A Canadian flying ace disappears over Long Island
The children ran into the schoolhouse bursting with excitement. After all, none of them had ever seen a plane before.
Finishing up a lunch hour picnic, the kids were distracted from their meal by the object which suddenly swooped over the mountain. The pilot waved from his open air cockpit before pulling up and steering for Long Island Sound. Straining their necks to get a better view, the children frantically waved back. Although they didn't know it at the time, the schoolchildren at Mount Stamford, Connecticut were probably the last ones to see any trace of a genuine Canadian war hero.
Capt. Mansell Richard James hailed from Watford, Ontario. At age 24, he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to the 45th squadron in Italy in February, 1918. James proved to be a proficient driver of the Sopwith Camel, the British-made single seat biplane fighter that was considered state-of-the-art at the time. James had little difficulty mastering the camel's highly sensitive controls which ended the lives of many a flight student.
That summer, he scored 11 victories in the skies over Europe. Incredibly in one day, he shot down three German fighters. James was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the Nov. 2, 1918 edition of the London Gazette the Canadian flying ace was described as "an excellent scout pilot who has at all times shown great skill, courage and determination in attacking enemy machines. During a short period of time he has destroyed 11 enemy aeroplanes."
After the First World War, James returned to Canada and th his flying exploits. Less than a year after the armistice was signed, the ace entered the racing circuit. All over the country, newspapers were sponsoring aerial contests daring pilots to break speed and distance records. In fact, he set a new speed record (albeit briefly) when he beat Melvin Johnson's Atlantic City to Boston time flying 25 miles an hour faster (flying an overall speed of 115 miles an hour). In the process, James won the Boston Globe aerial trophy and collected $1,000 in prize money. He also made history flying the first Sopwith Camel in the U. S.
On the morning of May 29, 1919, he prepared to set out for the return trip to Atlantic City. He had spent the night at an airfield in the town of Lee in west-ern Massachusetts. Already there were omens that James' flight was doomed. First, while James was a gifted pilot he was unfamiliar with the territory he was flying over. Although he was aided by a compass and charts, he forgot to take the device with him when he took off. Secondly, he had been forced down at Lee the day before for unspecified mechanical difficulties.
Technicians rolled out James' Sopwith Camel shortly before 11 a. m. He tested the propeller, then climbed into his cockpit, briefly turning around to wave to the crowd which had gravitated to the airfield. Taking off, he climbed to 1,000 feet, turned sharply and then suddenly nose dived towards the crowd. The Lowell Sun described the breathtaking incident:
"For a moment it looked as if something had gone wrong. When about 50 feet above the crowd he swooped and nosed her up into the sky. But the way that crowd scattered was a caution. And no wonder, for it certainly looked as if that 1,600- pound machine was going to smash right into the crowd and then into the ground."
James' destination was Mitchell Field, about 240 miles to the south on Long Island. The last confirmed sighting of his Sopwith Camel was at 12:30 p. m. over Hancock, Connecticut, about 15 miles southwest of Hartford. After that, Capt. Mansell James simply vanished off the face of the earth.
Departing Lee, James had two hours worth of fuel. The range of the Sopwith Camel was 300 miles (485 km).When he was overdue at Mitchell airfield, the Aero Club of America launched a search. The worst was feared when J. R. Murdock, superintendent of the South New England Telephone exchange at Torrington, Connecticut canvassed all the homes in his area along James' expected flight path. There was hope he had landed and reached an isolated farmhouse to seek help, yet none of Murdock's customers saw the biplane.
As search planes took to the sky, the club offered a $250 reward for the finding of the James aircraft. Help came from other quarters. Lieut. C. A. Edson mobilized an army of boy scouts in the towns along the plane's course.
For days, the boys scoured the woods in small parties and quizzed potential witnesses, yet nothing came of the effort.
Meanwhile, two possible eyewitness accounts confused the search which had now enlisted American, Canadian and British military aircraft. First, a group of schoolchildren may have seen the Sopwith Camel during a picnic on Mount Stamford. If that was the case, he made it to the coast and may have dropped into Long Island Sound.
Then came a report on June 6 from two telegraph operators south of Poughkeepsie, New York. Willard Everitt and Harry Elliott claimed they saw a plane matching James' description striking the Hudson River about three miles south of the town. The two men had been warned a plane was coming their way by a telegraph operator in Marlboro. While they couldn't recall the exact date, it was determined to have been around the time James was flying to Long Island.
Early on there had been a theory that James had changed his course and headed to Toronto. Would this explain a plane crashing in the Hudson, which was way off-course?
The James family travelled to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to monitor the search effort but they held out little hope. They offered up a $500 reward along with money raised by the Canadian Aero Club.
His uncle, Dr. J. F. James, of Toronto, told reporters he believed his nephew had crashed and died of exposure somewhere in the New England wilderness. After a few weeks, there was still no trace of the ace. Pieces of wreckage washed up near Branford on Long Island Sound but it could not be verified as coming from the Sopwith Camel.
There were no solid clues for two years. Then during a sailing trip on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, a fisherman's net snagged on something heavy. Immediately speculation was this was the lost airplane. However, the only thing divers retrieved was a large submerged log.
One strange lead emerged six years later in December, 1925. A hunter named Warren Campbell became separated from his friends somewhere in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. He claimed to have stumbled across a small plane half-buried in dense brush. Campbell assumed others had seen it, as the wreckage
appeared to have been there for a few years. He made his way out of the woods and rejoined the hunting party. It was only then that the possible connection with the lost Canadian was made. Campbell was unable to retrace his steps and a subsequent search turned up nothing.
The only problem with the sighting is it was made in the forests near Tyringham, which is about five miles south of Lee. If James had crashed that soon after take-off, how does anyone explain the other sightings? Nevertheless, the disappearance of Capt. Mansell James has been the stuff of legends for the residents of the Berkshire area.
If any wreckage of the Sopwith Camel remains on land, then only the engine would remain. While this Canadian aviation pioneer's fate may never be known, he will not be forgotten for his war record and achievements in the early days of flight.
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer reporter