On Monday morning June 5, 1939, 22-year-old Cheston Lee Eshleman climbed into the cockpit of a small plane in Camden, N. J. and flew it east. His goal wasn’t to cross the Atlantic Ocean. No, the Gettysburg High School graduate had a much further destination in mind.
He was going to fly to Mars.
He had given a letter to a “jittery citizen” at the airport asking that it be mailed to the Philadelphia newspapers. The letter noted his interstellar destination and said that Eshleman wanted to return the “visit to Mars on Sunday evening, October 1938 (the night of the Orson Welles radio broadcast),” according to the Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe, one of the many newspapers nationwide that carried the story. Orson Welles’ adaptation of War of the Worlds during a radio program on Halloween night 1938 had sent many people into a panic who missed the introduction to show and believed it was a real news program about an alien invasion.
Another reason for his trip was “To survey a temporary hideout for the harmless people so they may escape in time of war the slave-enforced ultra-tragedy when the maniacs versus the he-man feud to destroy themselves and their possessions,” the Daily Globe reported.
Eshleman was born in McKnightstown on January 23, 1917. His parents, Samuel and Bertha Eshleman, owned the Fox Hill Orchards.
However, out on his own, Eshleman had dreams beyond agriculture. Those dreams took a turn for the worse, though, when the airplane that he had rented for $11 an hour developed problems over the Atlantic Ocean. A gas line broke in the aircraft and kept reserve gasoline from being pumped into the main fuel tank.
“This kid just went frantic with fear when he lost the radio beam out of Newark,” Edward Walz, the owner of the airplane, told reporters. “He didn’t know which way to go out there over the water. So he came down the first chance he got.”
The plane crashed into the water about 200 miles east of Boston. Eshleman escaped but the plane sank. Eshleman was left floating in the water until fishermen pulled him aboard their fishing trawler. He had spent 13 hours in the water.
Once ashore, Eshleman was arrested for larceny of the airplane and jailed in the little township jail in Pennsauken, N.J. where he was the sole prisoner.
When arraigned, the blue-eye, brown-haired Eshleman told court reporter George E. Yost that he had planned for a 15-hour flight.
“Where?” Yost asked him.
“Mars,” Eshleman replied with a smile. Then he added, “But there has been one serious misstatement. I’m not a thief. What I planned to do was to pay the $11-an-hour rent for the plane out of my earnings after the trip.”
He apparently figured that a trip to Mar and back would bring him fame and fortune, and it certainly would have if it could have been done.
The police doubted that Mars was Eshleman’s actual destination. They argued that the maps and letters they found in Eshleman’s room at the YMCA said it was more likely that the young man was hoping to reach an airfield in Scotland.
Eshleman was held on $5,000 bail. His parents managed to post a bond and a settlement was worked out with the Walz Flying School. In August, Eshleman’s hearing was postponed indefinitely after his family agreed to pay for the lost airplane.
One might think that after this experience, Eshleman would have been committed to mental institution and would have never flown in an airplane again.
One would be quite wrong. More on that to come.