Alternative perspectives

The 1989 edition of Souter’s memoir featured an image of the famous B-17 Sally, first published in a 1943 issue of Life magazine.

Aviation literature is frustratingly uncommon, especially here in Australia where one hand is probably all you need to count the number of author’s who have produced significant works of artistic merit (e.g. Xavier Herbert, Ivan Southall, Don Charlwood, Gordon Taylor and Geoffrey Dutton).

While the writings of author and historian Gavin Souter have never attracted quite the same attention his autobiographical memoir, The Idle Hill of Summer, is notable nonethelss both for the quality of its prose and its rare evocation of wartime North Queensland – as viewed through the eyes of a schoolboy.

His recollection of the 1943 Baker’s Creek plane crash ( extract below) is especially revealing when read alongside the local constabulary’s official account of the same incident (QSA Series 16865 Item 2177743).

Literature, so it seems to me, is the finest form of history…..but you decide for yourself.


The closest I ever came to understanding the real nature of the war, which had been in progress for four years, was when I saw a crashed B-17 in the bush at Baker’s Creek. Most of the time in Mackay it was easy to forget the war, to ignore the few black-garbed refugees from Java who are living in the town, even to forget that the Americans among us were not tourists in uniform but military personnel who would soon be returning to the hardships and hazards of New Guinea. When something reminded us of these hazards, it came almost as a surprise…rumour had it that a Corsair fighter flipped over on its back while landing on a carrier in Mackay harbour, caught fire and incinerated the pilot. The rumour was passed around our school, but I put little credence in it because no one had been out to see the carrier. There was no such doubt, however, about the news that a Flying Fortress had crashed within minutes of taking off from Mackay killing thirty-nine of the forty Americans on board. This report made its way around school and around town with such speed and certainty that there was no questioning its accuracy. Nothing about the crash was published in the Mercury, but an editorial entitled ‘We Share Their Grief’ said next morning:

The war has brought sadness into many homes in this district in the loss of gallant sons who had gone forth in the grand tradition to defend their homeland from a ruthless enemy. It is for that very reason, the reason that fate has previously touched our own hearts, that we can extend in deepest feeling the sympathy of the community to our American allies in the loss of loved ones, news of whose passing, in the course of duty, circulated yesterday. No matter how we might grow accustomed to casualty lists, we can never grow hardened to them. Their poignancy is not in names or numbers, but in the meaning of memories. Young men who spent their recreation here, and were adopted into the homes in the hearts of our people, leave an aching void by their passing. It is our common destiny to take these blows, but it is our common faith, also, to share the grief of our neighbour, and this we do today.

My own response was less elevated than this. I shared no grief with anyone, but with some friends I did share an intense curiosity about the wreckage which still lay in the bush at Baker’s Creek, six miles from town. The Fortress had caught fire in the air, and as it dived into the trees one of its wings came away leaving a great opening in the fuselage through which most of the passengers were emptied into the bush before the final impact. On the afternoon at the second day after the crash, I rode out to Baker’s Creek with my brother and Bill Hoffman. We could see nothing from the road except some American and Australian military policeman who were still on guard near the crash site. Riding further along, we came to a railway bridge that crossed Baker’s Creek at a point not far through the bush from where we guessed the wreckage to be. We started to cross the bridge, but were observed by some local children who are alerted one of the provosts. He came down the road road, blew his whistle and waved us back off the bridge. The others started to ride home, but I remained sitting in some tall grass until everybody, including the treacherous locals, had disappeared. I then walked quickly across the bridge and dropped into more tall grass on the other side.

With visions of Richard Hannay glowing in my mind, I began crawling in the direction of the crash – through grass at first, under barbed wire fence, and then into eucalyptus scrub. Once a month among the trees I was able to move more quickly and comfortably. Any doubts about the direction in which I should move were soon dispelled when I noticed that the tops of all the trees around me had been lopped, at first only a few feet from the top, and then progressively lower as I moved cautiously ahead. I must have been walking in the B-17’s flight path. The trees had been cut down to a height of twenty feet, fifteen feet, ten feet and then suddenly there were no trees at all – just an open swathe of bare ground about the width of a Flying Fortress and about a hundred yards long.

All over this ground were pieces of aeroplane, first the tail fin standing alone and lopsided like a big khaki sail; then the main part of the fuselage, torn and burnt; here and there four big engine nacelles with their propeller blades twisted out of shape; and everywhere a litter of aluminium panels and tubing, men’s shoes, scorched rubber hose, broken dials and wiring, and pools of melted perspex. Keeping just inside the trees, I worked my way around the perimeter of the crash, pausing now and then to look at pieces of clothing in the branches overhead, or to pocket small bits of aluminium tubing.

Eventually my progress was blocked by an arm of mangrove swamp extending from Baker’s Creek to the edge of the crash. Although the swamp was almost dry, I did not fancy walking any further through the little air roots that sprouted among the mangrove trees like those upright blades in the arena of Ming the Merciless. Looking down at one of the patches of dry mud from which these spear-like roots protruded, I saw a wristwatch.
Half it’s leather-strap was missing, and the glass was shattered, but when I picked it up I found that the sweep hand was still moving and the hour and minute hands told the right time. It was a stainless steel black faced self-winding watch made by the Bulova Watch Company of New York. That it was still ticking after presumably having been torn from someone’s wrist and hurled a great distance through the air seemed almost as remarkable to me as the survival of a solitary passenger from a complement of forty men. I wrapped the watch carefully in my handkerchief and put it in a pocket with the bits of aluminium I had collected.

An Australian provost had now appeared at the far side of the crash. I picked up some larger bits of aluminium and moved quickly back through the trees towards the railway line. No one was in sight at the bridge, and I walked unchallenged back to my bike. Tucking the longer pieces of tubing under the seat and along the bar, I pedalled back up the road ready to clap on speed as soon as I came near the provosts. There was no need for this. the provosts had gone, and Rod and Bill were sitting by the side of the road waiting for me to come back. They had asked one of the provosts if they could see the wreckage, and he had taken them on a guided tour before I reached the edge of the site. I was glad to see, however, that they had no souvenirs.

I said nothing about the wristwatch until I got home; it seemed too extravagant to pass for a souvenir. As there was no name inscribed on the back, what was the point of handing it in to the American authorities? My parents compromised by letting me keep the watch but not wear it. some weeks later one of my father’s colleagues at the bank offered £10 for it. I kept £1 of this, and invested the rest in War Savings Certificates. (pp. 85 – 88).


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