SEARSPORT, Maine — Carolyn Clark was working at the bank in downtown Searsport during the afternoon of Oct. 20, 1947, a day that seemed ordinary until she heard a noise and glanced out the window of the Merrill Trust Company.
“I saw a plane, lower than the top of the trees, heading toward the Mill Pond,” she said. “Then it landed in the Mill Stream.”
What she witnessed were some of the last earthly moments of Maj. Kenneth G. Smith, a 33-year-old World War II flying ace from Boise, Idaho. After the war, Smith had come to Maine to be a commander of the 37th Fighter Squadron at Dow Army Airfield in Bangor. On that autumn day 68 years ago, he had taken a group of pilots on an aerobatics training mission. The formation climbed to 18,500 feet and did some climbing turns, but something went wrong for the decorated pilot, who couldn’t pull his heavy P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane out of a flat spin.
It spun to the ground and crashed in Searsport, creating a large fireball near the heart of the town, according to the Maine Aviation Historical Society, and Smith was killed on impact.
Searsport Town Historian Charlene Knox Farris said that in Smith’s final actions of maneuvering the airplane away from buildings and people in the center of town and into the bed of the Mill Stream, he did something heroic.
“Quite simply put, he saved this town from burning and saved the lives of the people in town,” she said. “Everyone who was there agrees he deliberately guided the plane down [to the Mill Stream]. I call him ‘the man who saved Searsport.’”
However, for many years the dramatic crash and Smith’s actions have been all but forgotten by the residents of Searsport. Farris, a longtime fifth grade teacher, said when she was a child, she was told that the pilot’s body remained in Mill Pond. She used to tell her students about the plane crash every year around Halloween, and last October, she did a presentation on Searsport ghost stories for the town historical society.
Jack Merrithew, the vice chairman of the Searsport Board of Selectmen, listened to those ghost stories, and instead of being spooked, the story of the plane crash fired him with determination.
“He said it was a shame the town had never done anything for [Smith],” Farris said. “He thought the town should be honoring this man.”
Nearly a year later, Searsport is doing just that.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Union Hall in Searsport, there will be a memorial ceremony to honor the pilot. Farris said the town will unveil a plaque and will welcome military dignitaries, the Searsport District High School band and elected officials, as well as people who witnessed the crash and its aftermath. Although Farris and others have tried to track down Smith’s surviving family members from Idaho, they have so far been unsuccessful.
Smith had a wife but no children, Farris said. He was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadron, made up of American volunteers, and later transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces. Smith flew 126 combat missions as a pilot in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs and is credited with having downed six German planes. He was awarded the Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters. His peacetime work in Bangor had begun in late 1946 at what was then Dow Army Airfield. The facility became Dow Air Force Base in 1947.
“He was a wonderful man, by all accounts, and came back here … to finish his hitch,” Farris said.
The pilot, a hero during the war, was a hero on the last day of his life, too, she said, when he spared Searsport.
“A different kind of hero,” Farris said.
The plane crash frightened some people in Searsport.
“One woman who lived close to the plane crash scene said she was so afraid she hid in the kitchen closet,” Farris said. “The war hadn’t been over that long, and she didn’t know what was going on.”
At the time of the crash, locals reported that people ran to the burning wreckage to help the pilot. But Smith had been thrown from the plane by the impact and was lying face down in the brook behind the tail of the burning plane, according to the Maine Aviation Historical Society.
Clark said her husband, Charles Clark, had flown B-17s in World War II and at the time of the crash he was working at one of Searsport’s three fertilizer plants. He heard the commotion and borrowed a car to drive to the crash. There, he found Smith’s parachute and covered his body with the fabric so others wouldn’t see.
The local firefighters couldn’t extinguish the aviation gasoline fire with water and had to wait for a crew to come from Dow in Bangor with a crash fire truck, an ambulance and the military police, according to the Maine Aviation Historical Society. Those responders put the fire out with carbon dioxide.
“It occurred to me that the plane could have wiped out the building where I was working,” Carolyn Clark said. “My life was probably saved — and to me, that’s important. My opinion would be that he did his best to do the least amount of harm he could.”