It was August of 2008 and my son Chris and I had just spent a week canoeing and hiking up in the Allagash. We had come down to the Greenville, Maine area for three days to get away from our own cooking, do some laundry, take a shower, get some gas for the truck and for the chance to sleep in a bed.
The hot shower was the best part. Trying to clean up in the lakes of northern Maine is problematic because of the leeches. According to the State of Maine DEP, “(Leeches are) a common nuisance to swimmers (often called bloodsuckers) they are flattened worm-like animals. Most species feed on worms, snails, insect larvae and other small aquatic animals, but, a few species, if given the opportunity, will also feed on human blood. They are typically found in shallow, protected waters, concealed among aquatic plants or under stones, logs and other debris. They are attracted to water disturbance around docks and swimming areas. On hot summer days leeches are most active.”
In flowing water they were not a problem. In ponds and lakes, well, we had to shave them off with a hunting knife.
Leaving Greenville we headed north up the east side of Moosehead Lake. We had heard about a crash site about six miles into the woods on logging roads that ran east from the Beaver Cove area of the lake that we wanted to investigate.
On January 24, 1963 on Elephant Mountain to the northeast of Greenville, Maine a United States Air Force B52 crashed. A B52 is over 53 yards long with a wingspan of more than 61 yards. It has eight Pratt & Whitney engines each capable of 17,000 pounds of thrust. The Strategic Air Commands cold war colossus was capable of flying 650 miles per hour with a range of 8,800 miles. It could weigh up to 488,000 pounds, 70,000 of which might be bombs and missiles.
On this unarmed training flight nine crewmen were onboard conducting low level navigation designed to evade Soviet radar. They had departed Westover Air Force Base just after noon that day. The $8 million Stratofortress was flying at nearly 325 mph only 500 feet above the terrain to the east of Moosehead Lake when disaster struck. It was 14 degrees below zero with wind gusts to 40 mph and five feet of snow was on the ground. Turbulence buffeted the aircraft. In an attempt to fly above the rough air the crew applied the throttle. The aircraft began to respond, only suddenly to be rocked by an explosive sound. Out of control the huge aircraft rolled to the right into a 40 degree bank and dropped nose-down toward Elephant Mountain. Three members of the nine-man crew had time to eject. Two of them survived the low-level fall. Structural failure was later determined to be the cause. The vertical stabilizer had come off the tail coming to rest over a mile and a half from the wreckage.
At 2:52 PM the eight-engine behemoth slammed into the mountain at more than 300 mph. The explosive impact echoed across the Moosehead Lake and Greenville area. The Scott Paper Company sent crews to clear a road into the site. Faced with snow drifts up to 15 feet high, the rescue crews from Maine Fish & Game, the state police, the Civil Air Patrol and others furiously fought their way through 10 miles of logging roads, trackless woods and deep snow. The next day they came to within a mile of the wreckage, continuing on snowshoes the rest of the way. After a night of temperatures of 28 degrees blow zero the rescue party reached the two surviving crewmen.
Today, more than 46 years after the crash, what is left of the wreckage remains scattered throughout the area in the same places where it came to rest that afternoon. The debris field covers a wide area. The trees have grown back and the people of Greenville maintain a memorial at the site to the servicemen that perished that cold January day.
We followed the B52 silhouettes tacked along the trees of the dirt roads leading into the woods. Parts of the area are still actively logged. We passed a single vehicle on the long ride in to the mountain.
A sign posted by the Strategic Air Command sat at the end of a lonely path leading into the woods and toward the top of the mountain. It takes but a short walk before wreckage, even all these years later becomes visible. As we walked along the path the pieces of the aircraft became more frequent and larger. The trees have grown back over the years since the crash. What is left of the huge B52 rests quietly in the shade of the forest.
After an hour or more of quietly walking through the broken remains of the aircraft, many pieces of which are still clearly identifiable, we headed 90 minutes north on dirt logging roads toward our next stop.
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