In going through letters that my father, Bob Cross ’45, had written and received during World War II, I came across one written seventy years ago by my grandfather, Leroy Cross, whose office as faculty secretary was in Massachusetts Hall. At about 3:30 on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 1, 1943, members of the Bowdoin community and residents of Brunswick were startled by a loud explosion:
“…the general rumor was that an airplane had crashed just north of the campus. Dean Nixon accompanied me as far as the church on the hill…I saw a large part of the office force and the student body, including many army boys in uniform, so I guess we all had the same desire to help. … [a] Corsair plane from the Air Station with a British pilot more or less exploded in the air, the two machine guns falling to the street, one in front of the College Spa [a restaurant located across Maine Street from the northwest corner of the campus] and the other near the little triangle north of the First Parish Church.
One wing fell between the Carpenter Shop and the old Bath St. School [Rhodes Hall], with some debris falling on the newly erected hockey rink on the Delta…The fuselage fell between Mr. Blackman’s house and LeBeau’s funeral home just north of it on Federal St., perhaps 15′ from the latter house, ironically enough, for the pilot [Royal Navy Sub-lieutenant John D. Wallace] was found dead in the cockpit…The engine fell across Federal St. at the corner of Maple, near a house there. It seems a miracle that none of the falling wreckage struck a building or a person in such a thickly settled area.”
After an initial period of chaos, marines from the Brunswick Naval Air Station and local police, assisted by students enrolled in Army and Navy reserve training programs at the College, were able to keep onlookers and souvenir hunters away from the main crash site at the foot of the hill on Federal Street.
The naval air station in Brunswick was constructed in March of 1943, and was commissioned in April as a Royal Navy training facility for pilots of the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, a gull-winged fighter-bomber that could also land on aircraft carriers. I was surprised to see a tabulation of aviation accidents involving the training flights in Brunswick during the war. Hardly a week went by without two or three reported accidents (nose-overs when brakes were applied too suddenly; accidents while taxiing, landing gear failures). Corsairs on training flights from Brunswick were involved in five mid-air collisions that claimed ten lives between 1943 and 1945. The December 1 crash was the result of a structural failure, as SubLt Wallace attempted to pull out from a steep dive. For a college and a town that had largely experienced the human costs of the war at some geographical distance, it was a painful and sobering first-hand view.
The collection of my father’s letters also included V-Mail images – written or typed letters that were photographed stateside and printed from rolls of film at overseas destinations as a way to economize space and weight on airplanes. One folded V-Mail letter, postmarked December 11, 1943, was sent with the usual 6-cent air mail stamp instead of being photographed. Apparently Dad had sent a Christmas card to “Everyone at Massachusetts Hall,” and this was “everyone’s” response – holiday greetings from the entire administration, from a president who had led Bowdoin through an earlier world war to secretaries who had been hired right out of high school in 1943.
A generation of Bowdoin alumni submitted their applications for admission to Director of Admissions and Professor of Mathematics Edward Hammond, met with Deans Paul Nixon or Nat Kendrick for advice (or for what might be described as “the usual reasons”), requested official copies of transcripts from Registrar Helen Johnson, or received their first Alumni Fund appeal from Seward Marsh, Class of 1912.
Clara Hayes was Casey Sills’s secretary for his entire tenure as president, from 1918 to 1952. She was a model of efficiency, and clearly was someone not to be trifled with. Mrs. Hayes was deeply loyal to Sills, despite her personal misgivings about his participation in Democratic Party politics. Once, when a member of the Governing Boards inquired if Mr. Sills was in, she stiffened, and announced tartly that “PRESIDENT Sills was in Washington for a meeting with MISTER Truman.”
While the College administration no longer fits within the cozy confines of Massachusetts Hall, the same spirit of dedication and personal attention to students and to alumni remains, even with a student body more than three times larger than it was back in December of 1943, and with an alumni body that has seen a four-fold growth over that same interval.
In the spirit of that V-mail letter sent to a U.S. Army corporal stationed in North Africa in December of 1943, the Bowdoin community sends best wishes to each of you for the upcoming holiday season and for the year ahead.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations