A Shooting in Searsport

Researched by Leo Shea, Ph.D.

Lincoln Ross Colcord

Lincoln Ross Colcord

Want insight into Lincoln Colcord? Into the man and his times? Into his able, vast nautical, literary, social and political experiences and opinions? The Penobscot Marine Museum has an extensive “Colcord Collection”, in which you can find a considerable amount of his correspondence, manuscripts, photographs – they even have his typewriter! The bulk of this article is based upon file PMM 29-460, acquisition LB2005.29, in the Penobscot Marine Museum archives.

Lincoln Ross Colcord (1883-1947) is perhaps best known for his prolific writing. He authored innumerable articles, short stories, poems, as well as some novels. He also was a literary critic and provided newspapers, magazines and publishers with a seemingly uncountable number of book reviews. He was instrumental in establishing and operating the Penobscot Marine Museum.

Lincoln Colcord was a very social person. He had an extensive network of friends and acquaintances. Writers, mariners, academics, actors, artists and politicians easily befriended him. He even knew a pre-revolution Russian Prince! Of course, he was close to many, many Mainers, both mariners and landlubbers alike.

Before launching into telling you about a particularly humanitarian marshalling of his social network, let me provide some 1944-1945 Searsport, Maine context.

World War II was beginning to wind down in Europe. The local weekly newspaper, The Republican Journal, was filled with articles about locals in the military service and advertisements for purchasing war bonds. On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, two Nazi spies were put ashore in Frenchman Bay, off of the German submarine U-1230. They landed at Hancock Point, about two miles from Ellsworth. The following Sunday, December 3, 1944, off Mount Desert Island, U-1230 sunk a Canadian ship bound for St. John, New Brunswick, killing 42 crew members. This sinking was later believed to be a diversion to assist the spies in avoiding the FBI, Army and Navy personnel swarming over the entire mid-Coast area. The spies made their way to New York City; their primary mission was to determine whether the US would use the a-bomb on Germany.

Searsport was especially important to the military. Mack Point served as a Port of Embarkation for ammunition and high explosives going to Europe during WWII. In fact, Searsport shipped 435,573 tons of ammunition and high explosives between December, 1941 and August, 1945 (http://usmm.org – see “Troops and Cargo Transported During World War II Under US Army Control”). Lincoln Colcord’s correspondence at the time occasionally noted the Liberty ships in Penobscot Bay, heavily laden with bombs, as well as the patrolling Navy destroyers, particularly when writing fellow mariners or his son.

Lewis H. Rich (1905-1988) was born in Searsport and lived there throughout his life. He was a very hardy, healthy man who was usually employed as an electrician and who supplemented his income by lobstering. At the time at hand, Mr. Rich was employed as a foreman on the dock at the Port of Embarkation. He also served as President of Local 1519 of the International Longshoreman’s Association. This union local consisted of roughly 600 Port of Embarkation workers.

Exactly a week after the two Nazi spies landed on Hancock Point, on Wednesday, December 6, 1944, Lewis Rich was approached by two Army officers seeking his assistance. You see, there were suspicions about strangers seen in and about a small house or shack that was located near the shore by Mr. Rich’s house. Not surprisingly, given the wartime circumstances, rumors about the strangers developed.

Army Captain H.B. Morris and a Lt. Collins travelled from Boston to investigate the suspicions. They asked Mr. Rich to assist them in locating the building. He immediately complied.

The Army officers located the place in question but found that its door was padlocked. Nevertheless, Capt. Morris believed that it was essential to gain entrance. They would have to break in. So, Capt. Morris took his Thompson submachine gun and slammed the butt of it onto the padlock to smash it open. That is when his “Tommy gun” discharged, about a foot from Lewis Rich’s arm. The .45 bullet shattered a bone in his arm and tore away about an inch of the main nerve running down the arm, which controls hand movement. Of course, Mr. Rich could have been killed.

The local physicians could only work on Mr. Rich’s wound, not the severed nerve. As a result of the nerve damage, his hand was immobile. He could not move his fingers. There was no feeling in the hand. And, he needed to wait until the wound healed before they could work on the nerve. Finally, on February 16, 1945, Dr. Henry Marble sewed the nerve together during a 2 ½ hour operation at the Massachusetts General Hospital. After the operation Mr. Rich’s wife, Rose (nee: Keegan – 1906-1981), a practical nurse, stayed in Boston with him, providing the constant attention he needed for his seven week recovery period.

A year after the shooting, Lewis Rich was still unable to use his hand and could barely bend his fingers. He could not work at the Port of Embarkation, nor at his electrical or lobstering businesses. He had paid all of the medical bills. He and his wife were in serious financial difficulty.

Lincoln Colcord was outraged about the shooting and Mr. Rich’s plight. He wanted to help. Beginning May 10, 1945, he contacted Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith. He wanted her to intervene on Mr. Rich’s behalf. At the time, Congresswoman Smith represented Maine’s Second Congressional District, which included Searsport. Lincoln had other business with her as well, in her capacity as a member of the then House Naval Affairs Committee. It seemed highly unlikely that Lewis Rich would get anywhere on his own.

Lincoln Colcord became a marvelous and eloquent advocate for Mr. Rich. He saw Lewis as a war casualty who was not interested in pursuing a pension. He noted that the Army did not deny the incident. However, in August, 1945, the Army paid but $485 of Mr. Rich’s $615 medical expenses, and, denied any additional payment for the loss of his work wages, for his wife’s time in caring for him and her loss of work wages, as well as for any additional medical expenses subsequent to August, 1945. Interestingly, adjusted for inflation, a 1945 dollar is worth $13.19 in 2015 (http://dollartimes.com).

Lincoln continued to advocate for Mr. Rich. He pointed out that Lewis’s injury could be a lifelong disability. He provided Congresswoman Smith with a rationale for Mr. Rich receiving a one-time payment of $15,000 to fully settle matters and all of the medical documentation. He suggested that Capt. Morris should be court martialed. Congresswoman Smith agreed with Lincoln and began the frustrating, arduous process of trying to make the financial matters better for Mr. Rich. She told Lincoln in her letter of May 15, 1945, that “The Rich case is one of the most amazing that I have heard about…”. She began an inquiry with the Army about Capt. Morris. On July 18, 1945, she notified Lincoln about what disciplinary action was taken against Capt. Morris – he was reprimanded. Lincoln later discovered that Capt. Morris had been transferred from Boston to Chicago.

By February, 1946, Lewis’s physicians believed he needed another operation. Lewis could not afford it. Lincoln notified Congresswoman Smith, who introduced a bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 434, 80th Congress, 1st Session), seeking to provide Mr. Rich with a settlement sum of $15,000. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. On July 2, 1947, it was amended to the sum of $4000. H.R. 434 as amended was approved on July 30, 1947 (http://library.clerk.house.gov – see: “Calendars of the US House of Representatives and History of Legislation”). This was about four months before Lincoln Colcord died.

I wonder:
Did Lewis Rich ever regain the use of his hand?
How did Lewis Rich fare the rest of his life?
Why didn’t the Army officers take the time to get a tool, such as a crowbar?
Did anyone ever find the suspicious strangers?
Was the drastic reduction of the settlement sum a typical reflection of why President Harry S. Truman called the 80th Congress “the do nothing Congress”?
Just how would Lincoln Colcord have written this story for a magazine or newspaper?