The Second World War brought about many advancements in technology. One of these was radar, the ability to detect aircraft at long distances. Early in the war, large stationary ground-based radars helped the British win the Battle of Britain by giving English fighter aircraft advance warning of the incoming German planes. Early radar was also installed on a mountain in the Hawaiian Islands before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and while the radar detected the incoming Japanese planes, the information was misinterpreted and not acted upon.
Later in the war, small radar sets were installed in aircraft with varying results. Enemy aircraft often attacked at night with impunity, so advancements were made to meet the challenge with radar-equipped interceptor aircraft. As time went on these radar sets were improved, but the pilots had to train on how to use them.
One of those was Navy pilot Merle Henry Longnecker from New Rockford, North Dakota. On this date in 1944, Longnecker and George Kraus from Wisconsin were flying F6F Hellcat radar-equipped fighters out of Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Airfield in Road Island for night-time radar training. They practiced interceptions on a moonless night with nothing to guide them but their small radar screens.
After hours of playing a dangerous cat and mouse game of tag over eastern Connecticut, Kraus and Longnecker took turns intercepting each other as they would do with an enemy aircraft. Just after 11 PM, Merle intercepted Kraus’s plane near the town of Preston and his last radio transmission was “Splash,” meaning he had Kraus’s plane in his sights and could have shot him down. Seconds later, in the pitch-black night, the wings of the two planes met and both planes were sent careening toward the ground and crashed a quarter mile apart in the hilly woods west of the Preston Library. Both men were killed.
Merle’s body was sent back to North Dakota and buried at New Rockford; Kraus was buried in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
Much of the wreckage still remains in the rugged hills, and the site is considered hallowed ground. In 2016 a memorial was dedicated to the two men. In a garden behind the Preston Library, a large granite bench was installed, etched with pictures of Merle, George, and the plane they flew in the service of our country.
Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson
Findagrave, Merle Henry Longnecker, Prairie Home Cemetery, New Rockford, ND
Norwich Bulletin, Oct 23, 2016, Preston Bench Honors Navy Pilots Who Died In 1944 Collision
Book, “Instruments of Darkness” by Alfred Price