PORT DEPOSIT — The tiny town along the Susquehanna River has more than its fair share of calamities and disasters — fires, economic downturns, buildings destroyed by abandonment and neglect, bridge washouts, floods.
Not the least of the disasters that have struck Port Deposit were ice gorges when the Susquehanna River froze shore to shore and upon sudden breaking up of the ice with a spring thaw or rain, huge cakes of ice and frigid water surged over the river bank and down Main Street.
But Port Deposit did not suffer the scourge of a bombs. No, never that. Or did it?
Long and many are the tales of 1972, when Hurricane Agnes struck dumping 10 inches of water on the lower Susquehanna River basin in a 24-hour period of planes lined up at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Those planes, we are often told, were laden with bombs to blow a portion of Conowingo Dam if the pressure behind the dam grew too great or that great bulwark of concrete showed signs of failure in an effort to somewhat control the raging torrent. There are those who vow it was not merely bomb-carrying planes, but well placed charges of dynamite at strategic locations on the dam itself that were primed in the event of the unthinkable in 1972.
But few are they who tell any tales of bombs or any explosives actually being used to control mounting dangerous conditions on the Susquehanna River. One man could, however, the man who dropped bombs into the frozen Susquehanna one brutally cold day in the winter of 1920, pre-Conowingo Dam construction.
Lt. Rene R. Studler was called into action on March 10, 1920, to take off from the airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and bomb the blue blazes out of the frozen Susquehanna. Those who are inclined to think the bombing of the Susquehanna at Port Deposit is merely an urban legend or local myth, would do well to read a tiny blurb recorded in the magazine Flying Volume 9 by the Aero Club of America in 1920. It reads thusly:
“On March 10, 1920, the ice gorge in Port Deposit showed signs of loosening under the combined attack of warmer atmosphere and bombing from the aeroplane of Lt. Rene Studler from Aberdeen Proving Ground. Lt. Studler dropped several 500-pound TNT bombs into the heart of the jam. After each explosion a great agitation was visible below the jam where the aviator broke up clean ice with 220-pound bombs.”
Apparently not everyone was aware of the attack on the ice. Watchmen in a tower on the PW&B (Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore) Railroad Bridge at Perryville, had certainly not been informed. The glass in the watchtower shattered spraying at least gentlemen with glass, but luckily causing no serious injury. The concussions of the bombs shocked workers cutting ice further downstream and a handful of men employed prepping fish houses on Garrett Island.
Studler’s run was exciting, but not altogether successful, as the ice broke up, but refused to follow the channels opened for its passage into the bay. It merely backed up against islands and bridge piers and pushed back into Port Deposit as it usually did. Some reported it wasn’t as bad as it had been in previous years and there was less damage to piers and docks, but it was not a total success, as had been hoped.
Studler, a mustached man who favored a pipe, joined the Army and earned his pilot’s wings from 1918 to 1919, so his bombing run on the Susquehanna River was made relatively quickly after earning the coveted wings. Nonetheless, from 1919 to 1921 he was operations officer, and then commander, of the 258th Heavy Bombardment Squadron, later re-designated Flight B 14th Squadron (Bombardment) stationed at APG. This squadron was heavily involved in testing aircraft ordnance, and the Susquehanna bombing run was part of that mission.