Rediscovering Fisherman’s Island

Archival research is never more revealing than when it causes  you to reconsider your own knowledge, beliefs and memories. And so I left the State Library of Queensland yesterday trying to recall fragments of a childhood spent growing up in Port Moresby in the early 1970s, my interest piqued by an earlier resident’s astonishingly comprehensive album of black and white snapshots.

Bad weather forced “The Windy City II” to divert to Fisherman’s Island in June 1944 with eighteen patients and three female medical attendants on board (Hugh G. Peachey collection, State Library of Queensland Accession 33547 O/S).

A keen amateur photographer, twenty-two year old Hugh Geves Peachey had no sooner graduated as a civil engineer in 1946 when he found himself posted to Port Moresby, employed by the Commonwealth Department of Works. Then, as in the 1970s, expatriates like Peachey (and myself) spent much of our spare time on or near the ocean—either fishing or swimming. Trips to one or more of the nearby islands were routine  with the largest of these, the imaginatively-named Fisherman’s Island (known locally as Daugo), being a favoured destination for expats (i.e. colonial residents) keen to escape the town’s dry and dusty streets.

It was a long haul (twelve kilometres) from Ela Beach to Fishermans, circa 1971 (Mark Clayton)

It was here that I spent many weekends with my family, much of that time water skiing in the Island’s turquoise waters. In those days the Island appeared flat, featureless and uninhabited, its highest point being just 10 metres above sea level. Although I had a healthy adolescent interest then in the region’s wartime history I could see no possible reason for ever wanting to venture inland, beyond the Island’s brilliantly-white north-western beach.  Had I done so, and wandered just 150 metres beyond the shoreline I might have come across the Island’s wartime airstrip. And had I ventured further, I might have also found the remains of several American aircraft that had crashed there during the Second World War.1These include B-25C 41-12486 , P-39D 41-6800 and C-47A 42-100628.

Decades would pass before I eventually learned about this airfield and its several wartime dramas. It was only yesterday however, after chancing upon Hugh Peachey’s monochrome memories of Port Moresby in the late 1940s that my interest in these distant events was rekindled. I have seen many wartime images of Moresby and the allied aircraft that had defended the town, so many it seemed that they had begun to appear predictably familiar. Far less common however were images that revealed both the town’s appearance in the war’s immediate aftermath, and how its residents were able to integrate the war’s abundant detritus  into their daily lives.

Thankfully the young Comworks civil engineer shared my peculiar interest in such things, his albums peppered with images of un-dismantled hilltop radar stations and gun emplacements; of streets lined with surplus military vehicles;  and a harbour occupied by former army landing barges and air force Catalinas (and an overturned Machduhi). By documenting sights he had previously never seen, he had also unwittingly revealed—for me at least—a Port Moresby that was strikingly unfamiliar. While the geography, vegetation and infrastructure had changed little in the three decades that separated us, it was evident from his images that many of the war’s vestiges must have disappeared in the intervening years. The war zone that I could still distinguish three decades later was in fact a mere shadow of what remained, even after the war.

Damaged by friendly ground fire and Japanese fighters during the 9th May 1942 attack on the seven mile airfield, this Airacobra was forced to land on Fisherman’s Island before the airstrip had been built (Hugh G. Peachey collection, State Library of Queensland Accession 33547 O/S).

Peachey also visited Fisherman’s Island in the late 1940s, his record of that trip revealing a landscape far removed that I had known. Gone by the 1970s was the large stand of coconut trees, the fallen [wartime] radio tower, and the wrecks of several substantially complete U.S. military aircraft. I can comprehend how grass fires, locals and souvenir hunters might reduce a small fighter to remnants in that time, but struggle to see how a  large twin-engine transport could have altogether disappeared from a sparsely populated island some twelve kilometres offshore. Even if it had wanted, the Commonwealth Government had to await the Lend-Lease Settlement of June 1946 before it could have begun cleaning up (i.e., scrapping) the many abandoned U.S. military aircraft scattered throughout what would later be renamed the Territory of Papua New Guinea. Another five years would pass before the Territory Administration finally invited tenders (in December 1951) for the removal of wrecked aircraft in and around Port Moresby, the Fisherman’s Island wrecks having possibly been disposed of then.

Post-war Moresby I now realize was a foreign land, as unrecognizeable to me as Moresby in the 1970s would have seemed to Hugh Peachey.

Flights of fancy

Hopes dashed. From a set of four aviation-themes stamps issued on 8 July 1970, Ansett’s Fokker Friendship was depicted with the Manam Island volcano as its back drop.

Undistracted by television, expatriate children living in Papua New Guinea were more receptive and vulnerable perhaps to urban mythologizing. One instance I well recall concerned the issue of a new five cent postage stamp which, because of a glaring imperfection, was rumoured to hold the promise of certain fortune for any kid with patience, and spare pocket money.

The stamp’s designer, it transpired, had unwittingly reversed the airline’s three-pointed tail logo. A matter of little consequence for most post office customers, this trifling error had nonetheless assumed great importance in the capital’s playgrounds by August 1970. The story had spread quickly around the Port Moresby High School, gaining significance with each retelling. While I may have been one of the last to hear I was certainly quick to react, zealously acquiring as many used and unused specimens of the 5¢ Ansett Fokker Friendship as I possibly could. All I had to do then was wait for an opportune time to cash in.

Fast forward half a century, and I have come to terms with the realization my pocket money might have been better spent … on salty plums. The warning signs were there at the time, local media reports of the stamp issue attaching no importance to the error 1“Aircraft of the Islands,” Pacific Islands Monthly 41, No. 7, July 1970, 23,  https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-331541083/view?partId=nla.obj-331595861#page/n26/mode/1up.

Although the design flaw has since been widely acknowledged by philatelists the stamp’s value, even amongst collectors, has scarcely appreciated (beyond its original 5 cent face value) during the past fifty years.2Ken Polsson, Postage Stamp Design Errors, 15 October 2022, http://kpolsson.com/stamps/errors/papuanewguinea.htm Only last month a complete unused set comprising all four stamps from this July 1970 issue sold on eBay with the $AUD2.00 postal charge exceeding the $AUD0.99 winning bid.3https://www.ebay.com.au/itm/1970-Papua-New-Guinea-Australia-New-Guinea-Air-Service-5c-stamps-/285001403253

My interest in stamps subsequently waned.

 

“The best crash I ever had”

Flying on a cloudless night, with the landscape illuminated by an almost full moon, the crew of Avro Anson W1655 might well have felt some serenity. At least, until both engines suddenly stopped. It was 8.50 p.m. on a Monday, 30th March 1942.

The Anson was written off following its crash landing in Joseph Toft’s paddock. A hand-written inscription on the reverse side of this image – presumably written by Lasscock reads “The best crash I ever had.” (Lyn Mergard)

Flying the Anson was twenty-one year old Robert Bennett Lasscock of Perth (West Australia). Formerly a bank officer, he had joined the RAAF exactly one year earlier. Posted from Sydney to No.8 Service Flying Training School at Bundaberg in south-east Queensland,  Lasscock was completing a circuit of the aerodrome  at the time – after returning from a night training flight. Although he had rehearsed many times for such a predicament, no amount of training could have replicated the fear and apprehension he must have surely felt then.

Pilot Robert Bennett Lasscock of Perth suffered a second forced (daylight) landing  in late April 1943, when the Anson he was flying also suffered an “alleged engine failure” 10 miles north-west of Bundaberg (NAA (Canberra): A9845, 63, ID 7127535).

Having only arrived in Bundaberg five days earlier, he would have been aware at least that the sugar cane fields surrounding the aerodrome were relatively flat – increasing his chances of surviving the inevitable crash landing.1Lasscock Robert Bennett : Service Number – 406722, NAA (Canberra): A9300, LASSCOCK R B, ID 5250842, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=5250842

Meanwhile, sugar cane farmer Colin Toft had been lying in bed at Avoca, two-and-a-half miles west of Bundaberg, when he noticed two planes flying some distance from the house, one of which “suddenly appeared to lose altitude” crashing nearby in his father’s paddock.2Bill Kerr, “Toft, Colin Bramwell (1921–1990),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/toft-colin-bramwell-15645. As Colin later recounted in his Police Statement, the plane’s engines “did not appear to be functioning properly.” He immediately raced by car for the ambulance and the police.

The dismantled Anson leaving Joseph Toft’s paddock at Avoca, west of Bundaberg. The Toft family played a lead role after the war in helping to mechanize the sugar cane industry. By the early 1970s, Bundaberg’s Toft Bros. held a large share of the world market in mechanized cane machinery. Subsequently renamed Austoft, their company continued to play a major role in the development of technology in the Australian sugar cane industry. (Lyn Mergard).

In a separate police statement, Colin’s father Joseph also reported having seen “the plane flying low and …heading in the direction of his house” when it “suddenly swerved and struck the ground.” While awaiting the ambulance’s arrival one of the plane’s crew had remarked to Joseph that “one of the controls [had] failed but we did the best we could.”3Sub-Inspector J Osborne (Bundaberg Station) to Queensland Police Commissioner, Report Ref.3013, 30 March 1942, Queensland State Archives: Agency Control Number
1861M, Item ID ITM320040, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM320040.

Half an hour after the crash, Sub-Inspector James Osborne at the local Police Station answered a call from Bundaberg resident Frank Christensen, informing him that an Air Force aeroplane had just crashed in Toft’s paddock at Avoca—about three miles west of Bundaberg. Colin Toft also arrived at the same time, adding that he had already notified the Bundaberg Ambulance Brigade while on his way to the Police Station.

At twenty-three, Eric Baldock was the oldest of the three on board the Avoca Anson. An “unauthorised passenger” at the time of the crash, he appears to have escaped any disciplinary action (NAA: (Canberra): A9301, 43811, ID 4595541).

By the time the party of four policemen reached the crash scene, 100 yards from the Toft’s residence, the three crew were already being treated by ambulance personnel. All onboard the plane (viz. pilot, co-pilot and passenger) survived the crash, sustaining shock and laceration injuries.

In the Preliminary Report prepared the following day Lasscock (pilot) was charged with “Carelessness and disobedience of orders,” due to his “failure to change to full inner tanks when outer tanks became exhausted.”4Preliminary Report No.889 (1941-42), Avro Anson Accidents Part 12, NAA (Canberra): A9845, 70, ID 7127542, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=7127542&S=27&T=P&R=0. Also injured was the co-pilot nineteen year old LAC Frank Alexander (Alec) Badgery (412565), formerly a station manager from Cumnock in New South Wales.5Badgery Frank Alexander : Service Number – 412565, NAA: A9300, Badgery F A, ID 5380128, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=5380128. The Flying School’s daily log however, which would have been written up around the same time, makes no such adverse findings against the pilot, noting only that “the pilot lost control.”6https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=1360155&T=P&S=696. What this log does reveal however, is that Lasscock was carrying an “unauthorised” passenger at the time of the accident. Twenty-three year-old AC1 Eric Keith Baldock (43811), a Brisbane shoemaker, had discharged from the Army in mid-October 1941 before re-enlisting with the Air Force the following day. Although forbidden by Air Force regulations it was commonplace then, especially on training bases, for crews to occasionally risk the carriage non-flying personnel. Doing so at night, further diminished the chances of being caught out. There is nothing in Baldock’s Conduct Record to indicate however that he, or the pilot (Lasscock) were ever disciplined following this incident.7Baldock Eric Keith: Service Number – 43811, NAA (Canberra): A9301, 43811, ID 4595541, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Gallery151/dist/JGalleryViewer.aspx?B=4595541&S=8&N=62&R=0.

Co-pilot Alec Badgery went on to served with a Canadian bomber squadron, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1944 (NAA (Canberra): A9300, Badgery F A, ID 5380128).

This in fact was the first of several lucky escapes for Lasscock who, a year later, survived another forced (daylight) landing when in late April 1943 the Anson he was flying also suffered an “alleged engine failure,” 10 miles north-west of Bundaberg.8Preliminary Report No.964 (1942-43), Avro Anson Accidents Part 5, NAA (Canberra): A9845, 63, ID 7127535, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=7127535&S=28&T=P&R=0. Lasscock later served operationally with 31 Squadron based at Morotai, Indonesia, and it was while he was taxying a Beaufighter (A19-181) there in late August 1944 that his brakes failed, causing the aircraft to collide with a pole and sustain major damage.9F/Lt. L. J. Joseph to Secretary, Air Board, Confirmatory Memorandum 000091, ? August 1944, NAA (Canberra): A9845, 21, ID, 6950475, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=6950475&T=P&S=4.

Alec Badgery’s flying career, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more different. He served operationally in Europe, flying Halifax bombers for much of 1944 with the Canadian Air Force’s No, 431 Squadron. In September 1944 he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation mentioning that he’d flown numerous sorties to Berlin and the Ruhr, while displaying “coolness, courage and determination.”10Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 21 September 1944, Issue No.190, 2179, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23275611.; https://www.rcafassociation.ca/heritage/search-awards/?search=badgery&searchfield=lastname&type=all. Having survived their crash landing at Avoca, all three on board the Anson that night went on to survive the war.

Thanks to Lyn Mergard who generously shared her recollections and photographs, first published to the Facebook Group, Bundaberg: Remember When, on 28 January 2022: 10.22.

The Toft farm was at Avoca Road, near the end of what is now Aloha Drive. It backed onto the Burnett River. The Avoca Garden Centre at 171 Avoca Road is part of the original Toft property (the office) and the family home was moved further along Avoca Road towards town in the 1960’s (Lyn Mergard).

Next time

For almost forty years now I have driven past the Calliope River Historical Village (CRHV) on the Bruce Highway, south-west of Gladstone, always promising that I would one day find the time to stop. Eventually, I did.

(via Simon Barnfield)

Long experience has taught me that the best of our cultural heritage can be found not in publicly-funded metropolitan museums and galleries but rather, in the thousands of voluntary-run regional historical museums – just like the sprawling Central Queensland village I had finally decided to visit.

Predictably the village featured collections of bottles, irons, stationary engines, tractors, agricultural implements, railabilia [not sure that is a word] and pioneer dwellings, similar to those to be found in any other historical village in any other part of the continent.

The airport was only officially opened after the terminal’s completion in 1956.

And while I didn’t recognise anything that might qualify as being nationally significant, I was captivated by one comparatively  modern weatherboard building.

Architecturally uninspiring, an interpretative sign identified this as the first airport terminal from the nearby coastal port of Gladstone.  This had been built at a cost of £2,262 in 1956, just two years after the opening of the town’s airport.

By 1966 however it was struggling to cope with the airport’s 16,658 annual passenger arrivals. It is thought to have continued in that role until 1972, eventually transferring to the Historical Village in 1984 (by which time annual airport arrivals were in excess of 84,000).

Gladstone’s terminal – bottom left – was one of only two airport structures when this photograph was taken from 12,000 feet on 1 July 1959 ( QImagery QAP0926, Frame 082)

While several metropolitan airport terminal buildings have been preserved in Australia in situ (think Archerfield and Parafield), this is thought to be the only instance of an airport terminal being relocated for preservation. Granted there are many other post-war regional terminals still in use, but it remains to be seen if any of these survive.

By accepting responsibility for preserving its first airport terminal building, CRHV volunteers have shown remarkable courage, historical prescience, and an uncommon appreciation of their region’s aerial transport heritage.

(September 2021)

“daddy come out and have a look at this funny plane”

Fourteen year old Thomas Honor had been playing outside his house at Maroondan in Queensland’s Burnett region when he urgently beckoned his father. Walking to the back door David Honor, a widower, described seeing “a large aeroplane flying at a very low altitude Continue reading ““daddy come out and have a look at this funny plane””

Serial No. 1381, Bowen

The Australian Government had little expertise or interest in radar technology at the start of the Second World War. By 1942 however the continent’s coastline was dotted with scores of radar stations operated by locally-trained technicians using, in many instances, Australian-designed and built radar equipment. This is the story of one such unit – Bowen’s No.55 Radar Station (RAAF).

Built in anticipation of a possible Japanese aerial attack against Australian mainland targets, approval for development of the Bowen radar station (costing £9,700) was granted in early November 1942.1Encl. 27A, Air Force Headquarters – CAS [Chief of Air Staff] (Organisation) – Establishment – Radar Stations – General, NAA: Series A705, Control Symbol 231/9/1031, ID 3336324, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=3336324&T=P&S=107.  Land and buildings necessary for the development were then requisitioned via the National Security (General) Regulations). The site selected for the installation was an elevated sandstone plateau at Cape Edgecumbe, two miles north-east of the port. Continue reading “Serial No. 1381, Bowen”

9 September 1942

Bundaberg in south-eastern Queensland was a center for flying training during the Second World War. As a consequence, the surrounding Burnett Region is peppered with wartime crash sites.

Drury’s Anson being dismantled in Lutz’s cane field. Official records indicate it was never repaired, being struck off charge the following year. Military activities at that time were commonly photographed by civilian and military personnel (Bundaberg Library bun06577, Clifford Potter Collection).

A brick maker prior to enlisting, Flight Sergeant Thomas Peel Drury was one of many pilots who came to grief while undergoing advanced training at the RAAF’s No.8 Secondary Flying Training School (SFTS) in Bundaberg. Continue reading “9 September 1942”