Putnam, Connecticut – May 7, 1953


                                                                      By Jim Ignasher

                                                                     Copyright 2015       

On a fog shrouded day in 1953, a Gruman AF-2W Guardian like the one pictured here crashed in Putnam, Ct. killing four servicemen. (U.S. Navy photo.)

On a fog shrouded day in 1953, a Gruman AF-2W Guardian like the one pictured here crashed in Putnam, Ct. killing four servicemen. (U.S. Navy photo.)

Mrs. John Grant was in her kitchen in western Putnam when the plane roared over the house; so low, that it seemed it barely missed landing on the roof!  She ran out into the yard but couldn’t see much due to a blanket of thick fog. Somewhere in the mist she could hear the aircraft circling and knew something was wrong.  Suddenly the plane swooped overhead a second time and she caught a glimpse of U.S. naval insignia on the fuselage before it was swallowed by the scud.  Rushing back to her kitchen she picked up the telephone; then the explosion occurred.

     She later told a reporter from the Providence Journal, “I had just picked up the receiver when I heard this awful explosion.  I ran to the kitchen door, but I couldn’t see anything but a puff of smoke.  A few minutes later one of my neighbors, Bert Pekham, came over and the two of us walked down to the crash.  We were the first ones there.

     It was a mess.  I saw one man on the ground about fifteen or twenty yards away from the plane.  I guess the other two men were inside.

    There were a few little fires – little patches of flame here and there – and one of the men was badly burned.”   

     Mr. Pekham related that he saw two bodies in the fuselage of the plane, another about fifty feet from the wreckage, and a forth lying 150 feet away near the edge of Carpenter Brook. 

     The plane had cut a 150 yard swath through a wooded hillside before skidding along the ground and crashing through a stone wall.  Debris was spread over a half-acre and some pieces were seen sticking out of trees twenty feet from the ground. 

     The date was May 7, 1953.  The aircraft was a single-engine Grumman AF-2W Guardian (Bu# 129273) which had left Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island roughly twenty minutes earlier on what was to be a routine flight to Grosse Isle, Michigan.  Yet somewhere over Putnam something went wrong, the exact nature of which has never been officially determined. 

     There were four servicemen aboard. The pilot: Ensign Donald R. Johnston;  Aviation Machinist Mate 3c Lee L. Donohue; Personnel Man 3c Edgar L. Lovett; and Radar Operator Gary L. Camp. There were no survivors.

    Navy investigators combed the site looking for clues.  While examining the wreckage it was determined that the plane had crashed with it’s wheels down indicating that the pilot might have been attempting to make an emergency landing in a nearby field, but this begged the question, what problem had the aircraft encountered?  Ground observers hadn’t seen any smoke or flames trailing from the plane, or heard any indication of engine trouble.  The plane had plenty of fuel, and no distress call had been received.  The crash had occurred along the designated flight route, therefore making it unlikely that the pilot had gotten lost.  

    The now declassified official navy investigation report (No. 53 – 05 -13) lists the official cause of the accident as “undetermined”.  However, an undated addendum added sometime afterwards hints at a possible reason for the pilot’s need for an emergency landing.  Blood samples of the deceased airmen sent for further laboratory analysis revealed higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide indicating a possible exhaust leak into the crew compartment. 

     The addendum stated in part, “Spectrophotometric analysis of the material as submitted indicated the presence of forty-seven per saturation of carboxyhemoglobin.  After consultation with Mr. Villatico, it is felt that, while the reported concentration of carboxyhemoglobin is not necessarily high enough to cause death (especially since the duration of exposure to this concentration is not known),  this blood level is more than sufficient to cloud the sensorium and interfere with coordination and reasoning.”  

     In short, higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide were found in the blood samples of the deceased.  Carbon monoxide is present in engine exhaust. 

     With this information, it can be speculated that the pilot became aware of engine exhaust leaking into the crew compartment and opted to land as soon as possible. 

        The AF Guardian was produced by Grumman Aircraft towards the end of World War II for use as an anti-submarine search and attack aircraft, and saw service during the Korean War.  Guardians were produced in two basic models; those that carried radar equipment and those that carried weapons.  The two models flew in pairs, one designed to find enemy subs, the other to destroy them.   

The Servicemen

      The plane was piloted by 24-year-old Ensign Donald Richard Johnston of 839 Morgan Oak Street, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He was born in Cape Girardeau, November 13, 1928, the son of Martin P, and Anna V. Johnston.  He was educated in local schools and graduated from Central High School in 1946. After high school he went on to attend State College and enrolled in the United States Naval Reserve. 

     Eleven months after of the outbreak of the Korean War, Ensign Johnston was called to active service and reported for duty on May 10, 1951.  He was sent to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training, which he successfully completed in September of 1952. 

     After receiving his Navy pilot’s wings, and a commission as an Ensign, he went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for advanced flight training which he completed by December, 1952. 

     On Christmas day 1952, he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, and remained there briefly until being ordered to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on January 1, 1953, where he was assigned to Anti-submarine Squadron 39. (VS-39)

     He was a member of the Centenary Methodist Church, and taught Sunday school until entering the Navy.  He was also an officer in the Wesley Foundation, a Methodist student ministry organization at State College.  He was also active in other college organizations such as the Mark Twain Society, dramatics, and the College Social Life Committee. 

     Ensign Johnston worked his way through college by finding employment at the Midwest Dairy Company. 

     Besides his mother and step-father, he was survived by three brothers, the Rev. Kenneth Johnston, pastor of the Methodist Church at California, Missouri; Harold Johnston, of Gulmon, Oklahoma; and Martin Johnston, of Daytona Beach, Florida.  His Father, Martin P. Johnston died in 1942.  

     Ensign Johnston is buried in Lorimar Cemetery in Cape Girardeau. 

     The youngest man aboard the plane was Aviation Machinist Mate 3c Lee Lincoln Donohue, who had been in the Navy for three years stationed aboard an aircraft carrier that took part in combat operations in the Korean War

     He was born in Neodesha, Kansas, February 12, 1932, and graduated Fredonia High School in Fredonia, Kansas, in 1949.  He was survived by his mother, M. Charlotte Donohue, his brother Joe, and many other relatives. His father Lloyd had passed away two years earlier.

     He is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Roper, Kansas. 

Edgar L. Lovett

Edgar L. Lovett

      Twenty-two year old, Personnel Man, 3c, Edgar Lee (Cotton) Lovett, hailed from Paducah, Kentucky.  He was born in Murray, Kentucky, on December 7, 1930, the son of James E. and Thelma E. Lovett.  When he was three, the family moved to Paducah, where he attended Whittier Grade School, Washington Junior High School, and graduated from Tilghman High School in June of 1948.  After high school, he went on to attend Murray State College. While attending college, he earned money by working for a dry cleaners and a grocery store.

     He enlisted in the Navy May 17, 1951, and received basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  Afterwards, he was sent to serve in Guam, where he remained until October of 1952, when he was sent to Fort Slocum, New York to attend Personnel School.  From Fort Slocum he went to serve at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was eventually assigned to an aircraft carrier that conducted operations in the Korean Theatre during the Korean War. He had arrived at Quonset Navy Base in Rhode Island for re-assignment shortly before his death 

     Besides his parents, he was survived by a brother, James T. Lovett, of Louisville, KY., his grandparents, and several aunts and uncles. 

     His funeral was held at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Paducah, and burial took place at Maple Lawn Cemetery in Murray, Kentucky.

Gary Leon Camp

Gary Leon Camp

     Twenty-year-old Radar Operator, Gary Leon Camp, was on his way home to be with his mother on Mother’s Day when he lost his life.  He was born in Alton, Illinois on June 20, 1932, the son of John H. and Geraldine Griffin Camp.  He lived at 2020 Country Club Drive, in Alton.  

     He graduated from Alton High School in January of 1951, and entered the Navy less than three months later on April 16, 1951.  After training to become a radar operator, he was sent to Quonset Point NAS, in Rhode Island.

     In Alton, he had worked at the Square Deal Radio Shop as a television repairman, and was active in the Godfrey Methodist Church. 

     When he finished his hitch in the Navy, he planned to go to college to study chemistry.    

     His funeral, with full military honors, was held Tuesday, May 12th, at the Godfrey Methodist Church, and interment took place at Valhalla Memorial Park, in Godfrey Township, Illinois.

      All four men were assigned to Anti-Submarine Squadron 39, (VS-39)   VS-39 was originally known as Anti-Submarine Squadron 913, (VS-913), based at Squantum Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. 

     On June 1, 1951 the squadron was transferred to Quonset Point Naval Air Station where it began to be equipped with AF Guardians. 

     On February 4, 1953, three months before the Putnam accident, VS-913 was re-designated VS-39, and remained as such until it was disbanded in September of 1968.  

        As a footnote to this story, there was another accident involving an AF-2 Guardian (Bu. # 124785) in Killingly, Connecticut, on December 20, 1954 which is sometimes confused with the one in Putnam due to the close timeframe, proximity of the two towns, and the fact both planes were assigned to the same squadron. (VS-39) In the Killingly incident, the pilot made an emergency landing in an open field after an electrical fire erupted aboard the plane.  The crew escaped without injury, but the plane suffered substantial fire damage. Afterwards the wreck was buried nearby

     On September 5, 1996, an article appeared in the Norwich Bulletin that reported how pieces of the Killingly aircraft had been recovered and were going to be used in the restoration of an AF-2 Guardian in the possession of the Confederate Air Force Museum in Mesa, Arizona.  (The name was later changed to the Consolidated Air Force Museum.)   


United States Navy official crash investigation brief #53 05 13, National Archives.

Town of Putnam, Connecticut death records.

Providence Journal, “4 Quonset Fliers Killed In Crackup at Pomfret”, May 8, 1953, Page 1. (Note: the crash happened in the town of Putnam, not Pomfret, but the headline read Pomfret.)

Worcester Daily Telegram, “4 navy Fliers Die In Putnam Crash”, May 8, 1953, Page 26, col. 1.

 The Hartford Courant, “Navy Plane Crash In Fog Kills Four Near Putnam”, May 8, 1953, Page 1. (Includes Photo)

Windham County Observer, caption and photo, May 13, 1953, Page 1.

Obituary for Lee L. Donohue from the Fredonia Daily Herald, dated Friday, May 8, 1953.

The Southeast Missourian, “Cape Ensign Loses Life In Plane Crash In Connecticut”, May 8, 1953.

The Paducah Sun-Democrat, “Paducahan, 22, Dies In Navy Plane Crash”, May 8, 1953, Page 1.

Funeral notice; “Lovett Rites Will be Held Here Monday”, from The Paducah Sun-Democrat, May 10, 1953, Page 10A

The Alton Evening Telegraph, “Gary L. Camp Is Killed in Plane Crash”, May, 8, 1953, Page 1.

The Alton Evening Telegraph, “Military Services For Gary L. Camp”, May 13, 1953.

Interview with Lawrence Webster, Aviation Historian and Archeologist, Charlestown, Rhode Island.  

The Norwich Bulletin, “Field may yield rare crash…(Last part of headline unknown.)” September 5, 1996, Page B1.

A check with the Danielson barracks of the Connecticut State Police revealed that any reports older then twenty years have been destroyed.  Therefore, the state police report relating to this incident no longer exists. 




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