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Conn. town marks 75th anniversary of deadly Hellcat crash

Planes piloted by Ensigns Merle Longnecker, left, and George Kraus collided over Preston, Conn., on Oct. 19, 1944.

By ERICA MOSER | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: October 20, 2019

PRESTON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Former State Troubadour Tom Callinan sang of pitch-black skies and remembrance, of playing “an aerial game of tag” 6,000 feet in the sky.

In between the verses, five Preston Plains Middle School students sang the chorus: “‘Splash’ came the sound from the radio, then ‘crash’ went two planes in the sky, and the flames from the Hellcats’ inferno claimed their dreams in the woods, where they died.”

The song Callinan penned told of the deaths of Ensigns George Kraus of Wisconsin and Merle Longnecker of North Dakota, who were respectively 22 and 20 when their Hellcat Grumman F6F-5N fighter planes collided in a training exercise above Preston on Oct. 19, 1944.

The song was one of many tributes in a program the Norwich Area Veterans Council held outside Preston Public Library on Saturday to memorialize the 75th anniversary of their deaths. Promptly at the scheduled time of 1:55 p.m., the U.S. Navy performed a flyover of F-18s in a missing man formation.

This followed the posting of the colors, reading of proclamations from Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom and Preston Selectman Lynwood Crary, singing of the national anthem and “God Bless America,” and an oral history of the crash from John Waggoner, president of the veterans council. Marvin Serruto, a member of the veterans council’s World War II Pilots Committee, served as master of ceremonies.

The nephew of Longnecker, also named Merle Longnecker, came in from North Dakota with his wife, Sandy, for the ceremony. The younger Longnecker served in Vietnam.

“I’m not a public speaker, but I feel myself among friends here,” he said, expressing his gratitude. He commented, “Them two young fellows didn’t die in combat, but they sure would’ve given it a shot.”

A dangerous maneuver ends in death

“There were no stars; it was black as the ace of spades, and no moon, nothing,” Waggoner explained of the night Longnecker and Kraus flew out of the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Field in Rhode Island.

One plane was acting as the enemy target and the other as the hunter, and they had to be within 200 to 300 yards of each other when doing passes, he said.

After three and a half hours of flying, Longnecker was 1,000 feet above Kraus when he had to do a dangerous maneuver: an inverted roll, come back around and dive at a 60-degree angle at about 160 miles per hour, Waggoner said.

The last radio transmission heard that night was Longnecker saying “Splash,” indicating his pursuit plane was within range of Kraus. He had misjudged the target speed, and the planes’ wings touched before veering apart.

Speaking to The Day after the hourlong ceremony, Anne Gray recalled hearing the crash. She was 10 at the time and ran into her parents’ room. She remembers seeing part of a plane in the trees, and going back to the crash site in the Preston woods a couple times as a child.

Gray said she decided to attend the ceremony partially upon “realizing there was hardly anybody else alive that had actually heard it overhead.”

The veterans council started putting wreaths on the wreckage site in 2012, but their actions didn’t become public until after a Preston Redevelopment Agency walking tour of the area in 2013.

Since it’s a protected site, the veterans council didn’t want people going to the crash site, so it instead opted to raise money for a memorial. In 2016, the group dedicated a bench outside the library, and this year, members are installing permanent markers at the crash sites.

e.moser@theday.com

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