the fire turned the area around the plane into an ankle deep quagmire and heavy engineering equipment, including a bulldozer, was used in the recovery operation. A deep trench was dug around the crater and water was drained off in order to dig toward the crater’s center.
“Captain Stewart [Director of the operation] estimated that the plane’s engine was buried nearly 20 feet deep. He said the investigators would probably have to blast the engine loose with dynamite so firmly is it imbedded.
“He said the diggers may also find the major portion of the dead flyer’s body near the engine.”
But three days of digging failed to produce the body of Air Force Lieutenant Joseph F. McMillan.
“[Captain Stewart said,] ‘In their digging, my men have found nothing to indicate that the man was in the plane when it crashed into the ground. The workers have removed a truckload of plane debris including the pilot’s oxygen mask and half of the cockpit but have not found any part of the pilot, his clothing, or parachute.’
“He said they have encountered quicksand and if the search was to continue, cofferdams would have to be built and sunk into the crater to hold back the shifting sand.
“The recovery crew almost lost a large bulldozer to the enveloping quicksand.”
“We have now exhausted our resources and we can only conclude that whatever remains of Lieutenant Joseph F. McMillan’s body is still buried in the wreckage and is beyond recovery.” [Colonel Joseph Barzynski, base commander Westover Field and overall leader of the recovery.]
On April 8th, Air Force salvage men dug up the plane’s engine. It was about thirty feet from the surface This reversed a decision earlier in the week by the Air Force to leave the engine in the hole because of the difficulties of working in the quicksand. Wethersfield and Greater Hartford residents had protested the idea of “leaving” the remains in the pit. No further evidence of the pilot’s corpse was found
“[Colonel Barzynski said,] “Army expert’s have agreed that every possible part of the pilot’s body has been recovered. We have exhausted our resources in assuring this.’
“The Colonel contends that because of the nature of the crash, evidence indicates that ‘the pilot’s body and the engine of the plane were blown into minute pieces by the violent explosion.
“An inquiry board is investigating the reason for the crash, but a field official said that a finding of ‘crash cause unknown’ will be probably be filed.”
As a result of these conclusions Colonel Barzynski officially called off the search and ordered the hole to be closed.
Unlike pseudo-history and conspiracy theory – history frequently tells uncompleted stories. However – with a dash of disputed evidence, a sprinkle of speculation, and a pinch of paranoia….
But not in these pages.
The Complete Notes of Raymond Hamel
“Outline of Activities Re; Interest in P-51 Crash – Wethersfield
[Phone numbers and addresses in the original text have been removed.]
“1 (a) Interest generated by celebration of 50th Anniversary of WW.II, reflections of activities during war years as I could remember.
(b) Gift of new metal detector and possible projects to use it on.
(c) Recollection of viewing the crash site at Wethersfield Country Club during the War (?), in the Winter, on a Holiday Weekend, the day it happened. I knew approximate location.
“2 Find the photo taken at the crash site, found same, among old photos including negatives, no dates on negative, also same strip taken in N.Y.C. (no date)
“3. Visited Town Library, no books or info in pamphlets files
“4. Visited Wethersfield Historical Society, no information, checked old newspape
r clipping files 1942-44
“5. Revisited Wethersfield Library to check if old Fire Dept. or Police records available, including Annual Reports and Dept. reports 1942-46. No mention of fallen aircraft in records. Found and researched old original Tally Town Magazine first issue 1944, checked thru 1946
“5A Went to Ct State Library, on microfilm checked weekends Htfd Courant for 1942-1943 – no info
“6 Visited the Wethersfield Country Club spoke to Secretary Rachel Smith. Was kind to check monthly minutes of club for years 1941-1942 – found nothing. Got copy from Pro Shop of map. She called former club Presidents Mr. Bellcount and Robert Grant. Grant said some time during War, Bellcount says maybe 1943-1944 near the 6th hole. Suggested calling Peachy Hughes. (No information)
“7 Called Ct State Aeronautics was referred to Fred Morgan, he called me back and had interesting conversation with him, said most military accidents not covered by Ct Aero Board, discussed what year it might have been considering deployment of different new P series planes P-38, 39,40, 47 & 51, thought it would be more likely 1944 or 45 since P-51s were then being used in Europe. Suggested I call Col. Jon Jay, Ret. CANG or Col. D’Amato, familiar with Conn. Military History. Suggested The Whispering Death by Boone & Gyton was interesting reading (No Information)
“8 Called Peachy Hughes “Bill” of Hughes Bros. Was on Volunteer Fire Dept. at time. He remembered crash but could not remember year or date, said was off the 6th Fairway 80-90 yard short of Green in Woods, was swampy and remembered was in cold weather, Air Force had laid planks from Highland St to get in equipment to remove plane but did not get much pilot was never recovered. Said he would look around and call me if any information (No information)
“9 Dropped project for a few weeks then stopped at Hughes Bros. Peachy was not there but talked to Beverly Hughes and then Jiggs, then Fire Chief.
“Jiggs remembered he had been discharged from the Merchant Marine late in 44 and it was after that and was on a weekend since he was at a dance at the Edgewood C.C. Sat night, something to do with a Graduation Class get together. Beverly insisted it was more like 1947 period after the War since she could substantiate dates of activities and crash much later than was originally thought. Jiggs said that there was little left to the plane after it exploded and engine and pilot were never found although it was claimed small body parts were found. Said tractor starting sinking in the mud and water-mud/clay engine & body had to be 8-10 feet deep and could not be recovered. Says knows location of wreck but was filled in and graded over. Said check with John Harold.
“10 Re-checked Wethersfield Historical files 1947-48 (no info)
“11 Re-checked Wethersfield Library Annual Reports and Tally magazine for 1947-48 (No info) but found 250 Anniversary Booklet Wethersfield Vol Fire Dept. P-29 list all past important events and listed crashed Army Airplane in Woods @ Country Club in 1948! (No exact date)
“12 Visited Weth Police Dept. Chief Karanikas checked files and oldest records were 1955 said he would speak to Bill Knapp former Police Chief (No info)
“13 Lites blinked on, a week later I called Marge Knapp, Bill’s mother and wife of Al Knapp now deceased. He was Fire Chief for many years and I had opportunity of knowing Al & Marge thru the Rotary Club until his death. I was responsible for administering the Al Knapp Scholarship Fund for several years with the Rotary Club and knew the family well
“Asking Marge if she remembered crash and date in 1948 she said she sure did since they were visiting a friend in Newington that Saturday evening. It was the weekend of Easter 1948 and checking old calendar it was March 28, 1948 Easter Sunday. Marge said when Al got the call on his radio there were no red lites from Newington to the Wethersfield Country Club!
“14. Revisited the Ct State Library and all info I was looking for was found, with front page and follow up articles thru April 1st.
“15 Mid December 1991 walked out to crash site some question to exact location
“16 1/2/92 Visited site again with new metal detector and found several small remains of P-51 Mustang and 50 cents on Incarnation Church property. I am sure was dropped by kids at Church Picnic. Rides and games were 25 cents ea.
“17 Went to get enlargement of my picture and lost dam negative between here and store. Only now have original copy.
“18 1/8/92 Went back to Jiggs and Beverly Hughes, thanked them and asked Jiggs if he has old book with important photos for past Weth. Vol. F.D.
“Bill Klatt had showed it to me many years ago and it might have photos of wreck and he would look and let me know. Suggested Will McHugh
“19 Revisited State Library got better copies of articles. Photo will not reprint,”
Historical Hartford Courant (1923-1984) [Online]