WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn.—Archaeologists and aviation historians say they have solved one of Connecticut's most somber mysteries: pinpointing where Lt. Eugene Bradley's plane crashed during an August 1941 dogfighting exercise in Windsor Locks.
Thousands of people are expected to travel this holiday weekend through Bradley International Airport, but neither a picture of its namesake nor an explanation of his legacy are displayed anywhere on public view.
Now, the discovery of Bradley's crash site under the far end of a runway on the sprawling property could change that.
It has sparked calls for a permanent memorial in the airport to Bradley and other Army Air Corps pilots, many of whom were killed in training exercises or later in World War II.
"The more you learn about it, the more you come to appreciate the sacrifice of what Bradley and these other people were doing," said Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who worked with others to use ground-penetrating radar to find the crash site.
His report, researched in cooperation with the New England Air Museum, is slated to be published this winter.
"Nobody knows Bradley's story. A few people who are into aviation might and some historians certainly do, but millions of people go through that airport every year, and if I could pull out seven who know the story, I'd be shocked," Bellantoni said.
The state Department of Transportation, which manages the airport, says the idea of a memorial inside New England's second-largest airport is being discussed but no decision has been made. A picture of Bradley once hung in an administrative area of Terminal B, but was taken down when that aging terminal closed and now sits in storage.
Bradley, a 24-year-old farm boy from tiny Dela, Okla., had been married four months when he moved to Connecticut on Aug. 19, 1941, to train with the 57th Fighter Group at the newly opened air strip. His wife, Ann, had just learned they were expecting their first child.
Two days after his arrival, Bradley was killed when he apparently blacked out from the gravitational forces of a twisting corkscrew turn during a dogfighting exercise. He spiraled nose-first into scrubby woods, dying instantly. The force of the impact left the plane buried more than 10 feet in the sandy earth.
His body and the plane were removed, but the site was never formally marked when it was filled and graded.
After five years of searching and countless interviews with now-elderly witnesses, Bellantoni and others finally identified the crash site last year. Tests completed earlier this year confirmed it as the right spot.
They used radar that showed a cone-shaped disturbance in the earth, plus a core sample -- taken while the runway was closed for repaving -- that contained airplane fluids and gasoline. Shards of metal and pieces of textile consistent with his plane's seats were also found.
"You really had to filter through a lot of evidence because there were so many crashes in those days and every witness thought the one they saw was Bradley's," said Thomas Palshaw, a volunteer historian at the air museum and author of "Bradley Field: The First 25 Years."
There are no plans to put a memorial at the crash site itself, since having any impediment or visitors near the active runway would be unsafe.
The one-time air base was named in Bradley's memory five months after his crash, recognizing him as the first to die there. Over the decades, his name remained on the facility as it transformed from Bradley Field to Bradley International Airport, which had more than 5.3 million passengers pass through last year.
His wife, Ann, gave birth six months after his death and named their son Eugene Bradley Jr. When she remarried, he was adopted by her new husband and became Eugene Bradley Martens.
Now 68 years old and living in Hunt, Texas, Martens hasn't visited the airport that bears his father's name. But he hopes to see it someday and supports the idea of a memorial to the Army Air Corps fliers.
His mother, who died in February 1990, was among several who opposed proposals over the years to change the airport's name. Martens said he and his mother both viewed the name as an homage to all military fliers, with his father as a symbol rather than the main focus.
"I think it's important that people remember that era and what went on, and the young men that did training and died to help this country," Martens said. His father is buried about 90 miles away at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
"Whatever they do up there in Connecticut, I think it'd really be mostly also recognizing the rest of the people that died," Martens said.