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By LC Van Savage

“GONE: The Mystery of The DON Disaster” as seen on MPBN several years ago, explores the strange disappearance in 1941 of the pleasure craft The DON with 34 people on board. The boat was never found and only 14 bodies were ever recovered. For more than 78 years, the sea off the rocky coast of Maine has held its secrets about this terrible loss of life.

Thirty-four doomed people boarded The DON on that beautiful June morning with only lobster and fun on their minds. Little did these passengers know that their notorious rum-runner captain was about to transport them on a raucous ride to sudden death.

A group of friends from the small towns of Rumford and Mexico, Maine had chartered The DON for a picnic on Monhegan Island, a three-hour boat ride from the Harpswell, Maine departure site. The DON had a reputation as an unstable craft, but unfortunately the people who booked the trip lived 60 miles inland and had never heard the rumors. They put their misplaced trust in Captain Paul Johnson who was ultimately responsible for ending all their lives on that day.

The day became overcast as the picnickers were rowed out to The DON. The boat was too large to pull up to the dock in the low tide that morning, so the time-consuming process of transporting almost three dozen passengers in small skiffs delayed the departure. By the time the shuttling was complete, 34 people were closely packed on the 44 foot, not terribly sea-worthy DON.

The boat set off down Quahog Bay through now choppy waters. A quick stop was made at a store in West Point where Captain Johnson purchased potatoes and other supplies for a chowder he planned on making to accompany the two lobsters apiece that had been assigned each party-goer.Passengers bought postcards and the store keeper later testified to the playful and polite nature of the group.

As The DON headed out into the waters of Casco Bay, it was sighted by lobsterman Paul Eastman who later testified to seeing 10 - 12 passengers sitting on the upper deck of the boat which looked overloaded and top-heavy. The DON was next sighted by Second Assistant Lighthouse Keeper Maxwell Deshon on Seguin Island. From his high vantage point, he logged the sighting which would be the last official look anyone had of The DON.

By late that night, friends and relatives of the passengers on The Don began to worry when there was no word from anyone who had been on board. By early the next morning, authorities were poised to begin searching for the boat, but a thick fog had set in, hampering the search efforts.

Two days later when the fog lifted, bodies had already begun to be found floating in the Bay and were washing up on Harpswell shores. More than 100 boats and hundreds of people were enlisted in the gruesome search for the drowned passengers. The last of the 14 recovered bodies was found 15 days after The Don left Harpswell for its Monhegan trip. Twelve of the bodies found were women and only two were men. This imbalance helped give rise to many theories about what might have happened to the ill-fated boat. Captain Johnson's body was one of those found; he was inexplicably tied to a small wooden keg by 20 feet of rope, dressed only in his undershorts. Had he tied himself to the keg and then tried to dive to save the passengers? No one will ever know.

Since the DON was never found, there was no evidence to help determine the cause of the accident. Theories ranged from fire and explosions to hitting a ledge and breaking up. The official investigations conducted eventually declared The Don had capsized due to its instability. The Coroner declared accidental drowning as the cause of death for all victims found.

Despite the passage of time, many parts of the boat could possibly still exist, including the galvanized iron engine, anchor and stove, and the bronze skeg, rudder and steering station. But none of these were found despite extensive searches and dredging of both Casco and Sheepscot Bays where the boat had been sighted. No one lived to tell their tale, nor any relatives or descendants of The DON that day have been able to help with information in the intervening years.

An adventurous team of filmmakers explored the mystery and, in the process, was able to add a new chapter to this maritime disaster's story. 'GONE: The Mystery of the DON Disaster' is a one-hour documentary in the MPBN archives, shot in high definition at the original Maine locations. Re-enactments bring to life the fatal day and provide a personal look at the 34 people lost five months before Pearl Harbor. The forgotten story is a compelling reminder of life's unpredictability.

Emotional interviews with relatives show how poignantly the tragedy was felt and how deep the feeling of loss still remains. Bessie Strople is remembered tearfully by her great niece. An eyewitness describes the grisly recovery of bodies. A Rumford/Mexico native sadly recalls the horror of the staggering number of drownings, including several close friends. The victims' letters bring their characters to life. Mary Chapitis was an attractive 27-year-old who charmed all she met. Banker Al Melanson shows his jocularity in letters planning the unlucky trip. Captain Johnson displays his carefree attitude toward safety by telling the group they can bring “as many people as they want” on the boat. The film reconstructs the sequence of events based on sworn testimony. Various theories are investigated and possible sites of the tragedy are explored. This new analysis hopes to uncover the long-sought answer to why the remains of The DON were never found.

The DON disaster was perhaps responsible for eventual maritime laws being changed to improve both passenger and boating safety. The film puts a personal face on the price that paid for these changes.

As a result of this documentary film, interest in The Don disaster was renewed and a memorial was finally created to honor the 34 people who died in this boating mystery. In 2006, Stacy L. Welner wrote a book about this tragedy called “Tragedy in Casco Bay”, Anchor Publishing. The event remains one of the worst boating disasters in New England history.

Contact LC at Her newest book QUEENIE is at local bookstores or email her directly.

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.


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