The spring of 1941 was extremely hot with temperatures averaging 96 degree for most of the month. The heatwave was to continue for most of the spring with in occasional break for thunderstorms.
War clouds were also forming over the horizon. The Peninsula was beginning to prepare for a war that almost everybody knew was coming.
Young pilots were training at Langley Field and wanting to show off their skills. Sometimes they were a bit zealous in this.
It was also a time when local watermen would conduct their trade along the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and estuaries. On May 22, 1941, one of the pilots and one of the waterman would tragically meet. Robert Linwood Saunders was claming near the mouth of Back Creek. He was the son of Robert Saunders and Martha Virginia Carmines and lived on Hunt’s Neck in Poquoson. He was aboard a 33 foot " cabin canoe".
There were other Poquoson fisherman in the area at the time. They were: E.T. Freeman, Bill Huggett, Jimmy Dryden, Jack Dryden and Wilton Insley. They were mending their nets and were in two separate boats tied up to a duck blind.
At 3:30pm 2nd Lt. William H. Howard and 2nd Paul Lindsey took off in a PT-17 Stearman Biplane. The Stearman was a common trainer at the time and was used by the Air Corps and Navy. Howard was giving Lindsay a "check out" for the Stearman. Lindsay originally had the controls and Howard took over after about ten minutes. Lindsey was in the front cockpit and Howard was in the back cockpit. After about fifteen minutes of flying over land, they noticed three boats in the bay near the mouth of Back Creek. They proceeded to fly towards the boats.
They made the first of three buzzes over the boats. They just barely missed the masts by about ten inches. The plane turned around and made another pass over the boats. This time they came even closer. The left wing just missing Jimmy Dryden’s head. Freeman took a dip-net and made a motion as if shooting at the plane. The others grabbed life vests and lay flat in their boats, ready to jump overboard should the need arise.
Howard brought the plane around for a third pass. Saunders was up on his boat’s washboard tonging clams. As they flew the plane down, it’s right wheel hit the about thirty feet astern of Saunders’ boat. This brought the right wing into the water. The plane made a right angle into the boat, killing Saunders instantly. The plane itself also crashed. The pilots were picked up later by the fisherman and were taken to Langley Field hospital with minor injuries.
Saunders’ body was not immediately found. Later that day, a shoe was found with one of his legs in it. His body was found the next day.
Dr. L.O. Powell, the Coroner for York County viewed the body at an inlet of Bennett’s Creek. Several people who knew him identified it. The body had both legs missing and an eye and ear missing. On the death certificate, Dr Powell wrote the following: Accidental death from an airplane being driven carelessly and by a dangerous pilot. Shock and hemorrhage.
Robert Linwood Saunders was taken to Claytor-Rollins Funeral Home and after preparation was buried at the family cemetery on Brown’s Neck Road. His grave is still visible in the cemetery in front of 66 Brown’s Neck Road.
Howard and Lindsey were arrested and held for court-martial after being released from the hospital. It was later decided not to court martial Lindsey.
Howard was court-martialed on November 6, 1941.The watermen, Dr.Powell and funeral director C.S. Rollins were called to testify for the prosecution. He was found guilty of manslaughter and negligence He was sentenced to dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all due pay and any future due pay and two years in prison at hard labor. The accident was also the subject of a congressional investigation.
2. Army JAG report of court-martial of 2nd Lt. William Howard.