The World War II years provided a unique backdrop to campus life at Wilmington College as the student enrollment dipped to barely more than 100, the vast majority of whom were women. On Oct. 26, 1944, the war came even closer to the college when an Army P-47 fighter plane suddenly appeared on campus.
Charles Hart, Wilmington College class of 1948, who became a popular local attorney in Wilmington, was a freshman washing windows at what was then the three-year-old college library when the plane experienced engine trouble and, upon its descent, cleared the old college gym known as Whittier Court, brushed some treetops and crash landed a stone’s throw away.
“When I heard the plane coming closer and tree limbs started breaking, I hit the ground — I thought the [Japanese] were attacking,” Hart said while reminiscing about the incident in the mid-1990s. “When I looked up, I saw the burning engine in one place and the fuselage about 20 feet away. I jumped up on it and pulled the pilot out.”
Hart recalled the Air Force major pilot telling him he took off from the Clinton County Air Force Base, which was about a mile from campus on the site of the current Wilmington Air Park.
“He couldn’t get altitude and radioed in that he was going to put it down,” Hart said.
Ninety-three-year-old Ruby Edwards Porter of Wilmington this fall recalled being a freshman at WC and studying in the college library when she heard a large crash.
“I looked outside and saw the main part of the plane was here and the engine was there — the engine was on fire,” she said. “The pilot came up the back steps and pounded on the door yelling, ‘Evacuate, evacuate!’ He thought the plane might explode.”
Porter, a 1948 WC graduate who enjoyed a 33-year career in education, grabbed her books and left the building through the door on the campus mall side of the library. She said the crash occurred between the library and College Street in an open area that included a former athletic field and abandoned tennis courts.
“The pilot apparently realized he was having engine trouble and looked for a good place to land — with all the trees elsewhere on campus, he found a safe, fairly open area,” Porter said. “Luckily that was an area where no students were standing.”
Porter said the fire department from the Army Base was at the crash scene in no time, as the pilot likely radioed a distress call shortly after take-off.
She recalled living on the second floor of Twin Ash Hall her freshman year and hearing the Army planes flying low day and night as they took off from and landed at the nearby airfield.
“They sounded like they were flying just above the trees. From then on, I thought of that plane crash every time I heard them flying over the campus,” Porter said.
This story is the latest in the monthly “Sesquicentennial Moments” shared as part of the college’s 150th anniversary observance in 2020-21.
Randall Sarvis is the senior director of public relations at Wilmington College.