Five decades ago, the Delaware River and Bay Authority named the highway leading to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal Freeman Highway. Now it wants to ensure people know why.
A step in that direction took place June 18 during a ceremony at the terminal attended by Gov. Jack Markell, Freeman family members, elected officials and authority officials and family friends. They unveiled a commemorative plaque honoring Capt. Theodore C. Freeman, who grew up in Lewes and was selected as one of the first NASA astronauts.
But that's only part of the story, said Scott Green, the authority's executive director. “Most people know the name well, but they don't know the story behind it,” Green said.
On Feb. 3, 1964, Freeman, a Lewes High School graduate, was assigned to NASA’s Apollo branch joining Gordon Cooper, Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan and Alan Bean at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas.
At the same time, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry was gearing up to begin service on July 1, 1964.
Capt. Freeman was on a routine flight near Ellington Air Force Base in Houston on Oct. 31, 1964, when he unexpectedly encountered a flock of snow geese. One smashed into the canopy of his T-38A Talon jet, sending pieces of plexi-glass into both engines. Both engines failed.
Realizing he wouldn’t clear military homes – some of which housed fellow astronauts – he banked away from the houses. “He saved countless lives,” Green said.
This unselfish act cost him his life. Freeman became the first American astronaut to lose his life in the country’s quest to get to the moon. “His funeral was the last time all NASA astronauts were all together in the same place at the same time,” Green said.
At the time of the tragedy, the approach road to the Lewes ferry terminal was under construction, Green said. The authority designated the approach road asFreeman Highway, forever recognizing and honoring the contributions Freeman. Freeman Highway is also a connector between the Breakwater Junction and the new Gordons Pond trails, he said.
“Capt. Freeman was an American hero,” Markell said. “This is one of the most incredible stories I have ever heard. We need to make sure the current generation knows the story behind the sign.”
A second plaque will be installed at a later date on Freeman Highway where bicyclists who are using the new trail can view it.
Nephews Brook Freeman of Lewes and Bruce Freeman of Virginia attended the ceremony along with Joe Hudson of Lewes, Freeman's lifelong friend. As teenagers, the two learned to fly together and both worked as menhaden spotters for the Lewes fish factory.