The Wreck of the Dawn Patrol

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – March, 2014

The sound began as a low hum in the distance, barely audible over the casual conversation in the Dodge family kitchen, but as it grew louder the talking stopped and those around the table cocked their heads to listen.  It was the unmistakable sound of a low flying airplane. The noise grew louder, gradually building to a crescendo as the plane passed directly over the house and trailed away. The family exchanged questioning looks, but before anyone could phrase a question, the sound of the airplane returned as the pilot circled back.

Lloyd Dodge and his two sons, Paul and Robert, hurried outside, but thick ground fog and low lying clouds obscured their view.  Somewhere above, the unseen airplane could be heard circling; its droning engine sounding lost.  As the men craned their necks skyward, the aircraft suddenly appeared out of the scud a mere one-hundred feet above the house and losing altitude!  They instinctively ducked as it zoomed just overhead, and for the brief moment or so that it was visible, they saw the words Dawn Patrol painted on the side.  Just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone again, swallowed by a vortex of fog.  An instant later they heard the sound of a horrific crash as the flying machine clipped an apple tree and plowed into the hillside several hundred feet away.  The date was March 15, 1931, and the wreck of the Dawn Patrol was to become Smithfield’s first recorded aviation fatality.    

Earlier that morning Walter and Robert Barnes of Greenville had gone to Buttonwoods Airport to rent an airplane. Twenty-two year-old Walter was a student at Brown University studying engineering, and his younger brother Robert was a licensed pilot.

Buttonwoods Airport was once located in the Buttonwoods section of Warwick, overlooking Greenwich Bay.  At one time it was considered for possible expansion to become Rhode Island’s primary state airport, but it never came to pass, and today private homes occupy the site.

In 1931, renting an airplane was a relatively easy thing to do; easier than renting a car today.  The brothers signed out for an Aeromarine-Klemm, a mono-wing two-seater with the name “Dawn Patrol” painted on the side. (Why the aircraft was so named us unclear.) Their flight plan included a trip to Greenville where they intended to circle their house on Putnam Pike before returning to the airport.  They had done this in the past, and friends and family would routinely emerge to wave skyward at the young aviators.  

Weather conditions at the airport were clear, but the airport was located at sea level.  Smithfield on the other hand is about four-hundred-fifty feet above sea level, and conditions there were another story.  When the brothers reached Greenville they found themselves “flying blind” as clouds closed in around them and ground fog prevented them from seeing visual reference points such as buildings and roads.  Aircraft of that era lacked the navigational equipment that is standard today, and as the mist thickened the bothers soon lost their way.  It’s likely that Robert was trying to get below the clouds to spot a recognizable landmark when they flew into the hillside, not realizing just how low to the ground they actually were.  

The crumpled wreckage was strewn along a hillside of the Dodge property.  Miraculously there was no fire.  Walter Barnes had been killed instantly, but the fact there was no fire saved his brother Robert from being burned alive.

The Dodge’s didn’t have a phone, and time was lost while a family member made their way a mile or so down the road to a neighbors house who had one.  In the meantime, the unconscious Robert was carefully lifted from the debris and carried to the house.  He had suffered a severe head laceration, and the family did the best they could to care for him.   

The Dodge farm was located on a steep hillside off Tarklin Road near the Glocester town line, with the only access being a long dirt lane that meandered in from the roadway.   Unfortunately, the melting snows of March had made the road a muddy quagmire, necessitating that police and fire fighters leave their vehicles on Tarklin Road and trek the half-mile or so to the house on foot. 

Doctor Irving S. Cook of Georgiaville arrived to render medical aid.  After stitching Robert’s head wound and setting his broken wrist, arrangements were made to transport the patient to his parent’s home roughly four miles away.  Since no ambulance could be brought up to the house, a horse and wagon were pressed into service to carry Robert to the road.  

State police later transported Walter’s body to the Charles Whipple Funeral Home on Putnam Pike, which at that time was located in the present-day Saint Phillip’s Church rectory.  He was later buried in Greenville Cemetery.

Smithfield’s Chief of Police William Kelley, along with a representative of the Buttonwood’s Airport inspected the wreckage, but found nothing mechanically wrong with the plane.  The airport representative asserted that the plane had been recently inspected, and was mechanically sound when the brothers took off in it.  Mr. Dodge and his sons also attested to the fact that the engine sounded as if it was running smoothly at the time of the accident, with no sputtering or backfires to indicate trouble. It was therefore speculated that the pilot may not have realized that he was as close to the ground as he was due to the fog.  When the investigation was complete, all of the wreckage was removed from the site, and presumably returned to Buttonwoods.   

Ironically, Walter and Robert Barnes had survived another plane crash just six months earlier, on September 14, 1930.  On that day, they took off from a grassy field that once existed where Douglas Circle is located today.  When the plane reached an altitude of roughly 150 feet, it went into a stall, and nose-dived into a tree near Austin Ave and River Road. The plane was completely wrecked, but both brothers walked away with only minor injuries. 

The Dodge farm no longer exists, except as a notation on old maps of the town. The land it once occupied has since been reclaimed by Mother Nature with no indication that a tragedy ever occurred there.


By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – January, 2013

PreludeIt seems fitting to begin this article with a quote by legendary newscaster Paul Harvey and say, “And now, for the rest of the story”, for this is the story before the story; two tales of tragedy with a common thread: one occurring in California, the other in Smithfield.  It all began with a chance meeting in a Los Angeles bar.  

It was October 22, 1942, and World War II was raging across the globe. Two friends, Louis Reppert Jr., a co-pilot for American Airlines, and Lieutenant William Wilson, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, happened to meet each other in a hotel bar and sat down for some drinks.  Both were in their mid-twenties and had attended some of the same flight training schools together.  At the bar they chatted, catching up on life as two friends who haven’t seen each other in awhile are prone to do.   

The night wore on, and at one point the subject of the possibility of one day meeting in the air came up.  It was then that each learned the other was scheduled to fly the following day, and would be in the same vicinity of the sky at about the same time.  Which of the two came up with the idea is not recorded, but a plan was hatched to rendezvous in the air and exchange greetings before flying on to their respective destinations.   

The following afternoon American Airlines Flight 28 took off from Burbank, California, bound for Phoenix, Arizona, with nine passengers and a crew of three aboard.   The aircraft was DC-3, a twin-engine propeller type used by many airlines of the era.  At the controls was Captain Charles Pedley, pilot, and Louis Reppert Jr., co-pilot.  Captain Pedley was an experienced flight officer, having logged more than 17,000 hours in the air.  Reppert, by contrast, only had 863 hours of air time.

At about the same time, a twin-engine bomber commanded by Lieutenant Wilson left Long Beach, California, destined for Palm Springs.  Wilson had approximately 1,500 flight hours, but only about eighteen hours with the type of bomber he was flying.  His co-pilot, Staff Sergeant Robert Leicht, had only flown one-hundred hours and all of them in trainer aircraft.

As Flight 28 left Burbank, Captain Pedley climbed to a cruising altitude of 9,000, feet, and at 5:02 P.M. radioed Burbank tower his position over Riverside, California.   Meanwhile, Lieutenant Wilson’s aircraft arrived at March (Army Air) Field in Riverside, and circled twice before sighting the airliner and climbed to intercept it.  Within a short time his military bomber was flying along side the civilian Flight 28 in direct violation of the rules and regulations of air travel.   

As both planes entered San Gorgonia Pass, Wilson rocked the wings of his bomber as a greeting to Reppert, but the gesture was not acknowledged.  One can only guess at the conversation that took place between Reppert and his superior.  Evidently Captain Pedley saw no reason to return the greeting for doing so might indicate he condoned such reckless behavior.   

Wilson then allegedly told Sergeant Leicht that he wanted to “thumb his nose” at Reppert, and proceeded to overtake the liner and cut across its flight path.  He then throttled back to allow the airliner to catch up.  As Flight 28 caught up to the bomber, Wilson thought the planes were still too far apart for his friend to recognize him, so he turned inwards to close the gap.  What happened next could have been due to his lack of experience with his aircraft, for the bomber collided with the DC-3 and sheared off a section of the tail sending the airliner spiraling out of control towards the ground. 

The control tower at Burbank Airport later reported receiving the last radio transmission from Flight 28 at exactly 5:15 p.m. stating, “Flight 28 from Burbank…correction, Burbank from Flight 28…”  It was believed by investigators that Captain Pedley was attempting to report the mid-air collision before his aircraft spun out of control.  Flight 28 crashed in Chino Canyon about three miles from Palm Springs instantly killing all aboard. 

Although Lieutenant Wilson’s bomber was damaged, he was able to land safely at Palm Springs Army Air Field.  

Three separate investigations of the crash were conducted independently of each other.  The coroner’s inquest focused only on the cause(s) of death for the passengers and crew of Flight 28, not who was responsible.  The investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board (C.A.B.), and the separate military investigation, focused on culpability. 

The Civil Aeronautics Board blamed Lieutenant Wilson for his “reckless and irresponsible conduct”.  Unfortunately, the C.A.B. had no authority to level charges.  That was the jurisdiction of the military.

The Army court-martialed Wilson for manslaughter, and subpoenaed witnesses for his trial. Two of the witnesses were volunteer civilian airplane spotters stationed near Palm Springs.  Their testimony supported the C.A.B. findings.  However, the defense had located a “surprise witness”; an army Private attached to a tank company that was training in the Palm Springs area at the time of the crash who claimed it was the airliner that collided with the bomber, and not the other way around.

The C.A.B. did not consider the Private’s account to be reliable and cited several reasons for their conclusion in their report.  The army however, gave great weight to the Private’s testimony , and after deliberating just thirty-seven minutes, the military jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict for Wilson. 

Research has been unable to uncover what became of Lieutenant Wilson after the trial.  Did he resign his commission?  Did he survive the war?  Did he carry any guilt over the accident?  One can only speculate.  

Artifacts from Flight 28 can still be found today lying at the desert crash site serving as mute testimony to one man’s foolish act and twelve needless deaths.    

However the story doesn’t end there. The bomber aircraft flown by Lieutenant Wilson was eventually repaired and put back into service by early 1943, but it was relegated to training status.  Its new role was that of a “target tug”, – an aircraft that towed canvas targets several hundred feet behind it so that fighter pilots could take turns making practice gunnery runs at a moving target.  The targets would then be brought back into the airplane and later scored.   For reasons unknown at this time, the plane was sent from California to New England in the summer of 1943, and arrived at Westover Field in Chicopee, Massachusetts. 

On August 5, 1943, Lieutenant Otis Portweig of Richmond, Virginia, and  Sergeant Herbert Booth, of Rahway, New Jersey, were detailed to fly the aircraft from Westover to Otis Air Field in Falmouth, Massachusetts.  As Fate would have it, Lieutenant Saul Winsten, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, needed to get from Chicopee to Falmouth, and asked to ride aboard the aircraft rather than drive.  Portweig granted permission, and the aircraft took off for what was to be a routine forty-minute flight.  It was while passing over Rhode Island that the plane lost an engine and crashed into Wolf Hill in Smithfield killing all aboard.  It’s doubtful that the men had any idea of the plane’s history, and one has to wonder if the engine failure was due in part to the previous accident. 

Those lost in the Wolf Hill crash are the only servicemen to loose their lives in the line of duty, during wartime, within the boundaries of Smithfield.  As such, two memorials honoring their sacrifice can be seen today; one in Deerfield Park, and one at the crash site.  (For more information visit the Town of Smithfield website at )

The fact that the same military aircraft was involved in two tragedies was brought to the author’s attention thanks to personal friend John Glancy; pilot and fellow aviation history buff. 

To borrow another quote from Paul Harvey; “And now you know, the rest of the story.”  

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