Crash site difficult to access but not forgotten

Preston - The mystery of who placed the wreath of silk red, white and blue flowers at the crash site of two World War II Hellcat fighter planes in training has been solved.

But the mystery remains as to who tacked a laminated one-page write-up describing the Oct. 19, 1944 crash to a tree near a visible piece of landing gear debris. Apparently that person also cares deeply about the site, because he or she replaces the paper every once in a while as it becomes weather worn, according to the group of local veterans responsible for the wreath.

"Please respect this site and the men who died here," the bottom of the page reads.

The Norwich Area Veterans' Council has known for years about the dramatic nighttime training flight crash site at the top of a hill deep in the woods of the former Norwich Hospital. Members wanted to do something to mark the nearly forgotten event, even if their own act remained anonymous and unpublicized.

Council member Dennis Baptiste of Norwich said the group decided to place a silk flower wreath at the site last year to mark the Oct. 19 anniversary. At the time, the Preston Redevelopment Agency had not yet contracted with Hull Forestry Products to conduct forestry management culling in the woods surrounding the site, so the veterans - admittedly elderly and not up to a steep hill climb - needed help.

The Laurel Hill Fire Department came to the rescue last October, offering to bring the wreath, made by McKenna's Flower Shop in Norwich, and Veterans Council members to the site using the department's forest firefighting ATV.

"The accessibility is the hard part," Veterans' Council Chairman Bob Murphy said. "It's not easy. You have to go by ATV or horseback."

Murphy was pleased that Hull Forestry Products now is working on the property full time, both because the firm has cleared a better path to the site and provides security against would-be vandals or souvenir collectors.

Unbeknownst to each other, concern about protecting the site from desecration has prompted the PRA and the Veterans' Council to keep silent about the exact location and the wreath placement.

Last month, the PRA and Hull Forestry Products decided to host a Walktober walking tour to show Preston residents and others in the region the beautiful woods, the forestry management in progress and the spectacular view from the top of the cliff on the eastern portion of the former hospital property.

All secrecy was left behind when more than 140 people attended the tour, which included a stop at one of the crash sites. A week later, the Veterans' Council told the Board of Selectmen that the group plans to lay a new wreath at the crash site on Dec. 14 as part of Wreaths Across America.

John Waggoner of Preston, vice president of Chapter 270 of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Norwich, said Hull Forestry's work will make a wreath-laying ceremony easier, but it's still a long walk and climb.

The Veterans' Council likely will hold a public ceremony at the entrance driveway of the Southeast Area Transit headquarters on Route 12 at the base of the wooded hill. Then an ATV can carry the wreath and a few participants to the crash site.

Details of the wreath-laying event still need to be worked out, Murphy said. He would like to involve the local chapter of Young Marines in the effort.

Murphy also would like to raise roughly $1,000 needed to create a memorial plaque to be placed in a location accessible to the public to explain the crash and the need to remember and preserve the site.

In 2006, the state Department of Economic and Community Development funded a study of the site by Archaeological and Historical Services Inc. The report included detailed explanations of the dangerous night flight training fighter pilots undertook, the crash on the night of Oct. 19, 1944, and the debris that remains scatted over a wide area in the woods and recommendations for preserving the site.

On that night, two Hellcat Grumman F6F-5N fighter planes piloted by Ensign George K. Kraus, 22, of Wisconsin and Ensign Merle H. Longnecker, 20, of North Dakota took off from the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Air Field in Rhode Island for pursuit training. Longnecker was the pursuing plane, and sent the radio message "Splash," indicating he was close enough to Kraus' plane for an attack.

That was the last message heard, as the planes apparently collided over the Laurel Hill section of Norwich and crashed about a quarter mile apart in the woods of the state hospital property.

Fire and rescue crews raced to the scene, where the crash sparked a small forest fire. Navy crews from an auxiliary base in Groton secured the site and recovered the bodies the next day. They reportedly buried the debris, but a few segments remain visible in the area. Some trees still show the charred scars of the fire.

The archaeologists' report said this was the third accident in a week's time in night fighter training exercises out of Charlestown, indicating the dangerous nature of the drills. The report included maps showing the two debris fields at the Preston crash sites with a long paragraph with recommendations for the future:

"Preserving these two World War II sites for future generations will require everyone's cooperation," the report said. "Their designation as State Archaeological Preserves makes it illegal to remove any material from the sites either through surface collection or digging. Beyond the threat of incurring legal consequences, however, the public should treat these sites with respect because of their importance as memorials to two young men who gave their lives for their country. Although it might seem interesting to take away a small piece of metal that was once part of an ill-fated World War II aircraft, a little further consideration will show how thoughtless such an action would be. Just as one would not deface a war monument that was located in a highly visible location, so too one should not damage the Hellcat sites by digging or removing material. If everyone who hikes here in the woods treats the crash sites respectfully, the sacrifice made by ensigns George Kraus and Merle Longnecker will long live on in our collective memory."



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