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…about 80 yards from my house…I could not distinguish if one or two engines were running, it was making a loud roaring sound.” About a hundred yards beyond the house it struck the top of dead tree, continuing another quarter of a mile before appearing to dive down into the ground. He then “noticed what appeared to be earth flying up in front of the plane. After the plane dived into the ground, there was a loud report, which sounded to me to be like dynamite or gelignite going off. As soon as I heard this explosion, I could see the black smoke arising from where the plane had crashed…I [then] saw what appeared to me to be four men running out of the plane.”
It was 2.30 pm on Friday, 5 November 1943, a time when most locals in the district were outside busy cutting sugar cane. For this reason many others in the vicinity also witnessed this tragedy unfold, multiple written statements on the Queensland Police file corroborating the substance and detail of Honor’s lengthy typewritten statement.1Maroondan, Gin Gin district – 5 Nov 1943 – USA bomber aeroplane – USA serviceman – injured S/Sgt GERNARD; 1st Lieut BRENNER; RALPH; S/Sgt NONSIGNORE; PFC OLEGNICKI; JANTAS; BERGER – fatality PFC EARHART, Robert L, Queensland State Archives Agency Control Number 1861M/103, ID ITM2177753, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM2177753.
Fifty-four year old John Perkis later recalled “the aeroplane passed over where we were cutting cane and I could see that it was an American plane by the markings on it…one of the engines seemed to be running badly, and was backfiring and spitting…in my opinion it would have been impossible for the plane to go far after it passed my place owing to the condition of one of the engines.”
The plane had crashed on a ten-acre paddock owned by sixty-eight year old William Henry Crozier who was inside his house shaving when he heard the impact and explosion. Arriving at the scene, three hundred yards distant he “noticed one American serviceman attempting to put the fire out with “what appeared to me to be a fire extinguisher. I helped one American out from the wreckage of the tail part of this plane which was thrown clear from the other wreckage that was burning, and after doing this the American that was attempting to put the fire out told me to go to my house and get a tin of water. I ran to the house and got a kerosene tin of water and took it back to where the plane had crashed.”
Destroyed in this crash was a U.S. Air Force “fat cat,” a term used then to describe former military aircraft which were still serviceable, but considered too worn out (or obsolete) for continued tactical operations. Stripped of armour and armaments, they were used to ferry freight and passengers between forward operational areas and the Australian mainland. All those on board at the time, other than the pilot, were heading south on leave – from New Guinea.
The most revealing of the several statements taken by police was that tendered by nineteen-year old Raymaond Findlay…
“I was cutting cane at about a quarter of a mile from the Maroondan main road, when I heard a peculiar noise, which sounded to me like a number of aeroplanes. I looked over in an easterly direction and saw an aeroplane about half a mile away, flying very low and nearly hitting the tops of the trees. I could hear the engine of the plane. I watched the plane and I heard it hit the top of a dead tree about half a mile from where I was working… it appeared to swerve and be out of control…and it was losing altitude rapidly… when the plane first hit the ground it appeared to bounce along for about 20 yards and the nose of the plane appeared to dig into the ground, and the cabin part of the plane broke off and skidded forward past the engine part. I heard one loud explosion which sounded to me like a bomb going off…it took me about two minutes to run over the paddock to where the plane had crashed and on arrival at the plane I saw an American laying half out of a part of the broken plane and I pulled him clear from where it was burning, and placed him on the grass about ½ a chain away. Prior to arriving at the plane I noticed some persons were thrown from the plane when it crashed. I then helped two other Americans who were trapped in the cabin portion of the plane to get out. I was assisted by another American in doing this, and we carried them out through the hole from where the tail part of the plane was torn off. The wreckage of the plane was burning at this time very fiercely around the outside of cabin part, it was not burning in the front of the broken cabin part where these men were taken out… another American then crawled out of the tail part of the plane that was thrown clear of the burning wreckage… I made a further search of the wreckage and in the cabin portion of the plane I saw the body of an American laying. The body was covered with debris from the inside of the smashed cabin. With the assistance of this American I managed to lift the body out and carried it away from the burning plane and placed it on the grass. At this time there were about five of the neighbours present and they commenced to look after the injured Americans.”
Within “a few seconds” of the crash Mrs Hazel Ethel Dunn, Moorandan’s Station Mistress and Post Mistress had notified the local police by phone, Sergeant William Lynam and Constable Roy Wardrop being the first officials to arrive at the scene. Dr W S Liecester of Gin Gin (7 miles to the west) was next to arrive, followed eventually by ambulances and personnel from RAAF Bundaberg a further twenty-seven miles east. The injured were duly conveyed to Bundaberg and Gin Gin hospitals, Constable Wardrop remaining at the scene until the arrival of an RAAF guard at 4.45 pm that same afternoon under the charge of Corporal Walker.
In his official report submitted five days after the incident Sergeant Lynam described the aircraft “number 598” as a “Marauder” B.26.B. Twin engine. Unit 342 “FT” S.Q. 12a. Left Townsville II/30 5/11/43, due to arrive Amberly 3/30 5/II/43.” Within another hour this had been misrepresented in various police reports as a DC-3 transport, and a B-24 bomber. Those on board at the time, all Americans, were listed as: Higgins. 1st Lt 19711 B (Pilot); Donovan. M/Sgt A.P.O. 503; Gernard. S/Sgt; Brenner. 1st Lt. 5th Bomber; Ralph. 1st Lt 9Ta “FT”; Nonsignore. S/Sgt A.P.O. 503; Olejnicki, Edmund J. (36333215) P.F.C. 10th E.O.C.A.; Jantas. P.F.C. Hosp.; Earhart. Robert Lloyd (37192551) P.F.C. A.P.O.; and Berger P.F.C..
While others on board were seriously burned Private Earhart was the only fatality. Lynam’s enquiries also later revealed that “the plane had experienced such [engine] trouble since leaving Port Moresby.” The following month the local Kolan Shire Council wrote to the Royal Humane Society, recommending Ray Findlay for a bravery award.