‘Like a giant lawn mower went through there’: Brewer man recalls B-17 crash 70 years ago in western Maine

Posted July 11, 2014, at 5:36 a.m.
Last modified July 11, 2014, at 9:26 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Somewhere under decades of dense forest growth on a remote mountain west of Rangeley are the remains of a B-17 aircraft in which 10 American fliers spent the last moments of their lives July 11, 1944.

The entire crew of young men on their way to Europe during World War II was killed when their plane crashed into Deer Mountain, just a few miles east of the New Hampshire border.

The B-17 bomber left Nebraska’s Kearney Army Air Field early that morning. It was scheduled to touch down at Bangor’s Dow Army Airfield shortly after noon before heading across the Atlantic.

Several days later, Sgt. Mario “Lee” Sirabella, an Army photographer based out of Dow field, was among a group who arrived at the crash site to assess the damage and begin the cleanup and recovery process.

The New York City native, who volunteered for the service along with two friends because they figured they would be drafted anyway, wanted to be an airman but was rejected after he failed a color recognition test. Army officials handed him a camera instead and shipped him to serve stints in Greenland, Iceland and Bangor.

Sirabella, 93, who is a resident of Brewer, remembers the devastation at the crash site. Sirabella ran a photography studio out of his home for 60 years until he shut down his business in 2006.

“Everything was just like a giant lawn mower went through there,” Sirabella said, recalling the swath of trees that had been torn down as the wreckage ripped through the forest. A machine gun was wrapped around a tree, he remembered.

“After I did my photography, I was told I should help retrieve some of the remains,” Sirabella said, adding he was thankful to have forgotten some of the more gruesome details over the years. The wreckage and carnage were spread hundreds of feet from the site of impact.

The men made tents out of parachutes pulled from the plane’s wreckage the night they arrived, Sirabella said. Breakfast was a series of packaged meals also pulled from what was left of the plane.

Bangor was a pit stop for an estimated 6,000 bombers and fighters during the war, Bergquist said. Presque Isle and Houlton saw flights of their own but in smaller numbers than Dow.

The prevailing theory of what led up to the loss of the B-17 is that the crew attempted to divert around serious storms, according to David Bergquist, a Maine historian who has written books about the history of Dow. The original route would have brought the plane over Augusta before turning toward Bangor.

Instead, the crew turned north to avoid the worst of the weather and apparently lost their way. The pilot likely tried to dip the bomber below the clouds, in hopes of spotting a landmark that would guide the plane back toward Bangor or at least an emergency landing strip near Rangeley, but the clouds were too low and too thick. Bergquist said it’s also possible lightning knocked out the aircraft’s radio communications, which would have prevented the plane from getting back on track.

The pilot, 27-year-old John Cast of Springfield, Ohio, had the most training of anyone on the crew. The majority of American pilots in WWII had about six months of training before they were deemed fit to send overseas.

The cloud ceiling that day was around 1,000 feet, Bergquist said. Deer Mountain’s elevation is nearly 3,500 feet. The plane would have circled around the basin, which is bordered by several high hills and mountains. For more than an hour, while the fuel gauge continued to dip, the plane likely circled the area over Lake Winnipesaukee.

It’s theorized that around 1:30 p.m. — an hour after the plane was expected in Bangor — the pilot decided to try to land the bomber in Mooselookmeguntic Lake in hopes of increasing the crew’s chance of survival. He banked to the left but apparently clipped the trees or a ridge of rocks on the mountain, sending the bomber somersaulting violently into the mountainside.

Cast was the oldest member of the B-17 crew. He left behind a 5-month-old son. Also killed were co-pilot John Drake, 21, of Port Arthur, Texas; navigator William Hudgens, 21, of Flagstaff, Arizona; bombardier Robert Talley, 26, of San Angelo, Texas; engineer Wayne McGavran, 24, of Seymour, Iowa; radio operator Cecil Murphy, 21, of Falls City Nebraska; and gunners James Benson, 21, of Clark, South Dakota; Gerald Biddle, 23, of Akron, Ohio; John Jones, 20, of Buffalo, New York; and Clarence Waln, 22, of Ten Sleep, Wyoming.

Another plane discovered the crash site on the afternoon of July 13. The Army organized crews from Presque Isle Army Base and Dow to launch a rescue and cleanup effort at the remote site.

On July 21, 10 flag-draped coffins carrying the remains of the B-17 crewmen were waiting in Bangor’s former Union Station to be sent by rail to the families of the crash victims, according to Bangor historian Dick Shaw.

The Deer Mountain B-17 crash was somewhat overshadowed by another military plane crash in Maine on the same day, which claimed the lives of 17 civilians in a mobile home park and two airmen. That crash in South Portland became known as the Long Creek air tragedy. The cause remains a mystery, but dense fog settled around the airfield around the time of the crash.

Shaw said he wasn’t even aware of the B-17 crash in western Maine until recently, when Bergquist invited him to the Deer Mountain site.

In 2000, a group from New Hampshire dedicated a small stone monument at the site in honor of the airmen killed in the B-17 crash.

To this day, roughly a ton of wreckage is believed to be buried under decades of forest growth on Deer Mountain, Shaw said.

“The non-battle loss of aircraft and crew during WWII was not that uncommon,” Bergquist said. “More than 15,000 American fliers, like our crew of this particular crash, were killed. Some have never been found.”