Easton in the Service

This is the first in the Historical Society of Easton’s series on Easton in the Service. Our mission is to present multiple stories of the men and women who lived in Easton – either before, during, or after serving their country. What each of them did, who they met, and what they learned, all contributed to how they would live their lives going forward.

This initial installment recounts the service days of Richard J. Quinton. Many of us will remember Dr. Quinton from his days as the superintendant of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company’s watershed lands, which included oversight of the crews that patrolled the reservoirs to discourage swimming and fishing.  He also supervised the BHC orchards and the Apple Barn on Black Rock Turnpike during a thirteen-year period in the 1960s and 1970s.  Many long-time members of the Congregational Church of Easton may also recall Richard singing in the church choir – a pastime he truly enjoyed.

What is presented below was written entirely by his son, Noel Quinton, especially for this series. The Historical Society of Easton extends its heartfelt thanks to Noel for his willingness to share his father’s story:

Ensign Richard J. Quinton, wearing his naval aviator’s wings on his jacket

While still in junior high school, Richard Quintiliani began riding his bicycle to the Squantum Naval Air Station in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts.  There he would gaze through the fence, trying to see the latest planes he had noticed in magazines.  After his prized bike was stolen, he cobbled together a replacement from discarded parts so he could continue to ride to the base.  Over the coming years he showed up at the gate so many times that the guards began chatting with him and eventually he was escorted inside and even allowed to sit in a plane.

When Richard graduated from Quincy High School in June 1940, he was barely seventeen years old due to a double-grade promotion in elementary school.  He was too young for military enlistment without his parents’ consent, but recent world events made it almost certain that service time would be in his future.  Rather than start college at such a young age, he joined the huge workforce at Bethlehem Steel’s Fore River Shipyard in Quincy as an Outside Machinist Apprentice asssigned first to the battleship USS Massachusetts and later to the carrier USS Cabot (renamed Lexington prior to completion).

With the goal of becoming a pilot, Richard enlisted in the U. S. Navy in September 1942, preferring to volunteer for service rather than to be drafted.  After successfully completing the Navy’s rigorous aptitude tests and physical exams, he was accepted as a candidate for the V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet Training Program.  His employment at the shipyard ended in December 1942, and the following month he entered active service.  Decades later he recalled a grand send-off at Loew’s Theatre in Boston where he and forty other recruits marched onto the stage at the conclusion of the evening’s feature film and were treated to a rousing rendition of Anchors Aweigh played by the local Navy band.

Carrying nothing more than a single handbag, he began his naval career by boarding a train in Boston and travelling across Massachusetts to Williamstown in the northwest corner of the state.  In need of tens of thousands of pilots during World War II, the Navy had established training programs across the country.  Many institutions like Williams College experienced a sharp drop in student enrollment during the war, and therefore had classroom and residential space available to meet the Navy’s needs.

For Richard and the other candidates, the opportunity to become a pilot meant they would have to thrive in a competitive environment.  Failure to complete any stage of the 18-month training program (“washing out”, as participants called it) meant being sent to boot camp like a draftee, which was not the service adventure that any of them signed up for.  The V-5 program began with academic and physical instruction and then progressed through multiple levels of flight training, culminating in the development of a specialized proficiency.  Since multiple facilities were used for each phase, the personal experience of any two candidates could be varied.  For Richard, the aviation training program proceeded in the following manner:

Naval Flight Preparatory School: Williams College, Williamstown, MA

Lasting twelve weeks, NFPS consisted of classes in aerology, navigation, physics, math and communications taught by Navy instructors and members of the Williams faculty.  Naval indoctrination began on day one, but candidates never even saw a plane during this stage.

Civilian Aviation Authority – War Training Service: Fitchburg (MA) State College and Fitchburg Airport

Academic coursework and physical conditioning continued during the twelve-week WTS progam, and CAA instructors gave the candidates their first flying lessons in Piper J-3 Cubs.  Known as “elimination school”, this phase was the first step in determining who could truly handle the demands of being a pilot.  Richard remembered soloing at Fitchburg before he even had ten hours in a plane.  During this period he attended a social function for recruits and was introduced to an attractive fifteen-year-old girl who was volunteering at the event alongside her aunt. Her name was Patricia Edson.

A memento from the time of Richard’s flight training in Fitchburg, MA – a Silver Certificate signed by each of his fellow aviation candidates.

Naval Pre-Flight School: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

The NPFS program put candidates through twelve weeks of intensive physical training with an emphasis on competitive contact sports.  Wrestling was Richard’s best event and he fared well in his weight class.  He remembered soccer truly being a contact sport, to the point where a collision over a loose ball resulted in one player’s tooth becoming lodged in another’s forehead.  During his time at Chapel Hill he started sending an occasional postcard with a breezy message to the young lady he’d met in Fitchburg.

Primary Flight School: NAS Glenview (IL)

Richard resumed his flight training during a twelve-week session at Glenview where candidates flew Stearman N2S open-cockpit biplanes.  Since its takeoff speed was around 60 mph, a parked Stearman would behave badly if strong-enough air currents passed over its wings.  When a powerful Midwest storm blew in one day, it took an all-hands scramble to secure the lightweight planes with ropes and sand bags.  One can easily be amused by the visual image of scores of biplanes hopping around the field, being chased by all available personnel.

Intermediate Flight School: NATC Corpus Christi (TX)

While many candidates were sent to Pensacola to complete their flight training, Richard and others went to Corpus Christi.  Those who successfully completed the demanding twenty-six-week program were commissioned and received a coveted pin – their “wings”.

The prized aviator’s wings that Richard received upon being commissioned an Ensign on August 6, 1944

Operational Flight School: NAS Shawnee (OK)

After receiving their wings, the new Navy pilots received nine additional weeks of specialized training.  Some earned carrier qualification or bombardier status, but for Richard it meant honing his navigational skills and gaining certification as a Naval Air Navigator.  During this time, postcards mailed to the pretty young lady he’d met in Fitchburg reveal that training flights were made to airfields in destinations such as Montgomery, AL and Cheyenne, WY.  Richard and Patricia would continue to correspond during the remainder of his tour in the Navy, and upon his discharge in 1947, their relationship would turn more serious. Upon Patricia’s completion of nursing school at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA in 1949, the two were engaged to be married.

Richard would often send Patty a quick post card recounting the different legs of a training flight

Upon completion of training Richard was assigned to a patrol bomber squadron, VPB-125, which flew anti-submarine missions over the Atlantic in Lockheed PV-1s.  At the time of his arrival, his unit was based at NAF San Julian, Cuba but was soon deployed to NAF Natal, Brazil.  After just a few months in Brazil the unit was redeployed to NAS Elizabeth City (NC) and shortly thereafter VE Day was celebrated.  The squadron spotted no German subs after Richard’s arrival, in fact the only unexpected object they saw in the Atlantic was an empty rubber life raft.  Later in life, Richard wistfully noted that he was quickly sized up as the unit’s best navigator and thereafter was always assigned to the navigator’s seat in the squadron leader’s plane.  Consequently he never was given the opportunity to pilot a mission.  In reference to this disappointing outcome, he sometimes remarked to his children that it was best to “never make yourself indispensable.”

Squadron of Lockheed PV-1 Venturas hunting submarines

Richard’s tour of duty ended in December 1945 and even though he wanted to pursue further education, he felt it was a poor time to do so, given that colleges and universities were struggling to accommodate the huge influx of veterans after the end of the war.  Consequently he reenlisted for a one-year term commencing in January 1946 and was assigned to VPB-142, a patrol squadron based at NAS Atlantic City (NJ).  After that unit was demobilized in June he was transferred to NAS Quonset Point (RI) where he concluded his second tour in VPML-5, a patrol and reconaissance squadron.  By the time he reenlisted he had legally changed his last name by dropping the final letter, apparently in response to comments he frequently heard that in order to advance in the Navy, he had “better do something about that name”.

Richard in the cockpit of the Lockheed at Atlantic City in 1946

Early one summer morning at Quonset Point he came off overnight duty at daybreak, hopped into a jeep and started heading toward his barracks.  The prior day he had glanced a base bulletin announcing the arrival of a special visitor, but that was nowhere in his mind as he approached the corner of a building.  As he turned he was shocked to see someone in his path.  The man in front of him was just as shocked to see a vehicle rapidly approaching and instinctively dove out of the way.  Richard slammed on the brakes and quickly backed up.  When he was close enough to see the man in the dawn light he yelled “Are you all right?”  Having gotten back on his feet, the man looked over his shoulder and then turned to face Richard and barked “Yes I am, and you’d better get the hell out of here!”

Richard spun the jeep around and wisely did just what the man instructed him to do.  As he sped away, everything suddenly came into focus.  That bulletin that he hadn’t paid much attention to?  Its purpose was to alert all personnel that the President of the United States would be on base that day.  Those men sprinting toward the lone figure who had just risen from the ground?  They were members of an elite federal law enforcement organization, who always travelled with the special visitor.  The man who was nearly struck by the jeep Richard was driving?  He was known for taking early morning walks.  He was Harry S. Truman.

President Harry S. Truman at Quonset, RI in August of 1946

Richard lived for another sixty-nine years but he never did have another “conversation” with any President.

In the spirit of full disclosure, your faithful reporter must acknowledge that Richard was a bit of a raconteur, who felt that a little improvisation could make a story more engaging or amusing.  The notable exception was his Truman story – it was never changed or embellished.  Recently I did a little research to find out if Harry Truman ever travelled to Quonset Point, and I quickly learned that the President was indeed there on the 18th and 19th of August 1946. The brief stopover was part of his vacation excursion aboard the presidential motor yacht, the USS Williamsburg. The fact that Richard and the President were both at Quonset Point in the summer of 1946 doesn’t validate the story, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!

In August 1950, just a few weeks before his marriage to the young lady he had met seven years earlier at a serviceman’s social in Fitchburg, Richard legally changed his last name a second time.  Having never been fully satisfied with the name Quintilian, he and his brother simultaneously changed their last name to Quinton, despite their father’s objections.  The following month Richard and his new wife moved to Amherst, MA for his final undergraduate year at UMass, where they lived in the Married Students Housing complex which had been hastily and inexpensively constructed after the end of the war.  The half-round corrugated steel buildings were, of course, Quonset huts.

After completing his doctoral studies in entomology in 1955, Richard was hired as a Research Scientist at Lockwood Farm, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Mt. Carmel.  In 1962, when the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company needed to fill the opening created by the retirement of their watershed manager, Franklin Hubbell, they hired Richard as their Superintendent of Agriculture and Forestry.  He and his family moved to Easton where they resided in a company-owned house on Black Rock Turnpike for the next thirteen years. 

The Bridgeport Hydraulic House in 1964 where the Quinton’s lived in the 1960’s & 1970’s.

It was during Richard’s tenure at the BHC that the tradition of the “floating” Christmas Tree on the Aspetuck Reservoir began.  Richard’s crew built a raft and upon it they set up a large evergreen tree which was then floated to a position between the aerator and the dam. The tradition of having a lit tree at the reservoir continues today, although it is now a live specimen growing on an island near the Center Road bridge.

1964 – The barn at Easton on Black Rock Turnpike

Next up: A quintuplet of stories about young Easton men who served their country during the First World War. If any of our readers have stories to share about their ancestors who served, please share them with the Historical Society of Easton by emailing text and photos to: hsectresearch@gmail.com. We cannot share what we do not have! Please help us keep history alive!

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books