Monument to Russell Falconer Stearns brought out of the shadows

Monument to Russell Falconer Stearns brought out of the shadows

Heath Kieon, left, and Josh Didick, of Total Landscaping, transporting the memorial stone on their Toro Dingo on May 9. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

CUMBERLAND – There it was, hidden in plain sight.

Charles Tramontana spotted it one Fourth of July while passing the North Cumberland Fire Department on his way to the Arnold Mills annual parade.

Down near the fire station pond, tucked under a tree and so aged that it was nearly camouflaged, a small monument caught his eye.

“In memory of Lt. Russell Falconer Stearns” reads a plaque attached to a gray boulder. The brass marker notes his World War I involvement with the Lafayette Flying Corps in France and later his membership with the U.S. Marine Flying Corps. He’d been born in 1896 and died in 1938, just 42 years old.

What it doesn’t reveal are the exploits of this American flyboy from Pawtucket who was so eager to help with “The Great War” that he quit the University of Virginia to enlist overseas months before the U.S. gave up its neutral stance and joined the allies.

Nine month later, readers of the Evening Times of Pawtucket would get a glimpse of life with the French squadron.

“Hometown man is ‘rocked and buffeted by wind, his machine is threatened with destruction over battle line in France,’” the October 1917 headline read.

Historians disagree slightly but generally count 209 American men who completed their French flight training to serve at the front. Fifty-nine are said to have died in combat and six more in training accidents.

The monument that remembers this local man was installed some 80 years ago by his sister, Margaret Stearns, and had stood barely noticed for years.

“It was always kind of neglected,” Tramontana said. “Always in just in such a sad state.”

Over the years, he said, the North Cumberland Fire Department had added flagpoles and its own monument to firefighters, partially obscuring the Stearns marker and two urns that flank it. Flowers haven’t been planted there in years, Tramontana said.

So just in time for Memorial Day next week, and with permission of the Cumberland Fire Committee, the marker was relocated to a prominent location at the nearby Arnold Mills Community House property. Tramantano serves on the community house board of directors, a facility donated by Russell’s sister Margaret a few years after Russell’s death.

Large evergreen plantings were installed this month to dress up the monument, as well as flowers in the urns.

Russell Stearns, born 1896, had grown up in Pawtucket with his older sister Margaret and younger brother Henry, children of Walter Stearns and Abigail Harris Stearns. As toddlers they lived on Walnut Street, according to the 1900 census, and by 1910 were living on Summit Street.

A look at their mother’s family tree finds familiar Arnold Mills family names – Razee, Peck, Metcalf, Whipple, Cook, and Ballou – dating back many generations. There were industrialists, inventors, and military men, all descendants of Isaac Stearns who came to America in 1630. The children’s grandfather, Henry Augustus Stearns, founded the firm still known as Stearns and Foster Co. in Ohio, and was vice president and superintendent of Union Wadding Co. in Pawtucket.

Their uncle, Charles Falconer Stearns, sat on the Rhode Island Supreme Court bench and served briefly as lieutenant governor.

Stearns’ first name reflected generations of family members: Russell was the last name of his fourth great-grandfather Jason Russell, born 1716, who was killed by the British on retreat from Lexington.The Falconer name dated back to the 17th century in Scotland where John Falconer, a seventh great-grandfather, was master of the mint in Edinburgh and relates to keepers of falcons for the king.

It was April of 1917 when Stearns left school to travel to France.

Assigned first to the American Ambulance Corps, two months later he enlisted in France’s Service Aeronautique. He processed through the aviation, aerobatic, and gunnery training pipeline at the Avord school. He was assigned to the French Escadrille SPA 150 in Group de Combat 16. He flew several combat patrols and escorted bombers over Alsace-Lorraine.

Stearns’ World War I registration card, filed in Pawtucket in May 1918, confirms his early-bird involvement in the war. Where it asks for his employment, he listed himself as a corporal with the French Airabon Service of the French Army for the past 18 months.

And where was he employed? “At the front,” Stearns’ answer reads on the form.

Information about his short service career is contained in at least two early 1920s volumes that detail the lives of America’s first wartime aviators:“The Lafayette Flying Corps,” edited by James Norman Hall and Charles Bernard Nordhoff, and “New England Aviators, 1914-1918,” by Lawrence Lowell.

“The Lafayette Flying Corps” confirm what readers of the Pawtucket Times would later surmise.

The Stearns sketch notes, “The fact that he became a pilot and went through the school of acrobacy at Pau speaks well for his determination and pluck for he hated flying from the beginning, and often told his friends that he dreaded the thought of going into the air and disliked the very sight of a flying machine.”

It quotes one of Stearns’ letters to home during his training in June: “We are a few miles out of Belfort, which I like immensely and which gets bombed often. The German machines fly over our airdrome quite frequently and then the anti-aircraft guns get busy and we have quite a time. My work consists of escorting bombing planes, patrolling and hunting.

“I am given my regular machine tomorrow, which I regret to say is a type out of vogue and which enables the crafty Hun to make circles around me. However our entire escadrille changes to Spads in 10 days and there is no better machine out than that ...”

He wrote that Aviation “requires perfection in all of a man’s faculties and I am trying to keep myself in the best physical shape possible. One false step might mean the end … I have become a fatalist as every aviator does and am prepared to accept whatever awaits me.”

The Lowell volume notes that Stearns flew at the front in late 1917 as a member of Escadrille 150, Groupe de Combat 16.

On one occasion while traveling over the lines alone, three German planes attacked him but he eluded them and returned in safely.

It was another letter home, apparently written during his training days, that detailed life as a new aviator. He was writing in a Belgium café just hours of after surviving a blinding rainstorm in one of his least favorite planes, a vintage of 1860, he wrote.

He had only gone about an hour when big black clouds began to fill the sky.

“Then I realized I was in for a storm. Below me were what looked like good fields to land in but I would have been isolated had I landed there and besides they don’t like it if you land in the country and leave the machine to stand in the rain, etc. I decided to keep on and trust that I would reach my destination before the trouble began.”

His course by that time had been somewhat changed as he had lost his way on the map and was steering by compass. He wrote that he was “rocked and tossed around like a ship in an angry sea and way down below me I saw a mist settling on the ground which would in a few minutes completely shut off from sight everything that was underneath me. I had only to go on.”

And then, a scenario “nothing less than hell” happened, as a heavy rainstorm beat against his face, feeling “like so many bullets” and nearly blinding him.

“Finally, I got along by shutting my eyes and then opening them for a short time. Thank the Lord, my destination was not far away,” he wrote. “When I thought it was time to go down, I just tipped the old bus right down on nose and headed for good old mother earth.”

He landed at a nearby Belgian aviation camp.

“This game of war isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Much love,” he wrote.

Stearns served until May 1918 when he received a furlough from France and then entered the U.S. Service of the Marine Flying Corps. He was sent to Florida as second lieutenant but honorably discharged on account of a “nervous breakdown” that today would have been referred to as PTSD.

About two decades later, Stearns was in Aiken, South Carolina, when he died suddenly in 1938 of what the official death certificate terms as “status epilepticus,” a prolonged seizure that can be caused by a number of conditions.

His sister Margaret would continue life as an unmarried woman much loved in the Arnold Mills area where she summered at The Elms on Abbott Run Valley Road.

The community house she donated served as both a village library and meeting hall for local groups including the Cumberlandites. She died in 1977 and like her brothers, was buried at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

Included among the property donations she made to Arnold Mills was the land for the fire station where her brother’s monument was erected.

Josh Didick, left, and Daniel O’Flaherty, of Total Landscaping, positioned the memorial close to the Arnold Mills Community House on May 9.
The memorial to the late Lt. Russell Falconer Stearns, which for years sat at the Arnold Mills Fire Station, reaches its final resting place at the Arnold Mills Community House.


Is it safe to say someone at the fire department discarded this monument by displacing it there?

Especially her writing articles of a Historical Perspective...something she has done many of during her many years with Breeze. And, something she excels at.

As to her article here in this week's Breeze on Lt. Stearns and the Lafayette Escadrille, especially the relocation of the Memorial Stone to a prominent location at the Arnold Mills Community very appropriate!

I say that as 2019 is being celebrated around the country for it being the "Centennial Year" celebrating the end of WWI...the 11th-month, the 11th day, at the 11th hour.

With this now having been done (Relocation of Lt. Stearns Monument) I would like to suggest that this November the Town of Cumberland, and the different Veteran's Organizations within our Community, organize a recognition celebration at the Arnold Mills House commemorating the service of those Cumberland Residents that served in the Great deceased Wife's father, John Doris, among them.

Again, Thank You Marcia for another Great Article...hope to see many, many more!!

LASTLY...of interest!