This story continues from the St. Elmo's Fire
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.
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.
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.
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
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
The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa on the morning of 7 Sept,
1952, photographed by Hersch Pahl.
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
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.
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
AJ-1 Savage from VC-7 in final approach with tail hook down
for landing on the USS Coral Sea Sept 7, 1952.
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
Cropped image of the
Memorial Service Program
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.
Now the Laborers Taska are O'er
"The soles of the rightious are in
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.
Cdr. McConnell relaxes in the warm sun of Frech Morocco, during
a mid-day break a short tme before his last flight. -
The Skipper's AJ-1 Savage plane #1
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