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One hundred years ago today, on January 8, 1917, the weather forecast in the Fort Myers Press was for a high of 75 degrees and a low of 50. “Fair tonight and Tuesday; moderate temperature; gentle variable winds.”

It was Monday, and John Woolslair, a citrus and pineapple grower out on the Orange River, drove his kids into school as usual, dropping his two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Eleanor, at Gwynne High School and Mary and John, Jr. at Gwynne Institute.

Bank of Fort Myers on left

Bank of Fort Myers on left

Mr. Woolslair then drove to the handsome, red-and-white brick Bank of Fort Myers where he worked as a cashier to supplement his income as a produce farmer. If he picked up a copy of the Press that morning, he found the front-page headlines to be concerned principally with a political scandal involving accusations of state department leaks to the stock market, and with legal battles over railroad hour and wage laws. Skimming over stories about the success of Sunday night’s minstrel show at the Court Theater, and advances made by the German army into Romania, he would have paused to read the account of former sheriff T. W. Langford’s death by heart failure early that morning.

In Europe and around the world, the Allied Powers of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan and the Russian Empire, and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria had been killing one another with knives, bayonets, grenades, hand guns, rifles, machine guns and chemical weapons since 1914. The U.S. of A. was reluctant to get involved. Our world was here. Mr. Woolslair’s thoughts, therefore, were less about the great war in Europe and more about the death of old Captain Langford.

THE TEN-YEAR-OLD AND THE AVIATOR

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Three months almost to the day later, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration before Congress that “The world must be made safe for democracy,” had received emphatic head nods, and on June 26, 1917, 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France.

The boys in Lee County, Florida, couldn’t wait to get “over there.” Recruits paraded through the streets of Fort Myers. The kid brother of Elizabeth Woolslair’s beau had the lofty ambition of becoming a fighter pilot. When he showed up at the recruitment station, the skinny 24-year-old was rejected with quiet amusement. Only the intercession of a state senator got him accepted and his graduation from the Dorr Field Flying School in Arcadia in December was all the more thrilling. He invited the Woolslairs to the ceremony.

Red Cross benefit, 1918-Mary Woolslair 2nd row center

Red Cross benefit, 1918-Mary Woolslair 2nd row center

Elizabeth Woolslair’s 10-year-old sister, Mary, announced to all her classmates at Gwynne that she had been invited to a dancing party given by soldiers at Dorr Field. She also announced that the soldier who invited her was going to the war to kill Huns with machine guns and bombs and guess what else, she said, swelling with pride. “He’s going to be my pen pal.”

Incredibly, he was. His first letter was posted from England. “It doesn’t seem possible that the day after tomorrow is Christmas. Of course, we have nothing to remind us of the fact. No holly, no mistletoe, no decorations.”

In February, Mary received a Raggedy Ann Valentine, which she joyfully showed around the next day at school.

copy of original

copy of original

In March and April, his letters came from the 88th Aero Squadron base in Germany. He complained that for weeks bad weather had prevented them from flying. On July 5, 1918, however, he assured Mary that though they had no firecrackers with which to celebrate the Fourth, “Every day is the Fourth of July with us.” Mary’s daddy got a big kick out of that.

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Mary read the letter she received in August with a deep frown. It was dated August 9, 1918.

“I’ve been shot down…had several fights and in the last one got thirty five machine gun bullets in my plane, including three in my observer. My plane was so shot up it had to go to the shops, so this morning I’m going over in a borrowed plane.

Don’t forget to write.

Sincerely,

Channing Page”

For the action described in his letter, Mary’s pen pal received the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action near Fismes, France, August 9, 1918.”

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The Fort Myers Press related that, “…detailed to fly without escort on a visual reconnaissance over the enemy’s lines…” he was attacked by six enemy battle planes. “In spite of the fact that his elevator controls on one side had been shot away, Lieutenant Page skillfully maneuvered the plane throughout the combat and piloted it safely back to his airdrome.”

For downing 3 enemy planes, Lieutenant Page would also receive France’s Croix de Guerre.

WAR # 2 & PALMETTO FIELD

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Twenty-one years passed. The world entered its second global war. The raw, and apply named, “Palmetto Field” airfield just south of Fort Myers had recently acquired concrete runways and in 1942, it became an Army Air Services base for training bomber and fighter pilots. They named it after Fort Myers’ WWI hero, Captain Richard Channing Moore Page.

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Page Field became a civilian airport after the war. In 1983, when the Southwest Florida International Airport was built, Page Field became and is now a general aviation reliever airport.

Channing Page would have been only 50 when the airfield was dedicated to him in 1942, but he did not live to see it.

“SO LONG”

Channing Page came home from the war, finally, in the spring of 1919. He got a job initially as a crop duster, then leased a Curtiss Seagull hydroplane and soon was flying paying customers north to Tampa and south to Miami. He promised Mary, “I’ll take you up with me one of these days,” but in the year that was left to him, the opportunity did not arise.

On March 1, 1920, Channing was engaged to fly county tax assessor, G. Hunter Bryant, out over what is now Collier County to make a tax assessment. City councilman, Thomas Colcord, went along as a mechanic. That morning before takeoff, Channing called his friend Mort Milford, editor of the Fort Myers Press, to give him the particulars about the trip. It was a cold, windy morning, and he mentioned that the ride might be a bit bumpy. “And listen, Mort,” he said with a grin before hanging up, “cut that ‘hero stuff’ when you write a piece about the trip. If anything happens, write a good story about it. So long.”

Courtesy Gerri Reaves' "Then and Now" column, FM River Weekly

Courtesy Gerri Reaves’ “Then and Now” column, FM River Weekly

The wind tossed wavelets against the wings of the seaplane as the men took off just before 11:00 a.m. Later that afternoon, the Press headlined the weather. “CLOSE TO FREEZING FORECAST FOR SOUTH FLORIDA FOR TONIGHT.”

The one thing that Channing Page had dreaded most during the great world war was not aerial combat, it was the “terribly cold” winters. Now here he was, back in the air over Florida, for Pete’s sake, and freezing his you-know-what off. What the heck.

Channing and his passengers completed their frigid day’s work and stayed in Marco that night. They would complete the tax assessment the next day and get back to Fort Myers before dark.

The next night, shortly before 9:00, the telephone rang in the Bradford Hotel. The hotel proprietor, Peter Schutt, lifted the receiver to his ear. At first all he could hear was static. He picked the phone up off his desk, putting his mouth to the transmitter. “Say again?” The man on the other end began to shout. Wincing, using the forefinger of the hand holding the phone to close his left ear, Schutt strained to make out the fuzzled words coming to him across the wire. “Who is this? Who? George? George Storter? WHERE ARE YOU, GEORGE? What? Did you say ‘Channing’? DAMNIT, GEORGE, HOLD ON A MINUTE. I CAN’T HEAR YOU. Did you just say ‘Channing Page’? He’s WHAT?”

Schutt rose from his chair, gripping the phone with suddenly sweating hands. He shouted to his assistant. The man trotted over, concerned.

“I think Channing Page and the men with him have been killed,” Schutt said quickly, his voice lowered. But he was overheard. The name went around the room and suddenly voices in the lobby of the hotel rose in alarm. Now Schutt was waiting, wild with impatience, for Miss Alice to connect him with Mort Milford. The noise of voices went out into the street where men and women, shivering in near freezing temperatures, stood arrested in postures of disbelief. Schutt’s voice shook. “I’m telling you, Mort, that’s what he said. That’s all I know.”

Editor Milford fell heavily into his chair, dropped both forearms on his desk and lowered his head. And over the next hour, as frantic calls were made and family physicians rushed to the homes of the Page, Bryant and Colcord families, Mort began, with deep sorrow, to write the “good story” that Channing had wanted in case “anything happens.”

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With heavy heart, Mort put the weather forecast for the day on the same page. “Generally fair tonight and Wednesday with slowly rising temperature. Gentle to moderate northeast winds.”

 

The author’s thanks to Mary Woolslair Sheppard’s son, retired attorney, John Woolslair Sheppard, for the family information and imagery contained in this story.

 

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