‘purely accidently’

Relative to:- An “Aero Cobra” single engine pursuit aeroplane, the property of the U.S.A. Forces crashing in the bed of the Burdekin River, Home Hill, at about 1-50 p.m. and a similar type aeroplane making a forced landing in the bed of the Burdekin River, Home Hill, at about 3-15 p.m. on the 5th October 1942. Both pilots escaped injury. No suspicious circumstances surrounding either of the occurrences.

So began Constable Mumford’s dispassionate official report to the Townsville Police Commissioner, recounting the extraordinary events that had occurred earlier that same day. Now held in the Queensland State Archives in Brisbane (Item ID2177716), this local policeman’s dog-eared, double-sided, and now fragile manuscript provides us an uncommon insight into the Burdekin region during the early years of the Second World War.

A Bell P-400 Airacobra, similar to the pair of “Aero Cobra” that force-landed in the Burdekin River in October 1942 (Allen Boyer). ‘As a result of inquiries made I am satisfied that both occurrences were purely accidental. The pilot of the aircraft that struck the wires near the Railway Bridge over the Burdekin River stated that up to that time the machine was performing normally. He had the air-craft under proper control up to that time. Immediately this incident occurred, “Air-flash” Townsville, was advised by Mr Hollywood, hence the search by other aircraft.’

I have to report that at about 2-50 p.m. on even date, James HOLLYWODD [sic], residing at the Inkerman Sugar Mill, Carstairs, near Home Hill and on the bank of the Burdekin River, telephoned this Station and reported that a short time previously an aeroplane had collided with the Post and Telegraph wires which are suspended over the Burdekin River in the vicinity of the Railway Bridge. HOLLYWOOD went on to state that this aeroplane, when last seen, was following a course along the Burdekin River and was noticed to be losing height and it appeared the aircraft would be forced to make a Landing.

Sergeant 2/C. J. H. Cooke and I immediately set out to search for the aircraft, commencing a patrol on the Burdekin River. After we had patrolled a considerable stretch of the River we ascertained that local residents had discovered the plane in the bed of the Burdekin River, about four mile down stream from the railway bridge which spans the Burdekin River.

 On arrival at the scene I found the aeroplane in question to be an “Aero Cobra” [sic] single engine pursuit aeroplane, the property of the U.S.A. Forces, and which at the time of the accident was being piloted by Lieutenant Herbert KOHRS, 40th. Fighter Squadron, Antill Plains. With the exception of a small laceration to the scalp the pilot was found to be uninjured. The aircraft was damaged, the chief damage appearing to be badly bent propeller blades and damaged wings.

Originally from Iowa, twenty year old Herbert R Kohrs (19062165), a college graduate, had been working as an actor in Santa Barbara (CA) when he’d enlisted with the Air Corp the previous November. In late July 1942 his squadron had rotated back to Antill Plains (north-west of Home Hill) to recoup and re-arm, after having flown combat operations in New Guinea the previous two months.

On interviewing Lieutenant KOHRS he stated that at the time in question he was flying the aeroplane at a low altitude, flying down stream over the Burdekin River. He was accompanied by other air-craft and when in the vicinity of the Railway Bridge which spans the Burdekin River at Carstairs, near Home Hill, he looked to the side of his plane to ascertain the position of his flight leader, while his attention was thus drawn from his course the wings of the plane struck Post and Telegraph wires and railway wires which are suspended over the river in the vicinity of the Railway Bridge. As a result of the impact with the wires the starboard side wing was damaged to some extent that the aeroplane could not be kept under proper control. After travelling a distance of approximately four miles, following a course of the river bed, he came to the conclusion that he would be unable to return to his base with the plane so decided to make a “pan-cake” landing, that is a landing with the undercarriage in a folded position. He selected a patch of sand in the riverbed, clear of the water and landed at a speed of about 100 miles an hour. The plane eventually came to a standstill in an upright position facing practically in the direction from which it had came….

On the upstream side of the Railway bridge which spans the Burdekin River there are about 9 Post and Telegraph wires suspended over the River, while immediately on the downstream side of the Railway Bridge there are about four wires, the property of the Railway Department, suspended over the River, all the wires being at a height of approximately 80 feet. The air-craft struck both sets of wires, the most of which were broken. The aeroplane struck the wires towards the left hand bank of the river. Action was immediately taken by the Departments concerned to have the damaged wires repaired.

Burdekin River bridge, 1947 (State Library of Queensland
 191078 )

After locating the damaged aircraft I went to a farm about one mile from the scene of the accident and informed Inspector Carseldine of the occurrence. Inspector Carseldine undertook to notify the proper authorities of the accident.

About 6-30 p.m. on even date Lieutenant Williams of the U.S.A. forces arrived at the scene and placed a guard of the damaged aircraft.

Soon after the above mentioned air-craft crashed a number of aeroplanes flew over the scene in search of the damaged plane. While thus engaged another “Aero Cobra” single engine pursuit aeroplane, which was being piloted by Lieutenant James HEBERT [sic], and which is also the property of the U.S.A. Forces, was compelled to make a forced landing owing to shortage of petrol. The air-craft was landed in the bed of the Burdekin River, Home Hill, about 1 1/2 miles up-stream from where the first mentioned aircraft crashed. As a result of the forced landing of the second aeroplane the machine received some damage to the propeller blades, but the Pilot escaped injury. Constable Ensinger, Ayr, arrived at the scene of the second forced landing where he remained until the tenant Williams also placed a guard over the air-craft.

Both “Aero Cobras” would have been dismantled and returned to Townsville, either for repair or salvage, and within six weeks of this incident the squadron had returned to front-line operations in Port Moresby. Both Khors and Herbert are thought to have survived the war, the latter eventually taking over command of the 40th Fighter Squadron in February 1944.

In the month following, on 13th November 1942, a United States Army Gipsy Moth plane collided with power cables crossing the Logan River at Alberton near Brisbane, killing both occupants. This was followed by a similar fatal incident the following year (27th November) , also at Alberton, involving a U.S. Beechcraft UC43.

Concern at these mounting costs, service disruptions and fatalities, the eventually prompted the Queensland Premier to write to the Prime Minister in the following terms:

Apart from the more serious aspect of loss of service personnel and equipment these accidents cause interruption to essential electricity supply services. It is understood that the cables are [also] below the minimum height at which air force personnel are permitted to fly their aircraft in ordinary circumstances. (QSA, 11th January 1944, Item ID2177758)

2 thoughts to “‘purely accidently’”

  1. I have a couple of copies of photos of one of the Cobras in the river bed ,They were taken by a kid who my mum says became a chemist in the Burdekin . My mum and the other children who lived on Downs Road at Jarvisfield Reserve went and inspected the plane . A Military guard was put on the plane overnight and trucks took the plane away the next day . the pilot was taken to a farmhouse and had his first taste of pawpaw .

  2. This brings back a story told by my late father Gp/Capt W L B Stephens, at the time W/Cdr Principal Medical Officer North Est Area Townsville HQ was called out with another Dr and 2 nurses plus Military Ambulance to a crashed landed plane out of Home Hill in the dry Burdekin River…more than likely this plane. The funny story was that the RAAF Chev’s radiator ran dry and water was hard to find. The Nurses Stockings were used to seal the Radiator hoses and as there was a carton of ALE in the boot they had a “Party” consuming the ALE and refilled the radiator…both the BOYS AND THE GIRLS. This was a tale told at many Mess Functions for years after. It would have looked hilarious. The good thing about it all the Medicos and Ambulance were not needed as no injuries were sustained. But what a story.😂.

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