Atlantic Ocean – July 15, 1939

Atlantic Ocean – July 15, 1939

200 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard 

     This particular accident is a tale of irony and coincidence.  It begins with the Woods Hole oceanographic research sailing ship, Atlantis, which on July 15, 1939, was at sea about 200 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard when one the crew, George T. Priest, 36, needed to be evacuated to the mainland.  What had begun as a cold three days before had developed into a serious case of pneumonia. The fastest way to get Priest to the medical attention he required was by air, so a message was sent to the United States Coast Guard which dispatched a V-164 seaplane with six crewmen aboard to rendezvous with the Atlantis.    

     The Coast Guard plane arrived about 11:30 a.m. on the 15th, circling the ship several times before landing the rolling seas. Priest was taken to the plane by rowboat and with difficulty was transferred aboard.  The boat then returned to the Atlantis while the coast guardsmen made preparations to take off. 

     The seaplane began to taxi, and what came next was witnessed by Mate Kelly of the Atlantis’ crew. “She taxied about 150 yards and then taxied directly into a swell.  By throwing her rudder up just as she hit the swell the pilot was able to bounce the plane into the air.  The plane leveled off going about 90 knots and about 20 feet off the water.  She had just leveled off when she hit an air pocket and suddenly dropped about ten feet.  As she fell, a sudden swell rose.  She buried her nose in the sea.  As the plane hit the water I yelled to the boat crew to drop the boat again, and we practically threw ourselves into it.  The plane was about 75 yards ahead of the Atlantis.  As she hit the sea a burst of spray obscured her.  About two seconds later a sheet of flame and smoke shot out of the spray.  There was a sound like an explosion.  Had the bow of the plane not been underwater in a few seconds the whole plane would have burst into flames. The wings of the plane were under water and the ship was settling when the boat from the Atlantis reached her about three minutes later.”

     Four crewmen aboard the V-164 managed to escape as the plane broke apart: Russell Hayes, Charles Whelen, Frank Evers, and Carl Simon.  Debris floating atop the heaving seas made rescue efforts difficult, but eventually all four were pulled aboard the Atlantis’ rowboat.

     The Coast Guard pilot, Lieutenant William Clemmer, Coastguardsman John Radan, and George Priest all went to the bottom with the main portion of the plane.

     The survivors were brought aboard the Atlantis and given first-aid while a message of the disaster was radioed to the Coast Guard.  By 6:00 P.m. another Coast Guard aircraft arrived on the scene, but it was determined that the sea was too rough for a landing, so the Coast Guard boat Pontchartrain was dispatched. 

     It was later reported in the Falmouth Enterprise that at the same time George Priest was dying aboard the Coast Guard plane, his wife at their home in Falmouth was handed a crushed model of an airplane that her son had been playing with in the yard.  The gardener had accidentally run it over with a lawnmower, and had brought it inside the house apologizing to Mrs. Priest.  The plane was a replica of one the couple had flown in while vacationing in Europe some time earlier. 

     Mrs. Priest was quoted as saying, “My husband always said he would die of pneumonia at the age of 36. His father died of pneumonia at that age.”

     In yet another twist, it was later learned that the accident had been photographed by Harold Williams, radio operator aboard the Atlantis, using a “box camera” which were popular at the time.  Another member of the crew, Beverly Hubbard, also filmed part of the incident using a movie camera, and caught the transfer of Priest from the boat to the plane, but ran out of film just as the aircraft was getting ready to take off. 

     The image of the research vessel Atlantis is used for the Wood Hole Institute logo.

 Sources:

Falmouth Enterprise, “Falmouth Man Killed When Plane Explodes At Sea Near Atlantis”, July 18, 1939

Falmouth Enterprise, “As Seaman Died In Plane, Crushed Model Was Handed His Wife”, July 18, 1939

Falmouth Enterprise, “Box Camera Takes Death Scene As Movie Film Fails,” July 18, 1939    

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