Mystery of Letter Marked "Damaged Air Mail Wreck"

A story behind the story of WITH KISSES FROM CÉCILE

In the collection of letters from Cécile to Ruth, one envelope provoked Jan's curiousity. It had sustained obvious damage and was stamped "Damaged Air Mail Wreck Toledo, 091420." A mystery to be solved! In researching air wrecks on that date in that city, Jan found an article in The Toledo Blade newspaper dated September 15, 1920, which reported on the devastating crash of a plane carrying 200 pounds of mail as part of the "newly inaugurated government transcontinental airmail service." The two airmen did not survive the terrible crash, and the article reports on the identification of the men as well as their heartbroken survivors. The date of the crash, the newspaper article, and the stamped explanation on the letter addressed to Ruth all align to the fact that this letter sent by Cécile was on board this plane, yet not destroyed. Her letter was included in the "remains of the mail " that "were brought by automobile to Toledo in burlap sacks." The French proverb Cecile shared with Ruth, "Il n'y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent pas" (translated: "There are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together") proved true once more for the two girls. Not even a disaster of a plane crash could keep Cécile's letters from reaching her bonne amie.

To learn more about air mail history through pictures in this time era, click on this link

Interested in more? Read Flying the Beam: Navigating the Early US Airmail Airways, 1917-1941 Kindle Edition by Henry R. Lehrer (Author)

This picture from the article "Airmail History in Pictures, 1918–1928" shows a plane crash in 1922 similar to the one in Toledo in 1920. Note the caption regarding the deaths of airmen who were involved in these air mail flights.

The Toledo Blade

September 15, 1920



Coast – to – Coast Machine Makes Bad Landing in Field Near Toledo And Explodes.




Two airmen, pilot and mechanic, were burned to death Tuesday afternoon when airplane J-308, in the newly inaugurated government transcontinental airmail service, exploded and took fire after burying its nose in a clover field 15 miles south of Toledo.

In an undertaking room at Lucky, two bodies lay wrapped in burlap in a crude rough box, were identified as those of Pilot Walter Harold Stevens of Riverside, Cal., former army flyer, and Mechanic Russell Thomas of Cleveland.

Gathered in a great heap in the undertaking room near the rough box were bits of letters, checks and envelopes with broken edges. Addressed in San Francisco, Seattle and other far western points would be discerned. The plane’s explosion had sent 200 pounds of mail in a puff of white fragments.

When the machine neared the farm of Herman Samson he saw it shoot suddenly downward and vanish behind the treetops. When Samson neared the wreck a wave of heat struck him in the face and held him back. He could see ahead what looked like a smoking dump heap. After Samson and others could get to the wreak and poke into it with poles, they disentangled the bodies, one a little distance from the remains of the fuselage.

Samson notified the Bell Telephone office and Postmaster Lathrop of Toledo was called. A message also was sent to Cleveland.



Identification of Stevens was possible by a pilot’s book and personal belongings, which were found in a Boston bag which apparently had been thrown clear of the machine when the bad landing was made.

Out of the pilot book dropped a Kodak picture showing a man in the uniform of an army flyer with his arm about a girl. This was his bride of a few days, who was notified at once. Nothing was found on the person of Thomas to identify him. It was the pilot’s last trip, for he had announced his resignation.

Tuesday evening, the landscape about the wreck was alive with red and white dresses and moving figures as the country folk came on foot and by motorcar to view the wreck. Soon the field was crowded and souvenir hunters were busy until Postmaster Lathrop, acting on instructions from Cleveland, close the wreckage to observers and put on a guard. The spectators had been rummaging through fragments of mail and picking up bits of metal and parts of the tattered clothing of the dead men.

The remains of the mail were brought by automobile to Toledo in burlap sacks. The plane wreckage will be removed to the government field at Bryan.



“Oh, tell me it is not true; tell me Walter is still alive.” Sobbed a girl in a telephone booth at the Secor Hotel Tuesday night. She was in conversation with Postmaster Lathrop.

The girl said she had come from Cleveland and was the sweetheart of Walter Stevens, airplane mail carrier who was killed Tuesday afternoon when his plane fell 15 miles south of Toledo.

“I am sorry to inform you, miss, that Mr. Stevens is dead,” replied the postmaster.

Broken sobs verged on the hysterical as she tried to reconcile her grief. The postmaster waited patiently until she had recovered.


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