‘After a few seconds I heard the engines of the plane stop and the sky was lit up in a half moon’
As a teenage undergraduate in North Queensland in the late 1970s I struggled to pass History 101. Even though I had great lecturers I could never muster the enthusiasm, sufficient for a pass-grade understanding of the European Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation or the Age of Enlightenment. Compounding this disinterest (and confusion) was the knowledge that I was surrounded by the material evidence of the Pacific War, a comparatively recent and momentous historical event with lasting influences throughout North Queensland.
When done with the Plantagenets I would often wander through the Library stacks looking for distractions, and it was during one such lapse that I chanced upon Richard Britten’s Around The Cassowary Rock (Rigby, 1978) with its passing reference to a wartime bomber crash on Mt Bartle Frere – just a few hours north. With my enthusiasm for history rekindled I began corresponding with the author, little realizing that his recollections and images (partly reproduced here) would sustain a life-long interest. These enquiries eventually led me to Babinda resident Jim Britten who had helped search for the aircraft at the time of the crash, the following extract having been taken from his written recollections (dated 4th February 1982):
There was a boot sitting on the ground with a foot still in it. Ted Richards went up with his mules later on and brought the bodies back packed in tin boxes…Ted had already buried the bodies by the time that we arrived. There was a helmet hanging, high up in the branches of a tree, by the neck strap; no telling what was in there. One bloke took away huge kit of tools (really something at the time), while another bloke brought back a beautiful electric motor. A good wireless lay there, in the wreckage, and one of the yanks walked over and smashed it to pieces with his boot. Where the plane hit, the ground sloped up very steeply, and a great swathe of trees had been cut off as neatly as if grass before the scythe. The trees here were not scorched however, from where the plane had stopped, the jungle was blackened for radius of one hundred yards or so. None of the wreckage was burnt as the burning aviation fuel had shot forward on impact. Ron Strike went up later on and brought back a machine gun which the yanks confiscated. I found a little white horse – probably a keepsake – which I hung onto for years.
Fast forward to 26th March 1983 and I find myself drenched and shivering in the dark while clinging to a narrow jungle-clad spur near the eastern summit of Mount Bartle Frere. Having abandoned all hope of sleep I have no option but to endure the next six hours – until daylight – leaving the streaming rainwater to course, unimpeded, through my sodden sleeping bag. A month earlier the FNQ (Far North Queensland) branch of the State Emergency Service had invited the Australian War Memorial (where I was then working as a curator) to participate in a two-day training exercise to try and locate the wreckage of an American B-25 bomber known to have crashed near the summit of Mt Bartle Frere in April 1942. Although northern Australia was still littered with military crash sites it was evident, to me at least, that the Bartle Frere wreck was especially significant. Only days prior to its demise it had participated in the first American aerial counter-offensive against Japan. This was also ‘the longest bombing raid of all time’ (5,340 km return, from Darwin).
This was one of the ten B-25C Mitchell medium bombers (appropriated from the NEIAF) and three B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers that, for several days beginning 11th April 1942, had conducted successful bombing raids – from the Del Monte Airfield on the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao – against Japanese targets at Cebu and Davao. Subsequently known as the Royce Special Mission, this remarkable episode has been largely overshadowed by the more widely publicised Doolittle Raid (against Tokyo) that occurred shortly thereafter.
On 21st April 1942, days after returning from its historic mission to the Phillipines, B-25 41-12455 encountered extremely bad weather conditions and crashed near the 5,285′ summit of Mt Bartle Frere (Queensland’s highest peak) while returning – to Charters Towers – from a reconnaissance mission to New Britain.
Although I was able to return to Canberra with the aircraft’s master compass, vandals (seemingly encouraged by the SES’s advance publicity) had also recently visited the site and, using a hacksaw, removed the national insignia, rudder serial numbers, and machine gun barrels. Having ascertained its significance, and secured an appropriate artefact for the national collection, I would have been justified perhaps in ruling a line under the Bartle Frere B-25 and shifting my attentions elsewhere. Only there was something troubling, something still missing….those first-person, real-time recollections. All that I had read or heard about this incident had been derivative, mostly from secondary sources or documents produced after the event.
It took another thirty-six years until, quite by chance, in October last year, I stumbled across those authentic (and authoritative) contemporary voices, comprising the Babinda Police Station’s official report – and witness statements – now held by the Queensland State Archives (Series 16865 Item 2177696). Written in that inimitable constabulary style, the senior officer’s report is reproduced here, verbatim:
…at about 7 pm. on Tuesday 21st. April 1942 a man named Karl Francis Henry Stager, a cane farmer residing about three miles from Babinda phoned this station stating that he heard the noise of a plane over Bartle Frere mountain a few minutes previously and that he heard the engines cut out and he then saw a bright glow in the sky and he believes the plane that crashed somewhere up on the mountain.
A similar phone message was also received from another cane farmer named Heck Brischke who also resides in the vicinity of Stager at about a 7.5pm on the same date.
The information received from these two men was immediately phoned to the Senior Sergeant of Police at Cairns by Constable Bailey of this station.
I immediately formed a search party of about twelve men and accompanied by Constable Bailey we commenced a search of the eastern side of the mountain but could find no trace of the Plane.
The following day Constable Bailey, myself and about twenty residents of Babinda made a further search of the Mountain but without success. there were also several other parties of at least a dozen men searching over a wide scope of country; but on account of the driving rain which was falling at the time and the most difficult nature of the country traversed it was almost impossible to see more than ten to fifteen yards ahead at the time.
the searches were kept up day and night and on Monday 27th. April 1942 a plane piloted by Squadron leader Sharpe also made a search of the locality but on account of the heavy low flying clouds it was impossible to locate anything from the air on that day.
The following morning which was Tuesday 28th. April 1942 the weather broke and the clouds lifted from the mountains for a couple of hours and I immediately contacted Squadron Leader Sharpe at the Cairns Aerodrome and he immediately commenced a further search of the locality and about an hour later he dropped a message outside the Police Station to the effect that he had located badly burnt patch with objects about 4,300 feet up on the Western side of the mountain. He then flew back to Cairns and immediately came to Babinda by car and gave full particulars of where he believed the plane had crashed.
I immediately organised two search parties of about fifteen men in each. One party under the direction of Constable McGrath was to endeavour to reach the plane from the Eastern side of the mountain and the other party under the direction of Constable Stockwell was to endeavour to reach the Plane from the Western side.
The reason for despatching two Parties was to try and locate a suitable track leading to the scene of the disaster, as it was not known at the time if it was possible to reach the scene of the crash from either side.
McGrath’sparty succeeded in getting about half way up the mountain that night and then camped.
The[sic] again set off at day-break the next day and found it necessary to cut their way through the dense undergrowth the whole of the way and they reached the scene of the disaster about mid-day; but not before they were again directed to the spot from the Air by Squadron Leader Sharpe who had again flown out from Cairns. The party under the direction of Constable Stockwell were unable to get through from the Western side and they returned to Babinda after having spent two days and two nights in the bush under the most trying conditions.
On arrival of Constable McGrath and party at the scene of the disaster they found the Plane shattered to pieces and burnt and they also found the bodies of five of the crew and by the mutilation of same it left no doubt that they were killed instantly when the Plane crashed.
The Plane after mowing down the dense scrub for one hundred yards crashed into the side of the mountain about 500 feet below the summit on the Western side.
There is no doubt that when the plane crashed it must have caused a terrific explosion as the wreckage was strewn over a distance of some two hundred yards and the bodies mutilated beyond recognition.
Constable McGrath made an examination of the whole scene and took possession of certain articles such as Rings, Identification Discs, two revolvers and a partly burned Wallet containing Two partly burned £5/-/- Notes and Private papers which were found amongst the wreckage and the Party then returned to Babinda as it was impossible to remain there in the driving rain and cold without Camping equipment and as the scene of the disaster is about twelve miles from Babinda through the most difficult country there was no likelihood of any person interfering [sic] with any of the wreckage that night.
About 4pm. on the same date I received a Phone Message from Colonel Davies, Commanding Officer of the U.S. Bombardment Group, Charters Towers giving me a description of the plane that was missing and he requested information concerning the wreckage found as soon as possible.
Immediately Constable McGrath returned to the Station I contacted Colonel Davies by Phone and gave him a description of the wreckage found and he was then satisfied that it was the plane which was missing in this locality. He further stated that he would come to Babinda the next morning and proceed to the scene of the disaster and make investigations concerning same.
He also stated that there were seven members of the crew of the lost plane and he gave me their names as follows:
Lieutenant Meeter, Captain Stevenson, Lieutenant Tisonyai, Sergeant Langcaster, Sergeant Morris, Sergeant De’Armonde and Sergeant English. The christian names of these men are not known here; but same can be obtained from the Commanding Officer U.S. Air Force, Charters Towers.
I informed Colonel Davies that on account of the most difficult nature of the country where the disaster occurred I considered it was almost impossible to get the bodies out and he stated that he would make an inspection of the locality and if he considered it impossible to remove the bodies he would have them interred where they were.
Colonel Davies accompanied by three of this Staff including 1st. Lieutenant G.J. Guss, Medical Corps U.S.A and Padre James arrived at Babinda at about 12.30 pm. on Tuesday 30th. April and after a conversation concerning the locality it was decided to immediately proceed as far as possible that night towards the scene of the disaster.
The Americans, the Coroner, myself and five men from Babinda then commenced the journey and we proceeded halfway up the mountain and camped for the night which was spent as per usual in pouring rain.
We again set off at Day-break the following day and arrived at the scene of the crash at about 10 am. the same day.
On arrival at the scene Colonel Davies and staff made a thorough examination of the wreckage and bodies and he then stated that it was impossible to bring any of the bodies down from the mountain and expressed his desire they be buried there.
The bodies were also view by Mr F.W. Blake, (Coroner) at Babinda and he stated that it was not necessary to hold a post-mortem and he would issue an Order for burial.
The two bodies which were unaccounted for on the first day were found under-neath a pile of wreckage; and the seven bodies then into three graves at the scene of the disaster; the burial service being rendered by Padre James, of the American Staff.
After the bodies were interred Colonel Davies made a further examination of the wreckage and he stated that as everything had been shattered and burnt there was nothing of any value worth salvaging.
We then left the scene and returned Babinda, where 1st. Lieutenant G.J. Guss of the U.S.A. Medical Corps gave a Certificate showing the cause of death as: – INJURIES DUE TO AIR-CRAFT ACCIDENT.
The original Certificates were handed to the Coroner and copies obtained which are attached hereto. The ages of the deceased men were not known by the American Staff that visited Babinda; but same can be obtained from the Head Quarters of the U.S.A. Air Force Charters.
The articles which were taken possession of by Constable McGrath which consisted of One Identification Disc with the name Eugene Tisonyai, a gold ring taken from one of the fingers of a dead body engraved with the name of Glenwood Stevenson, a quantity of private papers and two £5/-/- Notes which were partly burnt and one shilling and a half penny were handed to Colonel Davies at his request and an Indemnity Receipt obtained the same which is filed at this Office.
Colonel Davies informed me that the plane capitalise Plane in question was returning from Port Port Moresby at the time of the crash and it is believed that the Pilot capitalise pilot had been flying above the clouds on account of the very bad weather conditions and when he thought he would come down through the clouds to pick up his bearings he crashed into the side of the mountain.
All food required for the whole of the search parties was supplied free of charge by the Trembath Brothers (Butchers and Bakers) at Babinda and the only expense incurred was the Trunk Line Calls and Travelling allowances amounting to £2/-/- due to the Members the Police at this Station.
P C Pincott,
Sgt. 2/C. 2630
5th May 1942
Ironically, just nine months after the crash, Babinda police had to lead another search party up the mountain looking for four local lads who had failed to return from a planned hike to the crash site (Cairns Post, 21 January 1943, page 1).
History 101, I am pleased to say, is no longer being taught at my alma mater.