No Survivor

In 2000 a CBS film crew, surrounded by secrecy and security, spent some weeks at North Queensland’s remote Kirrima Station filming the second Survivor series, then the highest-rated television series in the United States. Most likely, they then packed up and returned to the States, oblivious that another American crew had also arrived there fifty-eight years earlier, and never departed.

 

Kirrima’s thirty-two year old owner, Arthur Dowse Collins, was mustering cattle in the Herbert Gorge region (North Queensland) on Sunday, 31st October 1943 when he and his aboriginal stockmen came across the wreckage of an aircraft.

…from markings on the Aeroplane and other gear that was with it he judged that it was an American Air Force Aeroplane…it was in a very damaged condition…both engines had been knocked off the main portion of the Machine, which had come down in fairly heavily timbered forest Country. [1]

A B-25C from the 3rd Bombardment Group (USAAF), the same unit to which the Kirrima Station plane belonged. This photograph was taken near Charters Towers in 1942 (John F Heyn collection).

The following morning Dowse set off to report his discovery to the nearest policeman in the tiny coastal community of Caldwell, forty-two miles distant. On duty when he arrived there was forty-six year old Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, whose type-written report recounts how Collins ‘had made an examination of the scene and found what he took to be six skeletons of men round the main body of the machine, and that these skeletons were only small heaps of bones, and [that] they appeared to have been there for some months at least. He obtained two small identity cards and brought same to this Station and the[y] appear to have been originally possessed by Lieutenant A F CROSSWHITE and Sergeant Gardner F GALEUCIA No.110243567.’ [2]

Military officials in Cairns were immediately notified and the following morning a convoy of American military vehicles – accompanied by Cunneen – set off for the crash site, arriving around 5 p.m..

‘The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent.’ This photograph of the crash site was taken in the 1990s (kindly loaned by Pat Kenny, Townsville)

Investigating the crash site were personnel from Base Section No.5 USAOS (United States Army Services of Supply) in Cairns, who later described having to hike the last eight to ten miles through ‘Sparse forest with considerable open rangeland but numerous water troughs and small streams with precipitous banks together with some bog or marshland [which] make it impossible to reach the site except as here described and when the rainy season arrives it cannot be reached.’

Their full report, now available online, describes the scene in great detail, the wreckage being…

 

Visible through the woods for a distance of from 200 to 300 yards, depending on the direction of approach. Elevation is probably 2000/2500 feet…Debris is scattered over an area extending north south from 150 to 200 yards and east-west from 200 to 350 yards, parts of wings, fuselage, landing gear, armament, panel instruments, parachutes, etc. (main body of wreckage) fell in an opening among a cluster of trees topping two medium sized trees about 25 or 30 feet above the ground on the way down. The twisted condition of this wreckage plus the fact that numerous parts were completely destroyed rendered identification of the various parts practically impossible. All signal equipment was either destroyed completely or rendered valueless. One wheel of the landing gear was destroyed, the tire being burned, the wheel disk[sic] broken in three parts, and the hydraulic mechanism burst and twisted. One engine, with prop attached, landed almost 75 yards south of the main wreckage and borrowed into the ground about two feet, one propeller blade driving vertically into the ground and the other two describing a normal angle from the prop spindle but bent considerably out of shape. The other engine fell about 85 yards southwest of the one first described. The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent but appeared not to be broken, and some parts of the engine appeared to have been burnt. Life raft was suspended by chords from branch of a tree, about 50 feet above the ground, approximately 100 yards west of main wreckage. One tail assembly, intact, found 145 yards west of main wreckage, bore the number 113091. The other tail assembly was torn into two sections but the number 113091 was also plainly discernible on it. Still west of this a large section of wing assembly was found and farther west yet small fragments of metal were widely scattered. Six parachutes were open and stretched out on the ground, chords fully extended, all within 30 feet of fuselage, landing gear, and other parts. All chutes show the effects of long exposure to the weather.

Only a relatively small number of bone fragments were found scattered generally in the area of the main wreckage. [3]

 

B-25C Mitchell 41-13091 had been returning from Port Moresby to its base at Charters Towers on 15th November 1942 when it disappeared. Weather conditions at the time were poor, and the aircraft was presumed to have crashed into the Coral Sea.

It is thought to have participated, the previous day (14 November 1942), in a sustained allied aerial offensive against a Japanese naval force attempting to resupply troops in the Buna area of New Guinea…


Under cover stormy weather and darkness, the convoy anchored near the mouths of the Mambare and Kumusi Rivers, and motor landing craft began to land troops from the ships. The Japs also floated crates of supplies ashore in net fastened to oil drums. At dawn with the landing still incomplete, allied planes roared across the mountains through a drizzling rain. P-39’s, Beaufighters, A-20’s, B-25’s, and B-26’s made what was described variously as “26 bombing and strafing attacks” and “96 sorties.”…. The bombing however was not particularly successful. Visibility was poor. [4]

 

Allied aircraft crashes were commonplace throughout Queensland at that stage of the war, another three American bombers having been lost along the same route in the following days. [5] Whereas most that crashed were quickly located, it was uncommon for military aircraft to disappear altogether over land, especially along the heavily trafficked Queensland coastal route. 

Although transiting military aircraft would have been alerted at the time of the B-25’s disappearance, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) was then so short of planes that it simply could not afford an extended search for this or indeed any of its other missing aircraft.

Crash site investigators concluded the plane had been destroyed by mid-air explosion while travelling north by north-west, salvage being considered impossible owing to terrain inaccessibility and the onset of the wet season (which would render roads impassable).

Documentation recovered from the wreckage was used to identify six of the eleven crew and passengers known to have been on board at the time (being those for whom identification tags couldn’t be found). Intriguingly, a 1943 Investigation Report had not discounted the possibility there may have also been a twenty year old female passenger on board named Miss Peggy Mitchell – although some officials dismissed this possibility ‘due to place of take-off.’ [6]

Peggy Mitchell (left) and Lady (Emilie) Coote at the American Red Cross Officers’ Club, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. This is thought to be the same Peggy Emily Mitchell whose letter of enlistment was recovered from the Kirrima Station wreck. Despite having been a well-connected business woman, occasionally photographed for the Sydney newspapers, the author has been unable to find any post-crash references to her (AWM P00561.030).

This open finding was based on the discovery – at the crash site – of an Australian Army letter dated 18th May 1942 directing Peggy Mitchell ‘to report for her medical test preparatory to going into training for service with the Australian Women[s] Army Service.’ [7] A confidential message sent to the U.S. a year later concluded that Miss Peggy Mitchell could not have been aboard the stricken plane. Curiously though no post-crash references (e.g. engagement, marriage, births, divorce, electoral roll etc.) to this person have been found to date. [8]

Miss Peggy Mitchell appears to have been a-well connected business woman with interests in both Sydney and Melbourne. She managed her own company as well as her father’s property interests, and was reportedly involved with administering personal commitments on behalf of servicemen. [9]

The final act in this tragedy played out the following year when Virginia Crosswhite (whose younger brother Alfred was piloting the B-25 at the time it crashed) wrote to the Cardwell Police Station on 4th June 1944 asking, imploringly, if someone there could help answer several innocuous, yet specific questions regarding her brother’s death…

We are very anxious to contact the person who discovered the wreckage…A letter from him would mean so much to us. We would please like to know the following:

    1. How the discovery was made.
    2. Description of the terrain.
    3. Is that particular section inhabited.
    4. Apparent cause of the crash. Did the plane crash into a mountain peak, or was it attempting a forced landing? Did the plane burn?
    5. Did evidence at the scene indicate whether or not anyone survived the crash. We would appreciate your frank opinion on this.
    6. By what means of conveyance were the bodies removed to the American cemetery

It was two months later when she finally received a brief reply from the Queensland Police Commissioner, declining for ‘security reasons’ to answers any of her questions. [10]

_______________________________________________________________________________

[1] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Report dated 4th November 1943, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).

[2] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Ibid.

[3] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 4 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

4] Watson, Richard L. Jr. USAAF Historical Study No. 17: Air Action in the Papuan Campaign, 21 July

1942 to 23 January 1943 (Washington, DC.: USAAF Historical Office, 1944): page 61.

[5] These included The B-24 Lady Ann which crashed on nearby Hinchinbrook Island; the B-25 Eight Ball Esquire which crashed into the sea north of Cooktown; and B-25 41-29706 which crashed into the ocean north of Osprey Reef.

[6] Missing Air Crew Report number 16497, folio 13

[7] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 8 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

[8] Her enlistment folder, held at the National Archives of Australia (NAA: B883, NFX179875) would likely hold the answer to whether she was, or wasn’t on board the Kirrima Station B-25C.

[9] Runs Three Businesses During War, The Sun, 7th February 1943, page 8.

[10] C J Carroll to Virginia L Crosswhite, 4th August 1944, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).

 

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