By Jim Ignasher
If one has ever been hiking in the woods along Nooseneck Hill Road in the Exeter-West Greenwich area they may have encountered occasional twisted pieces of aluminum of varying sizes and wondered what they were. Most probably wouldn’t recognize the debris for what it is, or consider that there’s a dark story connected with it, or know that somewhere out there the still lies the buried hulk of a vintage U.S. Navy “Banshee” aircraft.
The Banshee was a Cold War era, single-seat fighter jet, with an 1,100 gallon fuel capacity. The name comes from Irish folklore, and refers to a female spirit whose moaning wail is a harbinger of death.
This story is yet another forgotten tale of the Ocean State. It began on the night of June 24, 1953, when a flight of Banshee fighter jets left Quonset Point on a routine night radar training mission. At exactly 10:21 p.m., a brilliant flash lit the sky over southern Rhode Island as two aircraft collided in mid-air at high speed. The flash was seen for miles, and witnesses observed two balls of fire and numerous “splinters” of flame falling towards earth. Within minutes police departments began receiving reports of everything from a Russian invasion to a meteor explosion.
Those in Quonset’s control tower quickly surmised what happened for two of the seven fighter jets had suddenly vanished from radar. Their fears were confirmed a minute later by the flight leader – two jets had exploded at 20,000 feet. As the base began mobilizing for a search and rescue mission, sirens began wailing at volunteer fire stations across the region.
The flaming debris rained down across a wide area igniting several brush fires between present day Route 95 and New London Turnpike.
One of the pilots, Lieutenant (Jg.) James Schollian, later told investigators that the violent impact was instantly followed by an explosion which set his aircraft ablaze. As the other plane spun away in a flat spin, Schollian attempted to bail out. He jettisoned the canopy, but then discovered his ejection seat wasn’t working. Fortunately he didn’t panic and remembered his training. As his aircraft plummeted towards earth, he released his seatbelt, and literally floated up and out of his seat. He then put his feet against his seat and pushed himself up and away from the falling plane. He fumbled for the D-ring to his parachute, and when he finally found it, gave it a hard yank. One can only imagine the relief he felt when the silk billowed open.
As he hung in his harness floating down through the darkness, he watched his doomed aircraft continue its fiery plunge to oblivion. The land below him was rural, and although he could see a few house lights and vehicles moving on roadways, nobody could see him. Prevailing winds carried him over heavy woodlands where he came crashing down through the treetops and hit the ground. There he lay for a minute or two collecting his thoughts and assessing himself for injuries – remarkably he hadn’t broken any bones. He then abandoned his chute and helmet, and set off through the near pitch-black woods.
Hundreds of curiosity seekers converged on the area clogging the roadways and adding to the confusion, which lead to rumors based on vague witness accounts to be taken as fact. Newspaper headlines the following day related that both pilots had been found safe, unfortunately it wasn’t true. While Lieutenant Schollian had been located, the other pilot, 24-year-old Lieutenant (Jg) Jack Snipes was still missing.
At dawn several search aircraft left Quonset Point, but then one of them crashed in Wickford Harbor shortly after take off. Fortunately the crew escaped without serious injury, but the incident caused a diversion in resources.
The body of Lieutenant Snipes was found on the morning of the 26th, still strapped in his ejection seat not far from Breakheart Hill Road. Debris from his demolished aircraft was discovered about a mile away. A memorial service was held the following Monday at the Quonset Chapel before his body was sent to Erwin, North Carolina, for burial.
The life story of Lieutenant Snipes is one of perseverance and self determination. He enlisted in the navy in 1947. While receiving training as a flight crewman, he completed his high school studies, and was accepted for pilot training. After receiving his pilot wings and officer’s commission, he went on to serve aboard two aircraft carriers flying missions over Korea. At the time of his death he was assigned to Quonset Point.
As to Lieutenant Schollian, he continued to serve in the Navy until his retirement in 1976 at the rank of captain.
It’s interesting to note that a good portion of the debris from both aircraft was never recovered by the navy. According to a Providence Journal article, the navy buried the wreckage of Lieutenant Schollian’s Banshee “off Victory Highway where it fell to earth.” It presumably lies there yet, waiting for the day when future development might once again bring it to light.
Locals tell of a “truckload” of debris that was removed and taken for scrap from the wooded area around St. Joseph’s Cemetery on Route 3 during its expansion in the 1980s.
And legend has it that an entire wing from Lieutenant Snipe’s aircraft still lies in a wooded swampy area beneath thick brush and brambles, but recent attempts to find it have been unsuccessful.
In 2011, the Quonset Air Museum acquired a Banshee fighter with the intention of restoring it to look like the one flown by Lieutenant Snipes as a way to honor him. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the museum has permanently closed, and the memorial to Jack Snipes is unlikely to be completed.
As we celebrate this July 4th, we should remember that we owe our freedom to those who serve(d) in the military.
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