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Hersch Pahl's Non-Combat
"Cornerstone" Stories #7

In Memory of CDR. Earle McConnell,
LT. Curtis Sprague and Crewman,
D. Matthews, AE-3, USN

This story continues from the St. Elmo's Fire Story...

We landed back aboard or carrier, USS Coral Sea, and were met with the sad news that our skipper's plane was overdue and presumed to be lost. As soon as our planes had been refueled and we had something to eat, the whole flight of AJ's were launched on an organized search flight to Genoa, Italy and along the flight path that the Skipper should have taken.

AJ-1 Savage, from VC-7 searching along the coast near Genoa, Italy for a downed aircraft, (Skipper, E. J McConnell) on 6 Sept 1952.

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The search included making contacts with various French and Italian ground stations as we searched for information. Don Jessen could speak and understand a little French so we took that portion of the search that put us in contact with French shore installations. All the time we were in contact with and listening to other search conversations on the radio.

One AJ-1 Savage aircraft from VC-7 searching for downed aircraft off coast of northern Italy 6 Sept 1952.

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Before long we pieced together enough information to learn that a U.S. Navy plane had crashed during the night east of Genoa. Two bodies had been recovered and were at a station near Genoa.

Our Executive Officer, "Rocky" Rockwell, made the decision that all of us should go into the Italian Air Force field at La Spezia. Rocky then proceeded to do some tall talking to convince the Italians at La Spezia that our 5 plane flight needed to land there. Clearance to land was forth coming so we joined up in a respectable formation and broke off for an unscheduled landing on Italian soil which had never happened before with our heavy attack aircraft.

Two of the five VC-7 Heavy Attack aircraft joined up for an unscheduled emergency landing at La Spezia, Italy. Sept. 6th 1952.

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After we landed and were on the ground we kept the engine of one plane turning up and on radio guard.

One Heavy Attack Air craft from VC-7 on 6 Sept. 1952, after making an unscheduled landing on Italian Soil at La Spezia

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It was only at that time that we got word to the Fleet Commander that we were already on the ground at La Spezia.

The Occupational Force Commander, CINCNELM at Naples, who was senior to the Sixth Fleet Commander got into the act then from his own aircraft, and gave his permission or blessing, so we went ahead with our investigation and for the moment, did not worry about what an Operational Commander thought about it. Most of us thought that Rocky had overstepped his authority and would probably get us all in trouble.

Cdr. Rockwell and Lt Col. Sabatier, USMC, who could speak Italian, departed right away for Genoa to check on the accident while our Ops Officer, Cdr. Nicholson, and the rest of us stayed with the planes.

At that time northern Italy was a hot bed of folks leaning towards Communism, but the military at this base treated us with respect usually given to visiting dignitaries. Of course we were in our flight suits with no changes along, but they seemed to understand and gave us a place to sleep; a great dinner at the Officers Club; breakfast the next morning and then served us noon day lunch along with their family Sunday guests.

Early that Sunday morning, several of us took a little sightseeing trip downtown and across a river to Pisa.

The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa on the morning of 7 Sept, 1952, photographed by Hersch Pahl.

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About noon on Sunday, 7 Sept, Cdr. Rockwell and Lt. Col. Sabatier returned and said they had been escorted to a chapel where the remains of Cdr. Earle J. McConnell and Lt. Curtis Sprague were enshrined with flags displayed and honor guards standing at attention.

Our two officers viewed the remains to make positive identification and then collected the information available and made the necessary arrangements to have the remains returned to U.S. authorities in Italy. The remains of the third crewman were never found.

Lt Curtis Sprague and Cdr Earle J. McConnell at Port Lyautey 1952.

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Cdr. Earle McConnell, Lt. Curt Sprague and Third Crewman, D. Mathews, AE-1. (all USN) posing with their aircraft (AJ-1 Savage) at Port Lyautey summer 1952.

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Rockwell sent the information back to the fleet and received orders for all of us to return to the Coral Sea ASAP.

About the time we were ready to fire up our planes for the return flight, the Italians closed the field for about an hour, during which their famous nine plane flight demonstration team put on one heck of a good air show for us. They said the closing was a scheduled event; however, I will always think they scheduled the air-show specifically for our benefit. I believe they wanted to show off a bit. We did not mind in the least because those guys were good!

To make a long story short, we returned to the Coral Sea that afternoon and immediately the crew refueled our planes and made ready to send us off for our return trip to Port Lyautey. The rest of the air group had arrived and were circling near by, expecting to be brought back aboard as soon as the ship got rid of our big planes.

AJ-1 Savage from VC-7 in final approach with tail hook down for landing on the USS Coral Sea Sept 7, 1952.

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As I remember, Rockwell got a pat on the back for a job well done on the ground at La Spezia, and then got chewed out severely by the Sixth Fleet Ops Officer for the high-handed method of going off on his own without permission of the fleet Commander.

Note: Rockwell then became the skipper of VC-7 and later lost his own life at Fallen, Nevada after he became the Air Group Commander of AG-19.

We had another long 6 ½ hour flight that same evening or night of 7 Sept, as we flew back to the west end of the Mediterranean again and then down the coast from Gibraltar to Port Lyautey.

We were all very tired. I don't remember much about the flight except we were all sort of in shock over loosing our Skipper, Cdr. McConnell, Lt Sprague and Mathews their enlisted third crewman.

Of course we will probably never know what caused the accident. Most of us believe when the skipper executed the escape maneuver, after making the simulated bomb drop on Genoa, he probably made the maneuver a little too violent or quickly and may have "tumbled" his own gyro and then became disoriented, succumbing to a bad case of vertigo and ending up in a "graveyard spiral" from which he did not recover. The AJ has only the one set of controls, so his BN could not help him from his position in the aircraft, even if the plane was flying under ideal conditons.

A short time later an impressive memorial service was held at Port Lyautey for our late skipper and his crew. Squadron and Base personnel were in attendance.

The photos below were taken from a collection of photos included in a brief account of VC-7 1952 deployment.

Cropped image of the
Memorial Service Program

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This page was taken from the VC-7 squadron loose leaf cruise book. It is a memorial put together with a photo of Cdr McConnell and his crew flanked by two beautiful poems selected by Lcdr "Shack" Moore, VC-7 Admin Officer in Oct '52, just prior to the squadron's redeployment back to USA. For reading convenience the two poems are printed below.

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Now the Laborers Taska are O'er

"The soles of the rightious are in the hand
of the God, and there shall be no torment touch them"

Now the labourers task are o'er;
Now the battle day is past;
Now upon the farther shore
Land the voyagers at last.
Father, in Thy gracious keeping
Leave we now Thy servants sleeping.


Lord Guide The Men Who Fly

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces of the sky;
Be with them traversing the air
In darkening storms or sunshine
Aloft in solitudes of space,
Uphold them with thy saving
O God, protect the men that fly
Through lonely ways beneath the

Cdr McConnell reads his orders as he took command of the squadron in 1952. Captain Joe Jaap is in the background.

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Cdr. McConnell relaxes in the warm sun of Frech Morocco, during a mid-day break a short tme before his last flight. - Summer 1952.

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The Skipper's AJ-1 Savage plane #1

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The above photo shows the Skipper's AJ-1 Savage plane No.1 starting his deck run for take-off from the wooden deck of the U.S.S. Wasp CV-18. The photo was taken on 29 February 1952 during carrier qualification landing practice off Jacksonville, FL.

Note the left side of the nose wheel is painted white so that "Fly-one" would not let the plane take off with the nose wheel turned around backwards, which could easily happen with out the pilot knowing about it, which could get him into trouble when the wheel would snap around 180 degrees after it got up to speed.

- Hersch Pahl

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