Whispering Pines: December 1943

Whispering PinesIn this month’s column, holiday greetings found inside family letters from World War II remind John Cross ’76 about the spirt of the season and the Bowdoin spirit.

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


  1. Emmett Lyne '81 says:

    Wow. What an amazing Whispering Pines. Thanks to the generations of the Cross family that have helped make Bowdoin such a great place, for so long–unlike any other.

  2. John,

    I always look forward to reading each new Whispering Pines article. Once again, well done.

  3. “…my father told me about that…”

    My father, Richard W. Benjamin ’44, who had been a sophomore sitting with a group of fellow students in Moore Hall on the afternoon of December 7, 1941, enlisted in the Army at the end of that academic year. By a series of coincidences he found himself back at Bowdoin as a part of the US Army Air Force Meteorology program during the winter of ’43-’44. Although he was always reticent (at best) at sharing stories of any of the experiences of his life, he did confide to me many years later his recollections of the day “a Corsair from the Naval Air Station blew up over campus”, and of being involved after the fact. I suspect strongly that he was among that group of students mentioned in the letter who were called to lend assistance.

    Based on memories shared with me by my mother long after I had grown up and graduated from Bowdoin myself, I was there that day as well. My parents were married during the summer of ’43, following his enlistment, and it happened that my mother managed to find a job in the Bursar’s office and was taking advantage of the opportunity to be with her new husband until the time came for him to “ship out” to what turned out to be the Marianas Islands. One thing led to another and, as she confided to me as a much older lady, I had been conceived several weeks earlier, “right there”.

    Bob Benjamin ’66

  4. Claude Bonang says:

    Hi John,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your Whispering Pines: December 1943, as I do all of your Whispering Pines articles, and I hereby express my thanks to you for providing the Bowdoin Community with such interesting stories.
    I’m sending along what I wrote about the explosion of the Corsair over Brunswick in my book “Memories in Verse and Prose”.
    Claude Bonang ’52
    /Users/claude/Desktop/Plane Explosion .jpg @ 25% (RGB*).pdf

  5. Tom Sides '68 says:

    There is something comforting about the continuity of the Cross Family at Bowdoin, and your multigenerational prowess at communicating so well to the Bowdoin community. It is part of why I have looked forward to the Whispering Pines for so many years.

  6. John, The pines might whisper, but I can’t help SHOUTING thank you for your always embracing remembrances.

  7. John Emery 1967 says:

    One of my work-study jobs — the first year work-study existed — was in the special collections department of H/L Library. It was the most fun I ever had and got paid for it. One of my projects was to alphabetize WWII letters between President Sills and Bowdoin alums. It was illuminating stuff for a kid born in the waning months of that war. I may well have handled your father’s Christmas card which occasioned the response you’ve shown. Thanks for the evocation of a dark but stimulating time — I mean the war, not my sophomore year while I was working at the Library.

  8. Wow, John, I had no idea that you are the third generation of the Cross family to work at the College. As always you’ve written another fascinating story of Bowdoin lore.

  9. Barbara Kaster says:

    Wonderful stories! Bless your family for all their service to the college. Love what Clara Hayes said!!

  10. Keith Halloran '77 says:

    WOW! What a story!

  11. Dick Moll says:

    The terms “Bowdoin College” and “Cross Family” are interchangeable. Thanks, John, for enhancing the strong tradition and contributions of both.

  12. Mac Campbell '72 says:

    Another little gem of a history article, great photo documentation and all. I love reading these each month.

  13. Charlie Ranlett "54 says:

    What memories!! Although my years at Bowdoin (1950-1954) were a bit later than the key story of John’s article, many of the characters are the same–my good friend Roy Cross riding his bicycle across campus, Clara Hayes suffering no fools gladly, etc. Thanks.

  14. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    Yes, this is yet another great Bowdoin story.

    Thanks, John, for helping us learn more about–and then remember–the past we share.

  15. Thanks John, for a fascinating chapter in Navy – Bowdoin history. My father was deeply involved in the war, the Navy and aeronautical engineering. The Navy Corsair was mythical – just like the Spitfire, Lightning and Mustang. There are Eagles, Harriers, Hornets, Tomcats, Ospreys and Raptors these days, but somehow these modern names do not evoke the same power.

  16. Bill Shoemaker 50 says:

    I have been away so I am playing catchup. During 1943 I had a Summer job with Warren Bros Co. We were repairing or
    Sealing the runways at Trenton Air Station near Bar Harbor. That Air Station also was used to train British pilots for carrier
    landings. There were no accidents while I was there but every day at 10 AM and 3 PM the pilots landed to have tea.

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