McCartney: World War II fighter pilot’s nose-dive takes romantic turnWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
As a child, it’s all I knew. Dad met my mother after he crashed his military fighter plane into Pépé Bergeron’s house in Groton, Conn. I didn’t think it was all that big of deal. After all, what does a 12-year-old boy know about how parents meet?
I first remember hearing the story when my brother Larry showed me an old newspaper clipping stored in a cedar chest.
There was a photo of dad and mother kissing, the same one that hung on the living room wall. The story was about dad, a Navy pilot, making a routine night flight from a Navy facility in Charlestown, R.I., on Oct. 19, 1944, as the U.S. was on the verge of winning World War II.
Dad’s plane developed engine trouble and was going down. He could have ejected from the plane and let it crash. But he was flying over a populated area and decided to try to navigate the plane over the Thames River to avoid crashing into an area where people lived.
He couldn’t make it to the river. At the last minute, he had to choose — hit a school building or aim for a parking lot. He chose the second option, which meant he was going to have to come in over a neighborhood of houses.
Dad didn’t clear the final house.
The Aug. 19, 1945, Sunday Mirror magazine reported: “Heading straight for the house of Mr. and Mrs. Philbert L. Bergeron, the plane sheared the roof off the two-story dwelling, ripped a blanket from the crib of a sleeping baby, showering the infant with debris, then crashed into a concrete school building.
“The baby was 2-year-old Alma Norton, child of Bergeron’s other daughter, Mrs. Thomas Norton. It was barely scratched by falling plaster.”
No one else was injured. However, dad suffered severe back injuries and the newspaper reported he was hospitalized for several months.
Several months later, the Bergerons “decided they’d like to have a look at the young roof-buster,” 24-year-old William McCartney of Toledo, the newspaper reported.
They sent him an invitation to a housewarming party, and on New Year’s Day 1945, my dad attended the party.
As the clipping reported: “Lt. McCartney went into another nosedive. This time it was a romantic one, for he was introduced to Celia, 25, in her trim blue SPAR [Coast Guard] uniform.
“The first time McCartney visited the Bergeron house, he came to apologize. The second and many successive times he came to court Celia,” — a name only her parents called her; everyone else knew my mother as Alice.
“The romance had the same whirlwind qualities as McCartney’s derring-do intrusion onto the family for, in May, the lieutenant announced he would marry into the family.”
On Oct. 19, 1971 — my senior year in high school — the Groton News published a follow-up story about the airplane crash 27 years earlier. The article reported that my mother laughed when she recalled the circumstances under which she met her husband.
“I guess marriages are made in heaven — we have a good marriage and fine children. We’re proud of all 11 of them. And our 18-month-old grandson,” she said.
Like all good stories, some of the little details have changed. The 1971 article reported the house had three floors, not two. The child in the crib was now 2 and 1/2 years old and had a scratch on her chin and a cut on her forehead from the falling debris. Dad was hospitalized several weeks, not months. The school was undamaged except for a broken window and a fallen drainpipe — although it was closed for one day so the plane could be removed.
However, I learned something from the 1971 article that I refused to accept as coincidence. It convinced me that my parents’ marriage was indeed something special.
The students who attended Col. Ledyard School had to make up the day they missed on June 2, 1945 — the day of mother and dad’s wedding.
Dad’s been gone 32 years; my mother’s been gone six.
Today, as a 58-year-old almost-senior-citizen, I am acutely aware of how special that marriage was and how well they did raising their children. All 11 have been productive citizens. Eight graduated from college. Seven of the nine who married have enjoyed strong, loving marriages — something they learned growing up as Bill and Alice’s children. The other two, of which I am one, screwed up their marriages on their own. And both those failed marriages saddened mother and dad deeply — almost as if it was their fault.
None of Bill and Alice’s children went the big family route. When mother passed in 2006, seven of her children had given her 17 grandchildren.
However, Bill and Alice’s 10 living children — Phil passed away last year — live their lives as testimony to what fell from the early morning skies 68 years ago.
John P. McCartney is a Toledo Free Press staff writer. Email him at email@example.com or contact him on Twitter @JohnPMcCartney