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Monday, May 30, 2016

Part 3: Memorial Day Feature - Searching for a home for the "Ninigret Bomb"

Charlestown and World War II, Part 3
No Room at the Ninigret Wildlife Refuge Headquarters
By Frank Glista

From the Charlestown Press, August 2, 2007
In August of 2007 I invited my friend, Mark Godden, to join me at the Groton-New London Airport for an adventure.  Mark, never knowing what to expect from me when I used the word "adventure", looked puzzled.  

Years earlier, I requested that he ride along with me on my third cross country motorcycle trip.  Each owning a Harley-Davidson, we left Charlestown in May of 1979 and rode to California and back in about six weeks.  So what was I up to now?  I told him that we were going to go back in time.....for about an hour.

Ninigret airfield from above during World War II
Arriving at the airport, Mark noticed two beautifully restored North American SNJ6 advanced fighter trainers.  I had flown this plane once before while visiting family in Kissimmee Florida,  the home base for Warbird Adventures where highly trained pilots of WWII aircraft take you on the ride of your life.

I had the pleasure of flying with the same pilot that I had flown with back then so when he asked, "What's your pleasure?"  I smiled and said, "To go back in time".  We headed along the coastline flying over Stonington and Watch Hill and now could see Charlestown in the distance.  

Flying side by side, we turned and flew up the Charlestown Breachway only to find Ningret Park coming upon us quickly.  As the pilot let me take control, I began to imagine what our fathers must have felt flying the exact type of aircraft we were now flying.  Foot pedals, a stick and some gauges....that's about it.  As we did some aerobatics I noticed the remains of the old NALF runways.  Even though torn up, their imprint was still clear. 

The Plan for the Memorial
About a year later I was attending a public hearing for the "Ninigret Park Master Plan".  I was concerned that the plan may involve moving the granite monument that Millie, Gen and "The Crash Crew" had worked so hard to make a reality.  

I wasn't going to let that happen.  I stated my case and gave the landscape design firm some information about the memorial and a possible future museum.  

The idea of having a location to display artifacts from NALF Charlestown was something that the Ad Hoc Committee had discussed but their charge was to create a memorial not a museum.  Mildred Link Godden and Genevieve Johnson Glista, on the other hand, never gave up on that idea.

When the Ninigret Park Master Plan was completed, I was delighted to see that the memorial site had been left intact but something was different.  

Looking closer, I noticed that the roads had been altered not only creating additional area for the site but now there was a museum and a plane drawn on this attached piece of property.  I was shocked.  This group had taken the information I gave them and applied it to their final drawings.  The two childhood friends would have been thrilled.   

The "Ninigret Bomb" - before and after.
A practice bomb, it had never been filled
with explosives
In the early 1990's, a friend of mine delivered a rusted, dented piece of metal that resembled the empty shell of a bomb (right > ).  He recovered  it at Ninigret Park and thought that the Memorial Committee might want it.  It sat unattended in the woods of my parent's backyard for the next ten or so years just as it had in Ninigret Park.

After Millie and Gen had passed, I took it upon myself to maintain the memorial site as they had wanted.  I also never forgot their desire to have a museum to honor all those who served at NALF Charlestown.  I felt that a large scale building to house artifacts would be out of my reach but what about a mini-museum?  A place or places where items could be displayed for educational purposes and to bring people back to the memorial site so that they could be reminded of what had occurred there.

I met with The Washington Trust Company branch manager Ann Cook who helped find an area at the Charlestown Branch for my display.  Ann could not have been more helpful.  She did all the leg work to get permission from her superiors.  She did it.... I was in.  

One problem, the bank would not allow, for obvious reasons, weaponry of any kind.  Although I felt that I could do something there, I really wanted to show, what turned out to be a "dummy bomb" (never armed), shell casings and other items, but where?

The National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) at Kettle Pond had recently been completed and seemed to be a logical choice being that they control the refuge area next to Ninigret Park which had been part of NALF Charlestown.  I stopped by one day and asked to speak to Refuge Manager, Charles Vandemoer.  

Charlie was cordial and welcoming.  When I told him what I wanted to do, he took me into the main display area and said, "We have to have it here, if it wasn't for that airbase we wouldn't be here."  I told him that I felt that it was inappropriate to co-mingle both displays so we looked for another area.  

Walking down the hall to the restrooms, I saw a space that housed three recycling garbage containers.  It measured two feet deep by eight feet wide and eight feet high.....perfect.  He moved the containers and told me that the space was mine.  I was introduced to Ms. Janis Nepshinsky, Visitors Services Manager who would work with me to get things rolling, I was on my way.

I had already started restoring the "dummy bomb" and was now in a position to contact former members of the "Crash  Crew" about what I was attempting. Larry Webster and Paul Kelley from the Ad hoc Committee, Mark Godden and I all met to share stories about "Charlietown" and to review some of the items that could be displayed at the NWR complex.

About a year later, the "dummy bomb" was restored and primed.  I loaded it in my truck and headed to the NWR complex for a showing.  Prior, I had taken artifacts to show Ms. Nepshinsly the type of items that I was going to display.  

Included were numerous pictures of the "dummy bomb" in its original state.  Now I could show her the real thing.  I was met with enthusiasm as workers from the complex surrounded my truck to see this restored artifact....everyone except Charlie Vandemoer.

Although all of the military buildings had been removed from NALF Charlestown, some items still remained.  In September of 2009, I met with the Charlestown Parks & Recreation Commission and asked their permission to collect any items, from Ninigret Park, that I felt could be helpful in my quest.  I was given, off to the town council.  

At their regularly scheduled meeting in October of 2009, they also gave approval to seek out artifacts from the former airbase.  I immediately removed all the remaining runway lights and some aircraft tie-downs. 

Pilots pass one of the two "Ninigret Bombs" on the way out
to their planes
Around this time we had realized that the "dummy bomb", that had been restored, was not just any bomb.  After reviewing old photographs, we realized that this artifact was identical to the ones that were used at the entrance to one of the buildings at NALF Charlestown.  

Larry Webster provided an original blue print showing the size and the wording that went on one of the entrance bombs.  It reads "U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Facility Charlestown RI."  

The other "Thru These Portals Pass the Hottest Pilots in the World" is the wording inscribed at the base of the memorial located at Ninigret Park.  

The Ad Hoc Committee had requested that the design for the memorial site mimic the entrance of that building by placing one black granite bomb on either side of the monument as it stands today.

Now, realizing what I had, my intent to complete what Millie and Gen had dreamed took on an additional meaning.  Many newspaper articles had been written about their hope to someday find the original bombs.....I had one.  The "dummy bomb" was painted with stencil applied and the display cabinet with lighting installed was already in place.  I was getting close.

The constant thoughts of veterans, from the WWII era, passing on made me realize that time was not on my side, I couldn't afford any delays. 

In spring 2010, I notified Ms. Nepshinsky that I was about to complete the "mini-museum" as I was bringing by some pictures, memorabilia and of course the "dummy bomb".  She was thrilled and couldn't wait to see it completed......or so I thought.

The honor of NAAF flyers who gave their lives. Photo by Will Collette
Within the hour she emailed me back and stated that Charlie Vandermoer, the Refuge Manager, told her that the bomb, my bomb, the bomb that took two years and over $2,000 to restore would not be allowed in the NWR Complex.  

Needless to say, I was disappointed and angry, very angry.  In the years that I had been working on this I had never gotten any indication that this particular artifact would not be allowed.  No matter how hard I tried to reason with his staff, it wasn't going to happen.  

I even enlisted the help of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse during a conversation at a Democratic Party fundraiser.  He immediately put a member of his staff to intervene, but to no avail, Vandermoer didn't want to hear it. So what to do now?

 In 2012, I was told that the Parks & Recreation Summer Office may no longer be used by its director and staff.  I thought this would be a great location as it sits directly across from the memorial site.  

Both the Parks & Recreation Commission and the Town Council gave support and approval for the museum's future location. With the help from the citizens of our town, our town government, volunteers and a little money, I  just might pull this off after all.

I met with the town's building inspector to review and identify the buildings shortcomings.  It was determined that a handicap ramp and other code concerns may make the renovations of this building financially out of reach. 

Later, I had a conversation with Kevin Gallup, the town's Emergency Management Director.  We talked about the use of the Park and Recreation Summer Office in regards to the museum.  We reviewed the need for that structure, regarding the recent storms that devastated the eastern seaboard.  It was an eye opener to realizing what a valuable asset this building was to the continued safety and welfare to our citizens during dangerous weather events that have become more and more common. 

I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to abandon the "Summer Office" idea and look for another location.  

Still later, I had a talk with Pam Lyons, President of the Charlestown Historical Society.  That has not as yet produced a solution - a permanent home - for the Ninigret Bomb.

For now, it sits in my garage.

It's an important part of Charlestown's history and it's a shame it hasn't yet found a place of honor in the park that once held the place where America's World War II naval aviators trained and where some gave their lives.

If you listen real closely you will hear resounding from this hallowed ground the voices of the pilots and their led by Millie and Gen harmonizing the phrase, "We thought you could....thank you, thank you."