Bad weather gave WWII-bound flight crew a Christmas in Maine
BANGOR, Maine — One of the best Christmases Lyman Blackwell said he ever experienced was in 1944 when he was stranded in Bangor on his way to war.
Blackwell was a 21-year-old technical sergeant from Colorado assigned to a B-17 Flying Fortress. He was part of a nine-man crew, and would serve as a flight engineer and operate the top turret gun on the plane — one of thousands sent overseas with the goal of bombing Germany into submission.
They were to fly to Europe by way of Labrador, Greenland and Iceland before arriving in Scotland, but the first stop was Bangor.
Blackwell, now 90 and living in Green Valley, Ariz., isn’t positive about the dates anymore, but he believes his plane and about a dozen other B-17 bombers with crews who had been training in Lincoln, Neb., landed at Bangor’s Dow Army Airfield — today’s Bangor International Airport — around Dec. 20 or 22.
They were only supposed to stay one night, but Blackwell said an ice storm and frigid temperatures grounded the planes for about a week. Once ice built up on the wings and in the engines, it was hard to get rid of it. De-icing technology wasn’t what it is today. Hangar space was limited and the base’s propane-powered heaters weren’t enough to get the B-17s thawed out, Blackwell said.
So, the airmen were stuck and “fully expected to be in for a miserable Christmas,” according to Blackwell.
“They froze us to the base,” Blackwell said of the military leadership. Commanding officers didn’t want to let the B-17 crews go into town. Their mission was too vital and too urgent, as the planes and crews were needed on the front lines as soon as possible. The U.S. wanted to end the war in Europe quickly so it could turn attention to the war in the Pacific, and relentless bombing runs on German targets were vital to that effort.
Toward that effort, 1944 was the only year during the war that the military kept the airfield open in the winter, according to David Bergquist, a Maine historian who has written books about the history of the base. Clearing the snow and ice off the airfield and planes was a tiresome chore, but keeping the route through Bangor open was vital to keeping a steady stream of bombers heading to Europe.
Commanders didn’t want their pilots, navigators or gunners going in town, gallivanting, getting drunk or going missing, causing further delays, according to Blackwell.
Then, on Christmas Eve, something changed.
“Someone must have pulled some strings,” Blackwell said, because the stranded bomber crews were ushered onto military trucks and taken to a Christmas celebration set up by members of the community. Blackwell is pretty sure it was at the YMCA.
“We found the Y full of festive decorations, friendly faces, pretty girls and plenty to eat and drink,” Blackwell said. He remembers dancing with one particular girl to “Don’t Fence Me In” sung by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. He wishes he hadn’t forgotten her name.
“She was a great dancer,” he said.
After the party wound down, the crews returned to the barracks, “tired and tipsy,” Blackwell said.
Inside the barracks, the crewmen each found packages sitting on their bunks. Blackwell was perplexed, as no family or friends could have known he would have been stranded in Bangor for several days.
He opened it to find a green tie and a note from a girl who was a student at a local elementary school.
A day or two after Christmas, the B-17s finally thawed out and continued to Scotland.
That tie stayed with Blackwell throughout the war. In the later years of the war, airmen were expected to fly 35 missions, increased from 25, before they got their ticket home. After mission 33 for Blackwell, the war came to an end.
“The green tie was there to give me hope and courage each time I climbed into the B-17,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell called the Bangor Daily News earlier this month to retell his Christmas story after he ran into a woman from Bangor in line at a store in Arizona. He told her the story, and she suggested he call the local paper.
Unfortunately, Blackwell lost the tie along with other war memorabilia over the years, but he says it stood for him as a symbol of generosity and a community’s undying appreciation for those who serve.
Blackwell wonders to this day who was responsible for turning what he thought would be one of his dreariest holidays into one of the best. It’s likely that person was Madeline Shaw. Shaw was hired by the military to organize parties, sporting activities, dances and social events for the base, and to act as a liaison between the soldiers and community members, according to Bergquist. Shaw likely would have been the person to convince military brass that it was worth throwing the stranded airmen a party.
Shaw was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts before she transferred to Dow, and it’s believed she left Maine after the war. One of Shaw’s first accomplishments after arriving at the Bangor base in 1943 was securing a jukebox for the soldiers, according to the Dow Field Observer, a newsletter published on the base throughout the war.
In a story announcing Shaw’s arrival, the Observer wrote, “Not the least of her activities is her ability to make you feel right at home. She has a natural charm and a friendly smile. Her aim is to make your off-duty hours more interesting. Incidentally, she has a sympathetic ear, so whenever you feel blue or have a problem that a feminine mind can help untangle, she’d like to have a chat with you.”
Blackwell was hesitant to say much about his postwar life — he wanted this story to be more about Bangor than himself, he said during a recent interview. Nonetheless, some of the things he did after the war ought to be mentioned.
He returned from the war and jumped back into college, graduating in 1950 from the University of Colorado with a degree in electrical engineering. From then on, much of his life was spent tinkering and inventing, including a device credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.
In the 1960s, Blackwell had a big hand in developing the first affordable, commercially viable smoke detectors that could be used in homes. A man named Duane Pearsall often gets credit for the breakthrough, but he used Blackwell’s device, a meter that measured ions in invisible smoke particles, to develop a smoke detector that would work better, and on a large-scale commercial basis. Blackwell convinced the company he was working for at the time to give Pearsall permission to use his patent to move the development of home-based smoke detectors forward.
The story was featured in an article earlier this year in the NFPA Journal, the official magazine of National Fire Protection Association.
Blackwell also has patents on Geiger counters, mining machinery, equipment to control the spray of pesticides on apples, as well as a range of medical technologies including electroneurodiagnostic, or EEG, and electrocardiographic, or EKG, machines.
He worked with NASA in an attempt to develop a system for generating electrical power on spacecraft, but the project was eventually dropped.
A video posted on YouTube features Blackwell talking about some of the inventions and patents he has worked on in his career.
He said he “retired” from consulting at age 85, but still works on his inventions to keep his mind sharp. His latest endeavor is a device that uses gravity to create electricity. Unlike wind or solar rays, gravity is always working, he said. The device features a heavy weight and stores energy as the weight falls. It works, but is not at all efficient, Blackwell said. The problem keeps his mind engaged and entertained, he said.
Blackwell would like to send his thanks and appreciation to Bangor residents, especially anyone who might have been around for that Christmas Eve 1944, for that party 69 years ago.
“I’ll forever be grateful to the people of Bangor. Each holiday, I remember their kindness and generosity,” he said.