The Ghosts of Charlestown’s Naval Auxiliary Air Station
Spirits of pilots and passengers haunt the deep woods of South County in an area exhumed by a lifelong Charlestown hobbyist.
Illustration by Kim Herbst
Photography by Michael Cevoli
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The pilots who took off from Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Air Station were pioneers of night flying, the ghosts of south county but many of them didn’t make it. Some of their spirits may still be roaming the woods of Charlestown.
Then the pitch of the engine changed, and Elsa Webster stopped to listen. The plane’s throaty roar picked up an octave, then another, rising to a steady, high-pitched whine. Then a thud shook the ground, followed by a black plume of smoke rising from the Streeter Farm barely a mile away.
By the time Elsa got there, ten acres of the Streeters’ woods had been charred, and volunteer firefighters were hosing down the embers. She walked to a smoky clearing where the wreckage lay but stopped a couple of hundred feet shy of the crash, her progress arrested by the sight of strips of flesh hanging from black branches.
Some Navy men came and took two ten-quart milking pails from Linwood Streeter, which they used to gather what they could find of the remains of the pilot. According to one pilot who then flew out of Charlestown, it was standard procedure to place what remained of a dead pilot into a coffin with a few sacks of concrete spread evenly to simulate the weight of a whole man. Then the remains were sealed tight and flown home, in this case to Jersey City, to the loved ones of twenty-two-year-old ensign James Gannon.
Although the Navy gathered some of Gannon’s remains, it may have left behind his soul. For Gannon seems to be one of the ghosts that psychics say are currently roaming the woods on the late Elsa Webster’s property.
Gannon’s plane, a Grumman F6F-3N Hellcat night fighter, had gone down in sparse woods on the edge of a sheep pasture. Several years after it crashed, a farmer from the Kenyon section of Charlestown hauled away the tail and a crumpled section of the fuselage to sell as scrap metal.
Nature also took its course. The sheep pasture remained a field, but the woods grew thick around the crash site, obscuring the thin scar that the plane’s nose and wings had sliced deep into the sandy soil.
Still, Elsa Webster didn’t forget the crash and spoke of it often. In the summer of 1961, her bored fourteen-year-old son, Larry, struck out to find the crash site. A husky, broad-shouldered teen, Larry had a mechanical mind. When he found the site, Larry plumbed its depths with a shovel and sifter. The airplane’s engine was twelve feet long and still stuck in the crater. He dug deeper and deeper. Alongside the engine, he found James Gannon’s bones.
Larry kept the bones separate from the pieces of metal that he dug up, storing a leg bone, a piece of pelvis and ribs in a large plastic bucket that he kept on the site. He smuggled a fragment of leg bone into Chariho High School to show his biology teacher, who ordered him to take it away. When the Kenyon farmer who had salvaged the scrap metal heard about the bucket of bones from his teenage son, a schoolmate of Larry’s, he was furious and took them away for respectful burial.
By his junior year in high school, Larry had hauled 3,000 pounds of airplane parts from the site back to his family’s farmhouse, where he piled them out beyond the barn. While most kids had model airplane kits, Larry was working with the real thing. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Larry says. “I took everything apart. I undrilled every little rivet. I learned how airplanes were constructed.”
But Larry’s interest went beyond the wreckage. He still had a burning question: Who was the guy flying the plane? “The Streeters couldn’t remember the first name,” he says. (During college, he tracked down Gannon’s identity in death records at Charlestown Town Hall.)
Larry had just about finished studying Gannon’s crash site when a cousin told him at a Christmas dinner about another site, this one in the banks of the Pawcatuck River.
Larry spent a summer in diving goggles pulling up parts of another Grumman F6F-3N Hellcat, which hit the river’s bed and banks in 1944. He catalogued every part before piling them all in a second heap.
It was the beginning of a collection that now stretches through his property in long, high piles that some think attract the ghosts of those who died in the wreckage.
The pilots who flew from the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Air Station, including future President George H.W. Bush, crashed a lot. They were pioneers of night flying when radar was in its infancy and flying in the dark was almost like flying blind. Twenty-one planes that took off from Charlestown between June 1943 and June 1944 crashed: almost one wreck every other week.
Other pilots went down after coming out of Quonset Point Naval Air Station. One smashed into a house in Coventry and killed a man’s family while he was at work; two plunged into Worden Pond. Another burned down a house in Stonington, Connecticut.
While Larry was still in high school, he found the wreckage of the Curtiss SB2C-4 Helldiver in Worden Pond and hauled it ashore in a skiff. He was careful not to mingle parts from each crash site as he established pile number six.
Then in 1969, he found his Holy Grail: a wreck site in a nearly impenetrable cedar swamp behind Charlestown Town Hall. “That was a hellhole,” Larry says of the crater carved by the impact of a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat flown by a young naval lieutenant named Charles Stimson.
Larry found an airspeed indicator that showed the Hellcat moving at 330 knots when it hit the bog, leaving a watery crater black with oil. The cold spring water and oil staved off decomposition, preserving parts of the body for decades after the crash. “I’m down there yanking on this and that,” Larry says. “This whole spinal column comes up, flopping around.”