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The Early Witnesses Nungesser & Coli

Nicholas McGrath, Born 1888, Died 1971

On a Sunday or Monday in May of 1927, Nicholas McGrath, 39, of Patrick’s Cove, was trapping muskrat on the Branch River a few miles southeast of the Gull Pond when he heard three explosions in rapid succession off to the northwest. The following winter, while hunting caribou, Nicholas was crossing the frozen Gull Pond when he saw a piece of blue-painted metal through the ice in the shallow water near the northwest side of the rocky island. Remembering the explosions he heard the previous spring, he thought an airplane must have crashed in the pond. He did not connect the crash with any particular airplane or flight. May 9th, the day the White Bird went missing, was a Monday. The aircraft’s three large fuel tanks were in the nose immediately behind the engine and might logically explode in the event of a crash. These facts were probably not known to Nicholas when he told his story to an amateur historian from St. John’s some time after 1967 and before his death in 1971. [2]

Anthony McGrath, Born 1913, died 1994

In the winter of 1940, Anthony McGrath, 27, was hunting caribou in company with Ronald McGrath, 14, when he saw a five-foot tall piece of metal sticking up out of the ice in the northwest part of the island in the Gull Pond. The metal was lightweight, riveted, painted robin’s egg blue on both sides, and attached to wood framing. Anthony twisted the metal back and forth until it broke free. Burdened with caribou meat, they were unable to take the metal home to Patrick’s Cove so Anthony stashed the piece in a stand of “tuck” (tuckamore — a tangled stand of dwarfed and gnarled spruce trees) near the southwest end of the Gull Pond. When he later went back to retrieve it he couldn’t find it. He believed it had been taken by Patrick “Patsy” Judge and Judge’s father in law James Joseph Doyle of Gooseberry. The piece was later destroyed in a barn fire.

Anthony McGrath was apparently unaware of Nicholas McGrath’s story and claimed to have been the first person to see pieces of the plane in the pond. Anthony told his story to TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie in August 1992. His account agrees with what he told another interviewer shortly before his death in July 1994. Anthony was 79 years old in 1992 and 81 in 1994. [3]

Ronald McGrath, Born 1926, Died 1980

In 1973 or ’74, Ronald McGrath told a fisheries warden he had seen what might have been part of a wing — no date mentioned. He may have been referring to the piece Anthony collected and hid in the tuck.[4]]

John McGrath, Born 1900, Died 1985

According to Anthony McGrath, his older brother John, born in 1900, had a piece of the plane — very light metal, 18 to 20 inches long, which was torn apart as if it had been in an explosion or had hit something very hard. No mention of paint or where it was found.

In a 1969 interview with journalist Jack Fitzgerald, John McGrath appears to have been the first person to associate the plane in the pond with the White Bird. In 1994, John’s son Dermot McGrath told an interviewer that when he was a child (probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s), his father kept the piece safe and would not let his children play with the “souvenir of the White Bird.” In later years, when interest in the plane in the pond died down, the piece of metal disappeared and may have been thrown out.[5]

Patrick "Patsy" Judge, Born 1912, Died 1984

photo of Ric and Patrick

Patsy Judge died in 1984 before TIGHAR’s Newfoundland investigations, but in 1992 Ric Gillespie interviewed Patrick McGrath, who was with Patsy when the piece was recovered.

Tetley tea box

A vintage Tetley Tea box.

Patrick McGrath sketch

Sketch by Patrick McGrath, 18 September 1992.

If there is a star witness in the legend it is Patsy Judge. Patsy recovered at least four pieces and is the only one of the early witnesses known to have contacted authorities in an effort to discover the identity of the plane in the pond.

He recovered his first piece of the plane in the pond in company with Nicholas McGrath’s son Patrick and two of Patrick’s cousins, Ignatius and Leo McGrath. Patsy later said the year was 1932. He would have been 20 years old. Patrick McGrath said it was “sometime in the ’40s.” Patsy’s daughter Florence thought it was 1942.

The four young men were hunting caribou and saw blue-painted metal sticking up out of the ice near the island. Patsy collected the piece which, according to Patrick McGrath, was a sheet of very lightweight metal, painted dark blue, “the color of a Tetley Tea box,” no rust, trapezoidal in shape and measuring approximately two feet tall by eighteen inches along the bottom and twelve inches across the top. There was a riveted lip around the edges.

In a 1994 interview Patsy’s wife Bridget, then 81, said he sent the piece to the government in St. John’s for identification but never heard back.

In the winter of 1948, Patsy, then 36, in company with Leo McGrath, 28, and George McGrath, 16, recovered three more pieces, chopping them out of the ice with an axe.

–One piece was described as being light metal, rusty, roughly six inches by six inches, burnt in places, with spots of blue paint.
–Another piece was said to be V-shaped, about twelve inches by eight inches, burnt in places, with spots of blue paint.
–A third piece was given to George McGrath. No description.

On April 6, 1948 Patsy wrote a letter to Claude Noonan, an executive with a large corporation in St. John’s for whom Patsy had been a hunting guide.

“I was in the country last week, accompanied by Leo McGrath, and came across parts of an aeroplane, which have been there quite a long time. I was wondering if it might be the plane called the BLUEBIRD, as it has spots of blue paint still on it.... You may know someone who can throw light on this. I am sure it must be fifteen or twenty years ago since the plane fell as the iron is rusted out.”

Patsy’s 1948 letter is the earliest surviving contemporaneous written mention of airplane wreckage in the Gull Pond. No aircraft called the Bluebird ever went missing, but why did Patsy think the plane in the pond was named for any color bird? Virtually all of the aircraft that vanished while trying to fly the Atlantic had names — The Dawn, Saint Raphael, Old Glory, Endeavor, etc. — but only the White Bird had a bird name. Sydney Cotton’s June of 1927 search for the White Bird included flights over the Cape Shore. In 1948, Patsy probably remembered the search (he was 15 in 1927) but misremembered the name of the plane.

Noonan made inquiries and on May 1, 1948 the Director of Civil Aviation replied saying he had no knowledge of any civil aircraft being missing in that area in several years and offered the suggestion that it might be one of the aircraft that “left Europe about twenty years ago of which no trace has ever been found.” He thought the U.S. authorities at Argentia may be interested and suggested the information be passed to them.

According to his son James, Patsy followed the suggestion and gave the V-shaped piece to a Captain Spratt, USN, who took it to the U.S. Navy base in Argentia where it was examined. The examination supposedly confirmed the metal was not part of any American aircraft and suggested it belonged to the undercarriage of a plane because of the V shape. [6]
Albert McGrath, Born 1926, date of death unknown
In July 1950, Albert McGrath found two pieces of the plane that had been carried by ice down the Branch River. They were jagged strips of very flexible bluish-white or gray aluminum attached to bleached quarter-round wood molding. He carried them for a while but threw the pieces away. [7]

In September 1992, Albert McGrath made a sketch of what he found for Ric Gillespie.

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All of the interviews and documents cited below are available at the Resources link below.
2 Nicholas McGrath: Dr. James Miller interview with Nicholas McGrath and his son Patrick McGrath circa 1970; Ric Gillespie interview with Nicholas McGrath’s son Patrick McGrath 9/18/1992.
3 Anthony McGrath: Ric Gillespie interview with Anthony McGrath 9/18/1992; Robin McGrath interview with Anthony McGrath 7/1994; Robin McGrath interview with Anthony’s son Robert McGrath 7/1994.
4 Ronald McGrath: William Roche conversation with Ronald McGrath circa 1973.
5 John McGrath: Robin McGrath interview with Anthony McGrath July 1994; Robin McGrath interview with John McGrath’s son Dermot McGrath July 1994. Newfoundland Herald, October 26, 1969.
6 Patrick “Patsy” Judge: Ric Gillespie interview with Nicholas McGrath’s son Patrick McGrath 9/18/1992; Patrick Judge letter to Ralph Martin 6/18 1974; Jay Veith interview with Florence Coffey 6/28/1993; Robin McGrath interview with Patrick McGrath July 1994; Florence Coffey interview with Bridget Judge 7/18/1994; Patrick Judge letter to Claude Noonan 4/6/1948; Jay Veith interview with Ralph Martin 7/6/93; Florence Coffey interview with James Judge 7/17/1994; Civil Aviation Division letter to Secretary for Public works 5/1/1948.
7 Albert McGrath: Ric Gillespie interview with Albert McGrath 9/21/1992; Albert McGrath letter to Ric Gillespie 9/28/1992.

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