Wewak, Vanimo and the Auster crash of 1953: Peter Skinner
Whenever I hear the words Vanimo, Auster or John McInerney, I have almost instant recall to Wewak, March 1953, and being told by my distraught mother, Marie, that the single-engine Auster owned and piloted by Dr John McInerney, medical officer, had crashed into the sea off Vanimo. McInerney had been killed and my father, Ian, at that time an ADO, was alive but badly injured. Also injured in the crash was ADO George Wearne.
Although the accident happened on a Sunday, 1 March, I remember being called home from Wewak primary school and my mother told me what had happened.
News of the crash was also relayed to my older brother David, who was at boarding school in Southport, Queensland. He also remembers the moment well, being called into the study of the Junior School headmaster, Ivor Cribb, late at night to hear the grim news. Neither of us knows who contacted Mr Cribb.
In Wewak, arrangements were made for me to stay with the family of Tom Leabeater, a kiap who lived near us, while my mother flew to Lae, where my father was to spend several weeks in hospital. During that period I had my own brush with the hereafter, but more about that further on.
While fatal air crashes were not unusual in New Guinea—virtually anyone who has ever lived there for any length of time will have known people who died in crashes—the death of John McInerney shocked the expatriate community. As I understand it, he had been the principal of a small family-operated flying doctor service in Australia but after a falling out with his business partners upped stakes and moved to New Guinea where he was medical officer, Wewak. He became something of a legend through his exploits in the little Auster J/5 Adventurer, registration VH-KSY, and was a popular New Guinea identity: one of those characters who seemed to dot the expat landscape in those early years in TP&NG.
Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, on hearing of the accident, praised McInerney as “a man who put his mission of healing above all other considerations and was held in high regard in his districts because of his readiness to respond to all calls.”
I remember McInerney being at our place quite often, one of the more memorable times being when he brought his three dogs with him, against my father’s advice who pointed out that our dog, Sam, a German Shepherd-Japanese Red Dog cross, was territorial and would probably start a brawl with Mac’s dogs. That’s exactly what happened. Sam was a bloodstained mess by the time it was over, but still standing and quite proud of himself. McInerney’s dogs were seriously mauled and had to be taken home in a Jeep. As far as I know, it didn’t cause a Skinner-McInerney rift.
It was during those years in Wewak that my father taught David and me to body surf at a beach that John McInerney often flew over. On one occasion he commented that if our father could see the sharks that frequently cruised up and down just outside the surf line—and the occasional pukpuk—he probably wouldn’t be so keen on taking his young sons into the surf. We continued with our body surfing and the sharks and crocs didn’t bother us.
And while I don’t remember ever actually flying with McInerney in the Auster—flying in small aircraft was reasonably routine and thus usually not memorable—my brother David recalls that he, along with both our parents, had at some time or other flown with McInerney, so it’s quite possible I had too.
The British-built Auster was a three-seat high wing monoplane introduced in the late 1940s and its various models were used for a variety of military and civilian purposes. It was a popular and proven aircraft. The plane had a linear tube metal fuselage which was fabric covered and was powered by a 130 hp engine with a maximum speed of about 125mph, a cruising speed of 106 mph, and a range of about 200 miles. And Auster is apparently the Latin name for “warm southerly wind”.
I wish my father had written his account of Vanimo crash but, and mainly at my insistence, he told me about it quite a few times so I did get to know what happened, albeit from his perspective. Quite recently I have had contact with Graham Taylor who was a patrol officer in Vanimo at the time. Graham saw the plane crash into the harbour, sent out a Mayday call, and was involved with search and rescue efforts and the recovery of McInerney’s body. His account of the accident and other circumstances jell with what my father told me.
Over the years I have read several accounts of the event, including one that said George Wearne was in the cockpit and my father in the rear of the plane. Another recounted that while McInerney was killed the others escaped with minor injuries. While I don’t know the extent of George Wearne’s injuries, I do know my father had three vertebrae cracked, came within millimeters of being crippled, and suffered chronic back pain for many years thereafter. As for the locations of the passengers—when the wreckage was recovered, the instrument panel had two large dents in it from the impact of two heads: McInerney’s and my father’s. Wearne, who had been sitting in the back, apparently was thrown out the side of the plane or had managed to scramble out a door.
Wreckage was taken to Wewak for examination and some months after the crash, my father showed me the window that he had escaped through—it looked very small, even to me. And after the DCA investigation into the crash was completed, he was offered the plane’s instrument panel with its two prominent dents as a souvenir. He declined. In addition to his injuries, my father also lost two souvenirs from World War II—prized, very high quality German binoculars “obtained” from a German tank commander at El Alamein in North Africa and a wristwatch given to him by a downed American airman during his Coastwatching stint on New Britain in 1943-44.
The day of the fatal crash
As Graham Taylor describes it, Vanimo is like a giant crab claw with a big harbour that is open to the north around a semi-circular bay. The Catholic Mission was on the western point of the claw and the Administration/PIR buildings on eastern. The airstrip was also on the eastern claw, a short isthmus with water at both ends: the harbour shore to the west and the open beach to Aitape eastwards.
On the morning of Saturday, 28 February, McInerney and my father had flown to Vanimo, stayed the night with Graham and then, with George Wearne, took off for Wewak at about 10:30 am on Sunday 1 March. Graham recalls that Wearne was sitting atop his patrol box which, probably unknown to the pilot, contained a large quantity of books that Wearne had been using for a course he was doing. Consequently, that patrol box would have been far heavier than normal. And as Graham also recalls: “There was also the small matter of a large typewriter and a bag of sweet potato jammed behind the cockpit cabin sitting near the tail on one of the lateral aluminium frames, both of which would have contributed to a change in centre of gravity.” In short, the little Auster was seriously and unevenly overloaded.
Graham told me the Auster had two doors and two seats: ne on the left side for the pilot and one next to it, on the right, for the passenger. “The third space, where Wearne sat, was really just a small space behind the two front seats so that’s why he was sitting unstrapped on a metal patrol box. There was a very small external access door in the fuselage midway along the pilot’s side of the aircraft which served as a small compact cargo space for smallish bits of lightweight freight, like a mailbag. It didn’t have a back on it so to speak, so anything put in that space could easily slide backwards along the linear structural tubes down the fuselage towards the tail and potentially destroy the centre of gravity of the aircraft. That is what happened because the bag of sweet potatoes and the old typewriter slid down and became stuck back near the tail,” he said.
And, as later discovered, another vital factor was involved.
Unknown to Graham Taylor and the small group of people at the airstrip on that Sunday morning, John McInerney’s young life (he was 37) was about to end before their very eyes. “I cranked the prop of Mac’s Auster, waved them goodbye, and watched them career down the strip heading westwards across the harbour towards the Catholic Mission. Not far out—and at about 500 or so feet—Mac banked suddenly to complete a 180 degree turn to fly back over the airstrip (probably at zero feet!) and head off eastwards, back to Aitape and Wewak. Alas, in the middle of the turn the Auster stalled and plunged headlong into the water.”
Overloading was a principal contributory factor and, as Graham points out, Department of Civil Aviation crash inspectors also found a hornet’s nest blocking the pitot tube, a small and vital part that indicates airspeed. “So, with no indicated airspeed, Mac was guessing his speed when over the harbour and turning 180 degrees,” he said.
“Horrified, I and others, including police and labourers, ran down to sandy beach on the western edge of the bay. We could see the tail of the Auster poking up out of the water a few hundred yards off the beach. Some natives launched a canoe, paddled out, picked up Ian and George and brought them back to the beach where I administered first aid.
“They were semi-conscious when we asked where Mac was. One (it was probably Ian Skinner) said Mac had surfaced, swum a few strokes, and then disappeared. We went out in a number of canoes, paddled around the crash site but could not see him. Later when the plane was pulled out of the water onto the beach we saw that the pilot’s door was open, the seat belt undone, and there was a big indentation in the instrument panel and cowling where his head must have struck,” said Graham.
On board the Auster, the final few seconds of the ill-fated flight were, in my father’s words like a slow motion scene. He told me he could feel the plane struggling to stay aloft, McInerney was wrestling with the controls and trying to turn the plane. What from the airstrip looked like a turn for a fly over was probably McInerney’s futile attempt to get back to the airstrip and land. As it stalled and plunged into the sea, Dad told me that his last words to McInerney before impact were “S–t, we’re going in!” He also told me that expletive was not to be repeated, but I don’t think he would mind now.
Both of them wore seat belts but not shoulder harnesses and slammed into the instrument panel—thus the dents later found in the panel. My father was knocked unconscious and on coming to started trying to open the door, but as the impact was on his side of the plane, the door was jammed. Initially he was quite frantic, bordering on panic, but he said he calmed down, opened the window and squeezed through and got to the surface where he was able to hold onto the tail plane. He had a bad cut on his forehead and blood was partially blinding him but he had not swallowed or inhaled any water. Wearne, who was not a good swimmer—in fact, my father said he didn’t think George could swim—was struggling on the surface.
McInerney came to the surface, conscious and able to make eye contact with my father who reached out to grab him but lost his grip on the tail plane and went under. When he resurfaced, and cleared his eyes, McInerney was gone. At that time my father tried to take his shoes off so he could swim better but excruciating pain went through him when he tried to bend—not surprising, as he had three fractured vertebrae as discovered much later in Australia. A native in a canoe was first on the scene but he refused to dive to look for McInerney, but he did paddle to Wearne and kept him afloat. And not long after other canoes arrived on the scene and took them to the beach.
Graham Taylor had sent out Mayday alert. “Oddly enough an off-duty DCA bloke in Townsville heard my call and raised the alarm. Some planes came in late in the afternoon and ferried Ian and George out. I went up with a Catholic Mission plane, a small Cessna that was the first light plane to come in after my Mayday call, and we flew up and down the harbour looking for Mac but with no luck. I think it was the next day or the following, either Monday or the Tuesday, when natives on shore spotted a body floating in the harbour. They brought it in. I took charge of it and laid him out on a table in the haus-wind at the airstrip. He was obviously dead and already decomposing. He had what appeared to be a massive fracture of his frontal skull/lobe,” said Graham.
My father told me that an autopsy revealed that John McInerney had drowned but he could not have survived his head injuries.
Graham concedes that some of the details of the tragic accident and the sequence of events thereafter are hazy in his memory. What he has not forgotten is the temporary coffin made from tea chests for John McInerney and the loading of that coffin onto a plane bound for Wewak. “We had to juggle the sawn-off coffin into the plane. I was lifting up at the lower end and as the boys lifted it higher I was drenched with fluid from Mac’s decomposing body. It lingered on me for days—maybe weeks—notwithstanding scrubbing with Dettol. I have not forgotten that, and never will.”
Another Skinner mishap
While my father was in Lae hospital and my mother was down there with him, I had my own brush with serious injury or worse, actually one of several while growing up in New Guinea. Mrs Leabeater, with whom I was staying at the time, asked me to relay a message to their haus meri who had set off on a walk with the Leabeater children. So, I hopped on my bike, a present for my seventh birthday some five months previously, and was belting along at a great rate.
A Mr Gribble, who was slowly reversing a Jeep while talking to a group of road workers, accelerated just before I went behind his vehicle. My decision to swerve around the Jeep was not smart but I did attempt to ring the bell on the handle bar—but the top had been tightened. So, instead of a loud, shrill jangle, all that sounded was a muted, dull whirring. Obviously, Mr Gribble didn’t have a chance of hearing that faint sound.
I was a novice bike rider and was stupid to try to outrace a reversing vehicle. So, while Mr Gribble undoubtedly was very upset about things, it was entirely my fault. My bike and I went under the Jeep, and I can still see quite vividly a rear wheel going over my stomach. Fearing the Jeep would keep moving, I pulled my legs under the vehicle and curled up into a ball to avoid the front wheels. On hearing, and feeling, the impact, Gribble had immediately stopped. By that time I was screaming my head off and he looked down to see parts a bike protruding from under the Jeep. I was lucky on several counts. I was a skinny little kid, it was a gravel road, the rear of the Jeep was relatively light, and the narrow wheel went over my stomach between my rib cage and my pelvis.
So, apart from gravel rash, a badly dinged bike, and one helluva fright, I was okay. Thorough examination, probably by Dr Roth, showed that I was relatively unscathed. Mr Gribble repaired my bike—no mean feat considering its crumpled shape from the prang—and all turned out well. I am not sure who broke the news to my parents in Lae but no doubt my mother probably asked herself: “What’s next?”
A witness to my mishap was Marinus (Rinus) Zuydam, a well-known pilot who was later killed along with First Officer Brian Badger in the crash of a DH Otter on a ridge south of Togoba on 2 November 1961. Rinus couldn’t believe I survived. He was sure that as the Jeep went over me, the Skinner family was going to be one fewer. A year or so later, when we were stationed in Lae, the Zuydams’ dog was killed by a car that crushed its rib cage. Soon after, Rinus and his wife, Mary, were at our place for dinner and he made the sobering comment that if the wheel of that Jeep in Wewak had run over my rib cage, I wouldn’t be at the dinner table.
No doubt most parents of kids who grew up in New Guinea have their own memories of childhood accidents caused by kids being kids, or of dealing with tropical illnesses and other inconveniences. However, when I think about it, my mother had more than her fair share of such things, what with a kiap and soldier/Coastwatcher husband and two sons who always seemed to be getting in and out of scrapes of some sort or another. It was quite amazing how she not only kept her sense of humour through it all, but also staved off premature greying. As for my father: well, he had survived more near-misses in times of war and peace than your average bloke, so it probably all seemed par for the course for him.
(Note: The author thanks the following for their assistance with this article: Graham Taylor, Bob Blaikie, Jim Sinclair, and Bob Bates. If any Una Voce reader has additional information about this incident, Peter Skinner can be reached at .