A polished and gleaming new granite bench now commemorates two Navy pilots who perished 72 years ago in an aircraft combat training mission above the Norwich State Hospital grounds in Preston, CT .
The bench, with laser-engraved images of ensigns George Kraus and Merle Longnecker, both flanking the Navy Hellcat plane they flew on their final flight, now occupies a space on the lawn outside the town’s public library.
“One of our goals is to honor veterans that may have been forgotten, ” John Waggoner, of the Norwich Area Veterans Council and Life member of Chapter 270 of Hartford, CT, said. “We look at it as part of our history here in Norwich and Preston.”
Based out of the US Naval Auxiliary Air Facility in Charlestown, RI, Kraus, 22, of Wauwatosa, WI, and Longnecker, 20, of New Rockford, ND, were part of a training team learning to intercept planes at night. They flew Hellcat F6F-5Ns that had come out of production five months earlier.
The combat training flight took place Oct. 19, 1944, above Norwich State Hospital when their planes collided, killing both. The Navy’s report said the pursuit plane had overtaken the target plane too fast. Both planes were reportedly flying at about 175 miles per hour.
Some of the debris from the planes remains in isolated wooded sites in Preston. Much of what couldn’t be recovered was buried at the site by the Navy.
Waggoner said about $3, 500 was raised to build the memorial bench at the Preston Library, which is accessible to the public.
To help with the cost, author Richard Vittorioso, of Preston, donated proceeds from initial sales of his book “Forgotten”, which tells the lives of both airmen, to the project.
There was a memorial ceremony in which Vittorioso displayed and spoke about pictures of the crash site and family photos including photos from a scrapbook by Longnecker’s wife, which had the original roses from Longnecker’s funeral taped to one of the pages.
The ceremony was attended by veterans, local and state officials and other guests.
Seeing the bench at the ceremony was a special moment for Margaret Dolan of Norwich. Her husband, Owen, also was a Navy pilot who trained out of Naval Auxiliary Air Station Charlestown before flying a Douglas Skyraider in the Korean War.
“It’s very special to see it, ” Dolan said. “He loved his Navy. He loved flying.”
Dolan also crashed in Nevada, after finishing his tour in Korea.
“He broke his back, his legs, shattered his ankles and wrists, and that was the end of the Naval career, ” his son, Joe, said.
Family members of Kraus and Longnecker were unable to make the trip to Connecticut for the brief ceremony, but sent along notes of greetings and thanks that Waggoner read to the assembled visitors.