For today’s high-school students, what happened 20 years ago — let alone the events of 50 or more years past — might well be regarded as ancient history.
A teenager in 2023 is very likely to be unaware of any connection they may have with World War II. Or the wars in Korea and Vietnam. They are two, three and even four generations removed from those conflicts.
Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School teacher James Anspach understands that. “I’m not sure, to be honest, how the modern student connects to World War II, let alone any warfare at all,” Anspach shared this week.
He keeps that perspective in mind when, twice each school year, he brings horticulture students to a piece of what was once farmland just a few miles from downtown Northampton. There, his students help carry on a tradition begun 25 years ago. It was another Smith Vocational teacher, John Lind, and a previous generation of students who helped craft a roadside memorial to a long-ago chapter in Western Massachusetts military history.
Anspach’s students prune the shrubbery and spruce up the memorial each fall for Veterans Day and again each spring for Memorial Day to honor the crew of three Army Air Corps aviators who perished when their C-54 Skymaster transport crashed there in a fireball 75 years ago this month.
Before they tend to the tasks at hand, Anspach shares with the teenagers the significance of the place and the meaning their work will have for their community. It’s about making the person-to-person connection, how their deeds will be received by others, the teacher explains.
“I review the significance of why we’re there, how their work making it look good will make it a meaningful experience for someone coming to the memorial,” he says.
For Steve Connor, veterans’ services director for 12 area communities, including his hometown of Northampton, the labors of the Smith Vocational students bring hope this Memorial Day. Together with the city’s Veterans Council, of which he is a member, Connor has been working to promote better understanding of the meaning of Memorial Day.
It’s not, he stresses, the kickoff of summer nor an occasion for celebration. Rather, it’s a solemn observance, intended to memorialize those who gave the “ultimate sacrifice” in service to the nation, says Connor. Like the men aboard that military transport plane three-quarters of a century ago.
“The civilian-veteran divide is bigger than it used to be,” contends Connor, a veteran himself who’s been in his position for two decades. “When I was growing up – granted, my father was a member of the (Veterans of Foreign Wars) – everyone in my family knew the stores didn’t open until noon on Memorial Day. Having someone remember what Memorial Day is about is really hard to get. It’s sad … I hope some day it comes back to what it’s intended to be.”
It was just after noon on Thursday, May 13, 1948, that the C-54 piloted by Capt. Paul Lonquich took off from Westover Field in Chicopee. Its crew was in training for the soon-to-begin Berlin Airlift as the Cold War unfolded in the wake of World War II.
The 40-year-old Lonquich, from Yonkers, New York, was regarded as a “crack trainer,” who had logged thousands of flight hours. With him that day for what was described as a “routine” instrument training flight were 1st Lt. Wilfred W. Lavinder, 23, of Portsmouth, Ohio, and Staff Sgt. Jack Zaresky, 26, of Queens, New York. All were assigned to the 12th Squadron of the 1st Air Transport Group, and all were living in Western Massachusetts, Lonquich in Springfield, the recently married Lavinder in Holyoke and Zaresky in Chicopee.
The trio reportedly encountered thick cloud cover and drizzling rain as their craft cleared the Mount Tom range heading into Easthampton, according to accounts of the crash. Witnesses on the ground in Easthampton said the plane “appeared to be in difficulty” as it descended from the clouds, according to a story published in the Springfield Union.
At about 1:30 p.m., it reportedly fell off radar; there was no distress call. (Later, it was reported that the crew likely was aware they were in trouble as investigators found evidence away from the crash site that they had been “lightening the load by heaving removable objects.”)
Marion Adams, from the kitchen window of her family farmstead at 1095 Florence Road, reportedly saw the plane approaching at so low a level she feared it would hit her home. “The shock caused her to faint,” reported the Union.
Her husband, George Adams, rushed with a hand-held fire extinguisher to see what he could do but was forced back by the heat and retreated into the home to call the Fire and Police departments. (The Adams family had already been visited by far more personal tragedy six years before when their son, Navy Lt. Samuel Adams, was killed in the Battle of Midway piloting a dive bomber against the Japanese.}
An account of the C-54 crash in that evening’s edition of the Springfield Daily News said the explosion of the aircraft rocked downtown Northampton, two miles away, and showered debris across the farmland of the Adams family. Crowds of people rushed to the scene, jamming the roadway as firefighters worked to extinguish the fire.
“Blood-stained wreckage and bits of human bone and flesh scattered in many directions bore mute evidence of the sudden death that was meted out to all hands,” read the story. An 8-foot piece of the aircraft’s cabin was reported to have been the “only sizeable” piece of the wreckage which remained.
Now, a carefully-crafted aluminum model of a C-54 sits atop the 14-foot tall monument that honors the three fliers.
Connor says it’s been difficult for him in recent years as increasing numbers of World War II and Korea veterans pass away. “These are veterans who were diehard about their identity, about their public service and about the recognition of themselves and especially their buddies who did not come home,” said Connor. “Because so fewer people serve (in the military) today and in the last 20 years compared to back then, there is not that same solidarity among them.”
Thus, Connor now focuses efforts on connecting with young people as he did last weekend when teen members of the Northampton High School Key Club, affiliated with Kiwanis, joined efforts to flag veterans’ graves at Northampton’s Spring Grove Cemetery. The sisters of a soldier killed in Vietnam was with him and provided a “real-life effect” of the meaning of Memorial Day, he shared.
“There are days like (that) when I get positive feelings that we’re going to get back to Memorial Day as it should be,” said Connor. “Whatever we can do to get youth involved, there is hope things will be respectful going forward.”
At Smith Vocational, trustee Michael Cahillane says there is reason to be hopeful. Along with the Smith students, a Boy Scout took on the upkeep of the C-54 memorial as an Eagle Scout project, he noted.
“We try to help out when we can to maintain that property … It’s a generational thing. Smith Vocational was founded in 1908, and generations of different students have maintained things started by previous classes,” said Cahillane, a 1964 alum who served in the Air National Guard. He noted another group of Smith Vocational students helped rebuild stairs to a memorial on Mount Tom that honors 25 military service members killed in the crash of a B-17 Flying Fortress in 1946.
Cahillane’s elder brother, Robert P. Cahillane, was Northampton’s veterans agent at the time the C-54 memorial was created and dedicated in 1999. Like Connor, he fears the chasm that exists in the public about military service will continue to widen. And, he, too, holds out hope for the future thanks to efforts to connect young people with history.
That hope, he says, will be on display on Monday morning when the 155th Memorial Day parade steps off in Florence. “It’s the oldest and longest continuing Memorial Day parade in the U.S., and it’s always a special time to be in Florence,” Cahillane said. “It’s like Post Office motto goes, no matter the weather, they will march, and they will be out there to honor our veterans.”
Cynthia G. Simison is retired executive editor emerita of The Republican. She may be reached by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.