Gary D. Crawford - April 2011

 

An Occurrence at Jones Boatyard
by
Gary D. Crawford

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1941, communities along the Atlantic coast suddenly found themselves facing a war zone. U-boats made regular patrols offshore, and early in the war they took a terrible toll on merchant ships. In 1942 alone, 121 vessels were sunk or damaged off the East Coast, most to torpedo attacks. These losses off our coast contributed significantly to the Merchant Marines becoming the most deadly of all U.S. services – one out of every 26 dies – a higher rate than that of the Army, the Navy or the Marine Corps.
Because submarines could be spotted from the sky, even when submerged at periscope depth, one of the primary weapons in the war against the U-boats was the patrol plane. One such plane was a two-engine patrol bomber (PBM) known as the Mariner. It was designed and built by the Martin Aircraft Company in the Baltimore suburb of Middle River, across the Bay from Tolchester Beach. Its dihedral tail was quite distinctive.
The first Mariners (PBM-1) went into service in 1941, and nearly 1,400 of these flying boats were built before production ended in 1949. The last forty were the model PBM-5A, modified by the addition of landing gear to be a truly amphibious aircraft. Only one PBM has survived, and is on display in a museum in Tucson.
In July of 1947, however, the war had been over for nearly two years and few on the Eastern Shore were expecting an attack. (The term “terrorist” hadn’t been applied to America’s enemies yet.) The sun was shining on Wednesday afternoon, July 2. It was to be a short work week, and plans were well underway for the Independence Day celebrations on Friday. People were at work on their farms, in their homes, on the water, in shops, offices, boatyards and seafood processing houses.
A team of African-American crab pickers from Wittman were busily at work in their picking room at the Tilghman Packing Company. To pass the time they chatted and sometimes sang songs; sometimes they composed songs or verse themselves.
Back up in Wittman Village, four men were hard at work in the Jones Boat Shop. Owner J. Walter Jones, his sons Orval and Edwin Jones, and employee John McCord were engaged in various tasks.
Over in Middle River, a PBM-5A soared into the air for a test flight, piloted by Martin test pilot Capt. H. W. Koepka. The world’s largest amphibious aircraft turned toward the Bay and gained altitude. Being a seaplane, a PBM-5A could not carry bombs in its fuselage; the bomb-bays were under the engine nacelles. She didn’t carry weapons on this test flight, of course, but two dummy bombs had been taken aboard as ballast. They were filled with just sand and water. Each weighed 1,000 pounds.
At Jones’ Boat Yard, work was progressing. On Tilghman’s Island, crabs were being picked. Over Bloody Point, the PBM-5A climbed to 9,000 feet. Then the unusual happened.
At 9,500 feet, for some reason, the two bombs broke loose. Capt. Koepka’s crew thought the bombs had fallen into the Bay off Kent Island, but they had messed that up, too. Instead, the dummy bombs hurtled to earth in Wittman, some four and a half miles away, and slammed into the ground beside the Boat Shop.
Orval Jones was dressing some planks when they hit. “I turned from the planer and saw the roof coming up, so I tried to start running. But, I felt my insides coming out, so I hit the ground.” Jones explained that that was the feeling one gets when there’s a lack of oxygen in the air – such as when a bomb explodes.
They didn’t explode, exactly, but they hit with a mighty impact – creating two craters eight feet across and five feet deep. One landed in the Boat Shop, the other in the yard, narrowly missing a pig pen. All four men received concussions and minor injuries. Said Orval, “I spent four-and-a-half years in the service during World War II, and didn’t get a scratch, and I come home and nearly get killed in my own back yard.”
Word spread quickly throughout Bay Hundred, soon reaching Mr. George T. Harrison, general manager of the Tilghman Packing Company. He lost no time in relaying the spectacular news to his employees, especially those from Wittman.

Five of the women memorialized the event in verse:

THE BOMBARDMENT OF WITTMAN (POT PIE)

We were working calm and peaceful
on the second of July
When the rumors began to spread
that bombs are falling in Pot Pie

It was told to us by our employer.
Since he’s just a jolly guy,
we just knew that he was kidding
so we took it for a lie.

Wittman is not a town in Europe
or any other country overseas.
But it’s a very small town in Maryland—
it’s our hometown, if you please.

The Joneses were working in their boat house,
not a murmur or a sigh
Suddenly, a plane flew over and
the bombs dropped from the sky.

One fell near the boat house;
the other in the field.
The Joneses had to hit the dirt
for protection and for shield.

What is so surprising and exciting,
such has never happened before!
Bombs falling in Wittman,
Talbot County, Eastern shore.

News reporters, investigators, and spectators
like you and me
will remember July second, 1947,
that Wittman, which made headlines,
should go down in history.

By The Colored Claw Workers of Tilghman Packing Company:
Marie Ennells, Aoma Copper, Celestine Caldwell, Eunice McNair, Lottie Pinkney

Gary Crawford and his wife, Susan, operate Crawford’s Nautical Books, a unique bookstore on Tilghman’s Island.