Unless you are, like me, an aficionado of regional publications from around the country, and in particular in this case Maine’s outstanding DOWN EAST, magazine you might be excused for not knowing the name of Peter Noddin of Aroostook County. Known unofficially as a “wreck chaser”, Noddin is actually an aviation archeologist who – after many years as a fire-fighter – now spends much of his time researching and hunting down the location of plane crashes long hidden in Maine’s dense forests and lake country. During WWII Maine’s air fields and bases were the departure points for thousands of military planes heading across the Atlantic for the war in Europe. Not only is coastal Maine the place where “fog is born”, but where dense forests cover much of a vast landscape.
As a young student pilot I occasionally volunteered to co-pilot flights in light planes for the Vermont Fish & Game Dept. to pick up trapped pine martens in Maine to be ferried to my home state to help in battles against an insurgent porcupine outbreak. At those times I would glance outside the cockpit now and then and wonder where in the world I would set down in an emergency. (It was best not to wonder!)
The exigencies of wartime pressed newly-trained airmen into aircraft just hours off the production line and then over some of the world’s most challenging and dangerous flying routes at a high cost in human lives and equipment. It is estimated that at least 10,000 such “over-flights” of European-bound military aircraft crisscrossed Maine during the war years. It should be remembered as well that many of these complex airplanes were flown by a handful of courageous and little-acknowledged civilian women ferry pilots who posted an unbelievable success record. (They were not even offered government insurance coverage!)
Looking at the larger picture, we know that between December 1941 and 1945, the USAAF suffered more than 52,000 aviation accidents over the continental United States resulting in 14,000 aircraft destroyed and the death of 14,903 airmen. During the same period the U.S. Navy suffered another 8,134 deaths in skies over the U.S., and it is likely that as many as 20,000 of the lives lost in the air war overseas resulted from accidents.
I was 11 years old when my Boy Scout group wandered onto the site of a recent B-17 Bomber crash in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey. The guns and Norden bomb sight had just been removed, but the ten of us would never forget that close-up image of a war that already seemed to dominate our “world”; even close to home, where ten young men could die so easily on a peaceful green American hillside.
Less than ten years later I lay awake on my cot in a Korean night listening to the frantic voice of a Navy Panther pilot who knew his jet was going down as the voice of our Controller tried to guide him over our lines where it would be safe to bail out. Moments later he was close enough that we could hear the crash. When we reached him after early daylight we discovered that he had cleared his cockpit but was too close to the ground for his chute to complete opening. It lay spread out like a banner across the rice paddy. A small group of very tough men stood around weeping unashamedly; he had been so close!
It somehow makes me feel better to know that 75 years later, there are still people like Peter Noddin of Maine who care enough to hunt down and pay their respects to those who fell from the sky to die alone long ago.
A veteran of two wars, an AT-6 “Forward Observation” plane returns from a Korean rice paddy. Al Cooper Photo