Glimmer of hope: Bob Piper
An RAAF Douglas C-47 transport aircraft with nineteen on board, which disappeared minutes after takeoff from Milne Bay in New Guinea in September 1945, may have been re-located. An Australian tour boat operator, as well as Norwegian and Danish divers, has found aircraft wreckage in 20 metres of water in the same location where oil, lifejackets, mailbags and cushions surfaced after the accident.
A Douglas C-47 at Milne Bay: similar to the one lost
Rod Pearce, a well-known New Guinea diver who operates his charter boat Barbarian II throughout the islands, Norwegian diver Kasper Sommer, and Danish diver Roy Torgerson have confirmed the location of the plane. In addition they have recovered a number of items including a propeller, tail wheel tyre, aviation cable and a control quadrant part. Both wings, engines, undercarriage and the tail, which match a Douglas C-47, have also been sighted in murky water where sediment from nearby mountain rivers reduces visibility on most days.
However, no remains of those on board or positive identification that it is A65-56 (VH-CIJ) and the missing plane, has been made. Pearce, who has just visited Canberra to confer with Defence officials, has assisted the RAAF in other successful recovery operations of remains from submerged wartime aircraft. He also plans to dive and examine the aircraft further in future months.
It is perhaps fortunate and coincidental that detailed reports and a map on the subject by Lieutenant Eddie Stanton, also of ANGAU, have been recently re-discovered by the writer. This paperwork confirms the same position in the original Court of Enquiry and recently provided by the Milne Bay people and which Pearce had marked on his chart. That position is 200 metres offshore on the eastern side of the bay and adjacent to Gurney airfield.
Air force transport A65-56, from 33 Squadron, departed Gurney Strip shortly at 10:15 a.m. on 11 September 1945. On board were its crew of three and sixteen passengers on a routine courier flight to Dobadura, on the northern coast. On takeoff weather conditions were described as “not good with a visibility of 6 to 8 miles”. Heading down the bay VH-CIJ disappeared into the “bad patch”, which quickly moved up the bay and closed the landing field they had just departed from. Minutes after takeoff the Douglas, now enveloped the heavy tropical downpour, radioed back and advised they were “returning and asked to be homed”.
At 10:37 hours the aircraft was instructed by Aeraradio to “climb to 5,000 feet and head north east, strip closed, call back”. The transport acknowledged the signal by “okay, will try”. Though subsequently repeatedly called, no further signal was heard from A65-56. Nothing more has been seen or heard of the aircraft and those on board for the subsequent sixty-three years.
As well as thirteen RAAF passengers on board there were also one navy and two army personnel. Included in the passengers was a crew of four from a Beaufort bomber (6 Squadron) as well as a RAAF entertainment group. The latter consisted of Corporal Neil Mackay (violinist), AC1 John Haslam (cellist), Sgt Keith Devenish (piano) and a singer.
One of the army men, Lt Noel Williams, was from ANGAU (Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit) and was carrying a payroll of more than two thousand pounds, a considerable amount of money in 1945 and approximately half a million dollars in today’s values. Williams was a former Commonwealth Bank employee of Cairns in Queensland.
The pilot of the missing transport aircraft was Flight Lieutenant Eric Beer, of Boort in Victoria, who had earlier seen action with 30 Squadron in Beaufighters. On one of the operations with that unit he had crash-landed in the sea and he and his observer had spent a day and a night in a dinghy before being rescued.
Aerial, sea and ground searches at the time for the missing aircraft initially found nothing. Two of 6 Squadron’s Beauforts as well as 33 Squadron’s Douglas VH-CUJ scoured the local area. United States and Australian shipping as well as a RAAF crash boat also checked the local waters.
Then village Constable Wahae of Wagga Wagga village, searching in a canoe after having been despatched to the area, sighted two yellow life jackets, cushions and oil floating up to the surface shortly after midday on 12 September. Launches subsequently patrolled the area as well as American forces dragging the bottom for the aircraft. Dynamite was also detonated underwater in order to try to break up the wreckage and release the bodies, all to no avail. Although it is reported hard hat divers stood by in water that was only 30 metres or less deep, none were sent down as no wreckage had been snagged in the dragging operations.
Local Papuan people at the village of Duabo, which is perched on the range at 330 metres overlooking the Gumini and Gibara Rivers on the south west side of the bay, did not see the aircraft in the heavy rain but were certain from the sound “well below” that it did not enter nearby Sagarai valley to the south west, or rise to their height, but did hear it crash into the sea. They also stated it only circled twice (probably using the Gurney Strip radio beacon as a guide and reference).
People from the coastal village of Buimui also heard the aircraft and its last anti-clockwise circle of the bay before a loud noise, as if it had hit the sea. One person described it as “like dynamite was being set off underwater”. They also described how they had first heard the plane flying very low during the morning over the cocoanut trees, near the Gibara River, however, they did not see it owing to the heavy rain falling at the time.
Milne Bay, at the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, is surrounded by 1500 metre high mountains and is often subject to torrential rain and poor visibility. A pilot suddenly caught in these conditions can find himself in a very precarious position, especially shortly after takeoff. Aircrew can either attempt to slowly climb away on instruments to the west, or head east out of the bay knowing that there is a very small gap or cone of safety of only 5 degrees that they must remain inside to avoid striking any land mass or high ground. To the north and south are peaks that require 5,000 feet of altitude to safely clear. In fact Milne Bay is virtually ringed by high country and obstacles for pilots and aircraft flying in instrument conditions.
When caught in desperate situations like this a pilot can also circle down low and try and stay in sight of the ground or water and attempt to retrace their steps back to the aerodrome. The latter is apparently what Beer attempted as his engines were heard very low in the area by a number of witnesses before it is believed he struck the sea and quickly submerged. The other two crewmen lost when the plane disappeared were the second pilot Flight Lieutenant John Mulcahy of Sydney and Sgt Frank Sullivan, the radio operator, of Melbourne.
It is also known that the mother of the pilot of the aircraft, Mrs Beer, wrote where possible to the relatives expressing her regret of the loss of the aircraft and those on board. It is unfortunate that other official letters to the relatives of those on board the aircraft, by the then Department of Air, mistakenly stated that the aircraft was in 100 fathoms (600 feet or 200 metres) of water and as such the bodies would not be recoverable. In fact the known depths of the water then and now where the plane debris surfaced is only 20 or 30 metres (100 feet) deep.
Gurney airfield and the surrounding tropical waters of Milne Bay were the scene of many air, land and sea actions by RAAF fighter and bomber squadrons during 1942-43. Coincidentally Gurney Field, where A65-56 departed, was named after Squadron Leader Charles Gurney DFC, an early commanding officer of 33 Squadron who lost his life in May 1942 when the American B-26 Marauder he was flying in crashed at Owi Island, north of the Milne Bay area.
Two of the families of men on board contributed significantly to this story: the Rutherford family (FSGT Kevin Rutherford) in Victoria and the Mackay family (LAC Neil Mackay) in Queensland.
The RAAF operated a number of Douglas C-47 squadrons throughout the Pacific during and after the war. The loss of A65-56 remains one of their last unsolved mysteries until now.
* The writer and researcher, Bob Piper, once lived in Milne Bay and learnt to fly in New Guinea before returning to Australia. The project on the loss of A65-56 is one that he has been collating small pieces of information (much from the casualty files of those on board) on the jigsaw over twenty years. Aviation mysteries and their resolution have always fascinated him.