Maine Twp. students look back on Maine Flyer warplane
Seventy years ago this week, Maine Township High School students gathered at a site that later became O'Hare International Airport to dedicate a warplane named in their honor.
After all, it seemed right that the C-54 Skymaster assembled at the Douglas Aircraft Co. factory be named "Maine Flyer" for the 1,600 students who sold $551,000 worth of war bonds in only two weeks.
That's more than $7 million in today's dollars.
"How did they sell that many war bonds at that time? You've got to realize, you couldn't buy cars, you couldn't buy refrigerators, you couldn't spend your money. So they sold war bonds," said Ralph Bishop, a 1945 graduate who participated in the drive.
The fundraising campaign was spurred by Maine Township's first superintendent of schools, Frank Holmes, who challenged students to go door to door on behalf of the war effort.
Now, current Superintendent Ken Wallace is challenging students to come together in a similar way to recognize one of the signature events in the history of District 207, at the same time the Park Ridge and Des Plaines communities plan their own commemorations of the Maine Flyer.
"It's a model of what's possible when students work together," Wallace said.
Students at Maine East -- the name the original Maine Township High School goes by today -- and Maine South have been working on a documentary about the Maine Flyer expected to be complete by next month. School district officials already have rebranded the athletic mascot for the district's alternative high school from the Bobcats to the Flyers.
And they are discussing the possibility of placing student-created artwork, such as sculptures or murals recognizing the Maine Flyer, at one or more of the district's three schools.
Wallace said the goal is to unveil some type of permanent memorial by August, which marks the 70th anniversary of the formal end of World War II.
That's also the time organizers in Park Ridge and Des Plaines are planning to have public events commemorating that anniversary, though details are still being worked out.
"It's the last call for so many soldiers who served in that war. There's going to be fewer around for the 75th anniversary," said Paul Adlaf, president of the Park Ridge Historical Society. "That's why I think that triggered this special anniversary."
In conjunction with those events, Shel Newman, a member of the Park Ridge historic preservation commission, is working with Springfield legislators to pass a resolution designating Aug. 15 as "Spirit of '45 Day" in Illinois.
And last week, the Des Plaines History Center opened an exhibit detailing the role local residents played in the war effort. The exhibit includes rivets from the Douglas plant that were used to fasten together parts of the C-54 metal planes built there.
Bishop, now 87, a lifelong resident of Park Ridge, recalls the effort to sell war bonds during his senior year of high school. But he says he couldn't attend the dedication ceremony at the Douglas plant on Feb. 16, 1945, because his boss wouldn't let him off from his part-time job across town at another defense contractor, Contour Saws.
One of his classmates, JoAnne Seabury, sold the most war bonds -- $50,250 -- to 65 people, according to a 1945 newspaper clipping provided by her daughter, Beth Ehlert.
"She said it was easy to sell them because everybody supported war bonds," Ehlert said. "It wasn't hard to sell them because everybody was buying them."
Seabury, 87, now living at a nursing home in Wisconsin, was a senior in high school during the war bond drive. Ehlert said her mother has spoken throughout the years about how she enlisted the support of Des Plaines business owners, including hardware merchant Benjamin Kinder and Bud Brown of Brown's department store.
But it was a family friend -- a wealthy farmer -- who bought enough bonds to put Seabury over the top, giving her bragging rights over her peers, her daughter said.
"There was this rift that the Park Ridge girls were much better than the Des Plaines girls," Ehlert said. "When a Des Plaines girl won, Mom was thrilled, but the Park Ridge girls weren't that thrilled."
For her efforts, Seabury was presented a $25 war bond at a school assembly.
'Faster and higher'
Such war bond campaigns were common throughout the United States to help finance the war. Fundraising efforts were often tied to the symbolic sponsorship of materials for the war effort, such as planes.
The C-54 Skymaster was the second-biggest type of U.S. aircraft built during the war, next to the B-29 bomber, according to John Murphy, vice president of the Park Ridge Historical Society, who is working on an oral history project documenting the stories of students from the Maine classes of 1945-1948.
With "Faster and Higher -- That's Maine's Flyer" emblazoned on its nose, the plane was put into service as a naval hospital aircraft to evacuate wounded sailors in the Pacific Theater. After the war, it's believed the plane changed hands with a number of private companies and may have been used at one time to douse forest fires.
Its current owner, Brooks Fuel in Fairbanks, Alaska, used it to ferry fuel to remote arctic locations before abandoning it at the Gila River Memorial Airport in Chandler, Arizona, according to the historical society, whose membership is now trying to gain permission to access the airfield to acquire some artifacts from the plane.
Murphy said only its "bones" remain; the engines have been removed.
The airfield, where a number of other abandoned planes sit, is now the property of the Gila River Indian Community, which has asked the historical society to confirm in writing that Brooks Fuel owns the aircraft and has given the society authority to board it, Adlaf said.
He said the owner of Brooks Fuel at one time orally granted society members permission to go into the plane but hasn't responded to subsequent messages.
The plane's owner didn't respond to messages from the Daily Herald.
Adlaf said society members have taken trips to Chandler and met with members of the Gila River community, but the society won't engage in any "clandestine" attempts to retrieve artifacts from the aircraft.
If members are able to retrieve artifacts one day, they hope to be able to display them at the society's new home in Solomon Cottage in the new Prospect Park.
About 20 students have been involved in making the documentary about the Maine Flyer, including Maine South students who helped interview graduates beginning in 2013 and Maine East students now finishing production work.
Most of the editing is done after school and during off days by members of Maine East's television staff, under the direction of Phil Ash, the school's radio, broadcasting and television teacher.
The students already have released a three-minute trailer online; once completed, the movie is expected to run seven to 10 minutes.
When Maine East students received the documentary assignment from Superintendent Wallace and East Principal Mike Pressler, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was going viral online.
"It kind of puts things into perspective with what students and teachers had to do in the '40s," Ash said.