Erskine tells story of Stonington's war dead
Stonington — William Ireland was killed in action on Aug. 6, 1945, when the USS Bullhead was sunk by a Japanese bomber in the Java Sea.
The young Stonington man, who had a wife and two infant daughters at home, served as a second-class torpedo mate on the Electric Boat-built sub and was listed as missing in action following the attack that claimed 80 lives.
“It was probably the last Navy ship that was sunk in the war and it was probably the same day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,” said David Erskine, the town’s retired police chief.
Erskine was speaking to a full house at the La Grua Center in Stonington Borough last week, after months researching the lives and deaths of 64 local men, more than two dozen of them Stonington High School graduates, some just 18 or 19, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
It was a personal research project for the 72-year-old Erskine, who was a police officer here for 43 years, the last 10 serving as chief, that was set in motion decades ago when he began to wonder about the names on the war memorials outside Town Hall.
“I would come out the door after a meeting and people would be looking at the monuments and saying, ‘Who’s that?’ And, ‘Which Sylvia or Shea is that?’ And I would look and think, ‘Well, I don’t know them all, but I’m going to tackle it.”
After starting the project in December 2015, he was talking with local genealogist Suzanne Matteson after church one Sunday when she asked what he was up to. Erskine told her about the war dead project, and Matteson, 60, an Army veteran, immediately volunteered to help. Bob Suppicich, 76, who serves with Erskine on the board of the Stonington Historical Society, said he wanted to help, too.
For months, Erskine and Matteson pored over old newspaper clips and files, looked at high school and college yearbooks, visited historical societies, libraries and armories, examined military indexes, and used online tools like virtual memorials and ancestry search engines to learn whatever they could about the town’s casualties in the three wars.
“I can’t tell you how many emails and phone calls went back and forth,” said Erskine, explaining that not only were the three communicating among themselves, but with the deceased soldiers' relatives whom they were tracking down all across the country.
They ended up with 64 names, including some who are memorialized at the VFW in Mystic or on the monument along Route 27 in Old Mystic. And they found two names that need to be added to the memorials at Town Hall.
One is Staff Sgt. Nelson Sanschagrin, who lived on Stillman Avenue in Pawcatuck and worked for the town’s highway department. According to the website of the American Air Museum in Britain, he was a ball turret gunner on the B-17 Flying Fortress "The Eager Beaver" and died in a mid-air collision over the English Channel on Aug. 31, 1943.
Sanschagrin had already participated in missions over Germany and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor and Exceptional Achievement with the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in England.
Sanschagrin left a wife and an 8-month-old son.
“He never saw that son,” said Erskine, who added that he recently was in touch with the son and told him what he was doing.
“And I told him, his father’s name is going to be on that monument,” he added.
'Surrounded on three sides'
At the presentation, Erskine read the name of every war casualty as a photograph of the man was displayed on a screen. He gave his home address, rank and branch of service, and a few details about his life and death. There were murmurs and sighs from the audience as he spoke, as relatives and others felt the emotion of the deaths.
James Greenwood of Pawcatuck was the town’s first casualty in World War II when he died at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Henry H. Sebastian of Mystic died of pneumonia in a Korean POW camp in January 1951. The last letter he sent home was dated Nov. 17, 1950, and he wrote: “We are only two miles from the enemy, Mom, and surrounded on three sides.”
A 1971 graduate of Rutgers University, Allan L. Dunning lived on Main Street in town and was killed Oct. 19, 1973, at the age of 23.
Dunning was a pilot, but the day he died he was a passenger in an F4B that crashed on take-off from the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea into the South China Sea. The pilot survived with minor injuries.
Erskine shared personal details about every one of the deceased.
Richard Williams, a Stonington High graduate and a member of the 1939 state championship football team and the 1940 state championship track team, died at the hands of a German sniper in World War II. He had worked at Electric Boat and kept a farm, with 100 head of cattle. When he died, he left a wife and two little boys.
John Dion of Pawcatuck was also killed in action in World War II, serving with the 34th Infantry Division in Italy. A football player whom everyone called “The Jeep,” he left high school early in 1943 to enter the service.
'Their last seconds'
As Erskine shared the stories he added comments about siblings of the deceased who also joined the service and how some of the dead came home on funeral trains.
He marveled at how many local athletes would go off to serve their country, and die, in these wars.
Howard Chase Jr. of Pawcatuck was an only child and worked on the family farm. He graduated from Stonington High, where he was captain of the track team in 1950 and died in action in Korea in 1952.
Loring M. Bailey died March 15, 1970, in Vietnam. He was 24 and a newlywed. His mother was a schoolteacher in town and wearing a green dress on St. Patrick’s Day when her husband and a military officer came to give her the news. She never wore that green dress again.
“The thing about this is, we learned about their last seconds,” said Matteson. “Whether they went down in a submarine, or they were in a plane that went down over the English Channel, or they were just standing there talking to someone and died in an explosion.”
For Erskine, the project was both consuming and rewarding.
“I wanted to make sure we had photos of every one of them, and that it was documented how they died so they wouldn’t be forgotten,” he said. “I was inquisitive myself, and I just knew I had to document this.”
Matteson was relentless in helping him, Erskine said, tracking down details and photographs until they found all 64.
“She reminds me of Colombo,” he said. “I think she had people cleaning out their attics to find photos for us.”
But Suppicich said it was Erskine, and his longevity and familiarity with the town, that made the project a success.
“He was the man to do this because his inventory of people and knowledge is enormous,” said Suppicich. “Whether you go into a cemetery or see the mailboxes on the streets, he knows a higher percentage than anyone else period. … So thus he starts off on this project with an enormous reservoir of knowledge and then his goodwill. If he asks someone for something, they respond. They are not talking with a stranger. They remember him from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.