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Helldivers Over Fundy

Late in the afternoon of June 10, 1940, the peaceful serenity of the Bay of Fundy
was broken by the roar of fighter planes. The planes crossed the Bay where
fishermen in their small boats wondered at the identity of the strange green-
striped aircraft. That they were fighter planes was clearly obvious: the fact that
they were equipped with machine guns couldn't be missed. The insignia on the
rudder was less obvious, however. Perhaps one or two keen-sighted Fundy fishermen
saw that it was the French Tricolour, but it is doubtful.

What is certain about this sighting of the fighter squadron in Nova Scotia waters
is that no one on the Bay realized the incongruity of US built planes with French
markings. Nor could anyone on the water know that the pilots flying the planes
didn't know their exact location. In fact the pilots were as close to being lost
as is possible without actually being lost. Then, as if the planes had acquired a
new sense of direction and with it determination, the squadron passed out of
sight over North Mountain.

The strange green-striped fighters bearing the French Tricolour were American made
Curtiss SBC-4 Helldivers. They were on their way to Bedford Basin to be loaded on
French transport. Their ultimate destination was the warfront in France. Their
story is one of the strangest to come out of the early years of World War II and
certainly one of the most unique passages of the Bay of Fundy ever made.

The story of how this strange squadron came to be flying over the Bay of Fundy is
a fascinating one. It is a three part story and one that could have ended in
Fundy's waters but for the quick thinking of a single pilot.

The story relates to France's desperate World War II need for aircraft, especially
dive bombers, to offset Germany's far superior air force. It also relates to the
Neutrality Act passed by the United States Congress at the insistence of
isolationists who wanted to keep the US out of another European war. But mostly it
relates to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's desire to aid the beleaguered
nations of western Europe who were just now beginning to feel the effects of the
Nazi Blitzkrieg, which had rolled over most of Poland in just over a thousand

The French air ministry had seen the writing on the wall as early as 1937. In an
international air meet in Switzerland in the summer of that year, the Dewotine
510, France's best fighter plane, had been totally outclassed by the German
Dornier 17m and Bf 109B. Realizing that the French aircraft industry was incapable
of retooling in time to produce aircraft competitive with that of the Luftwaffe,
Pierre Cot, the French air minister, sent a delegation to Franklin D. Roosevelt to
plead for modern military aircraft. Heading the delegation was Baron Amaury de la
Grange, an old, close friend of Roosevelt.

The Baron's pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Roosevelt authorized, by executive
order, the sale of one thousand new planes to France. Roosevelt's only request of
de la Grange was that the Baron
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keep the matter strictly confidential in order that the isolationists, who wanted
the United States to stay out of the war and had pushed for the Neutrality Act,
not be alerted. Unfortunately for France, de la Grange found that US aircraft
manufacturers were just beginning to gear up for military production and that US
Navy and Army Air Corps backorders had first priority. Slowly. however, some new
US fighter planes made their way to France. In fact the first two air battles
between France and Germany were won by US made Curtiss 75 fighters. However, the
French air ministry now belatedly realized that it needed dive bombers to offset
the now greatly feared German Stukas that had so decimated and demoralized the
Polish infantry. And, herein lies the story of the oddly coloured Curtiss
Helldivers that flew across the Bay of Fundy late one June afternoon in 1940.

By 1939 the French aircraft industry was producing top flight fighter planes.
However, as the air ministry had foreseen no need for dive bombers, the call for
help again went out to Franklin Roosevelt. On Roosevelt's orders, the Navy
designated fifty Curtiss SBC-4 Helldivers as surplus and turned them over to the
Army Air Corps. The fifty planes were stationed on naval reserve aviation bases
scattered across the country. In April of 1940, naval reserve officers were called
up to fly the planes to the Curtiss plant in Buffalo, New York for refurbishing.
From Buffalo the planes would be flown to Nova Scotia where they would be loaded
on board the French aircraft carrier Bearn in Halifax for passage to France.

The Helldivers would never reach France, however. This incredible odyssey would
end on the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean.

The Helldivers that flew into Buffalo in April came from all across the United
States. They came from Oakland and Seattle on the West Coast. They came from
Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Glenview, Illinois in the Midwest. And
they came from Brooklyn and Anacostia on the East Coast.

At the Curtiss plant in Buffalo, the Helldivers where fitted with 7.7 mm machine
guns, new navigation instrumentation- most of which was to prove defective- bomb
racks and new seats to accommodate the French backpack parachute. In addition all
US Navy markings were removed and replaced with civil export registration letters
and numerals. These ran from NX-C4 to NX-C54. The planes were painted with unique
camouflage patterns consisting of random green stripes on a gray background. The
French Tricolour was appended to rudders and wing tips. As a final step in the
subterfuge of getting the Helldivers out of the country, all the naval reserve
pilots were hired by Curtiss at $250 apiece and the pilots covered all the naval
insignia on their uniforms.

From Buffalo the Helldivers were to proceed to Houlton on the Maine and New
Brunswick border with stopovers at Burlington, Vermont and Augusta, Maine. As not
all the planes would be ready to take off at the same time, it was decided that as
soon as any three were ready, they would take off and fly together. On group of
the three was led by Lieutenant W. E. Larnard, who had flown in from Glenview,
Illinois. In the course of the war Larnard would rise to the rank of
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rear admiral. It would be Larnard that would save the squadron from a possible
watery grave in the Bay of Fundy.

The flight of Lieutenant Larnard and his two companions, Lieutenant Wilson and
Lieutenant Sommermeyer, to Burlington was uneventful. The fact that Larnard's
plane was part of the group would prove to be a stroke of luck as it was the only
one with functioning navigation instruments. The day of the flight from Burlington
to Augusta was one of low, heavy cloud cover. This meant traversing the White
Mountains would be exceedingly dangerous, especially for the planes flying blind.
Undaunted, the three set out flying in a tight V with Larnard at point. Several
hours later they landed in Augusta.

Another Helldiver pilot was not so lucky. This was Lieutenant Alan Lullman of St.
Louis. Lieutenant Lullman's plane crashed and exploded, killing him as he tried
to land at Mariaville, New York during a snowstorm.

As hostilities in Europe worsened, the US built up its military. On aspect of this

buildup was an improvement in military airports. And one airport that saw
expansion was the one at Houlton. In fact, early in 1940, Houlton Airport had been
awarded $30,000 for construction of living quarters for students attending the
National Youth Administration Training Center there. The center trained young men
to work in aircraft plants. Houlton, then, was prepared to receive the forty-nine
Helldivers. The real reason for the stop in Houlton had nothing to do with the
modernization of the airport there or for the opportunity for maintenance. The
reason why the Helldivers landed in Houlton was that they could not fly across the
border into New Brunswick because of the Neutrality Act. They had to be towed
across the border.

Most Houlton residents were in sympathy with the war effort and opposed to the
policies of the isolationists. Many people in the area either had relatives or
close friends living across the border and Canada was already a belligerent. In
addition, local papers carried articles and editorials that were openly critical
of what was considered the government's misguided policy of not letting the
Helldivers take to the air from Houlton. It comes as no surprise then that there
was no shortage of volunteers to help tow the Helldivers across the border to
Woodstock, New Brunswick.

The Helldiver convoy, which included French naval personal from the Bearn, left
Houlton the morning of June 10, 1940. By that time thousands of Houlton and
Woodstock area residents had visited Houlton Airport to view the planes and wish
the US pilots and French Navy men well and bon voyage.

Without doubt the Helldiver convoy that wound its way along the narrow two lane
road connecting Houlton, Maine and Woodstock, New Brunswick was one of the
strangest caravans ever seen in the north woods. The camouflaged Curtiss SBC-4
Helldivers bearing the markings of the French Tricolour were towed along the fir-
lined road by cars, trucks and tractors driven by Houlton area residents. The
planes were kept on the narrow road by uniformed French naval
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officers and sailors who made sure wings were kept clear of telephone poles and
trees. Scattered among the French naval personnel were men wearing the uniform of
the US Navy sans insignia.

Arriving in Woodstock around midday, the Helldivers took off for the Royal
Canadian Air Force Base at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia from a farmer's muddy field. It
was flying across the Bay of Fundy that the naval reserve pilots encountered their
last problem.

The pilots had been given contour maps to study while they were at Houlton
Airport. Unfortunately the maps did not match what they saw beneath them as they
crossed Fundy and approached the Nova Scotia shore. Then Lieutenant Larnard, who
had successfully led two other pilots across the cloud covered White Mountains,
remembered that the Bay of Fundy was famous for its tides. Larnard realized that
all that was necessary was to get over land and search for identifiable landmarks.

Once over North Mountain everything was clear flying. By 18:00, all the Helldivers
had landed at Dartmouth. Forty-four were on board the Bearn by midnight. As to
what happened to the remaining five, it is anyone's guess. Most likely they ended
up in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The Bearn set sail the next day, escorted by the Jeanne D'Arc. The two vessels
never made it to France, however.

Even as the Helldivers were crossing the Bay of Fundy, France was falling to the

Between May 26 and June 3, 350,000 British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops
had been evacuated across the English Channel in the "Miracle of Dunkirk." On June
10, the day the Helldivers crossed the Bay of Fundy, Italy invaded southern
France. On June 14, Paris fell and on June 22, while the Bearn and the Jeanne
D'Arc were still at sea, France capitulated. The two French vessels then headed
for Martinique, the nearest French port.

In Martinique, after some squabbling among the island's governor, who supported
the puppet Vichy regime, Britain, which wanted the Helldivers, and the US, which
was still neutral, the planes were unloaded.

At one point during the unloading, two young French officers opened orders which
said, "Destroy the planes." The young men then ran around chopping off assemblies
and setting fires. By the time they were stopped over half the planes were
useless. The rest simply sat rusting in the damp, tropical climate until they too
were beyond salvage.

And so ended the odyssey of the Curtiss Helldivers that passed over the serene
waters of the Bay of Fundy one June day.