Following the worst aviation disaster in Australia’s history on September 7 1943, Dad wrote a very short letter to his parents – the shortest ever, in fact – presumably simply to reassure them that he was alive and well.
In fact, Dad was not with the unit on that fateful day, having been transferred to the X list on September 4 to attend the New Guinea Forces Training School.
It seems that censorship relating to reporting of the accident meant that no-one heard about the extent of this disaster, either at the time or in the later years of the war. Telegrams to families told families the men had been ‘accidentally killed’. The official note in the AWM publication Jungle Warfare (published Christmas 1944) simply mentions that there were ‘many casualties’ but gives no hint of the full horror of the event. Sixty infantrymen and two drivers of the 158 General Transport Company lost their lives as a result of the crash – along with the 11 crew of the US bomber involved.
Sgt Max Hickman
10th Sept 43
Dear Mother & Dad
Just a short note hoping to find you happy & well. Your letter of the 31st Aug arrived on Wednesday together with one from Ivy, one from May and another from Daph Wise. The censors had gone to work rather badly on your letter but I was able to piece most of it together. Sorry to hear dad has had a bad cold and hope he’s been able to throw it off. Youngster seems too be having a very bad trot. I hope things lighten up for her soon. The only bright spot of news in all the world seems to be the Italian show.
There’s not much I can write about from here Mother & Dad so I’ll just say cheerio for the present. Give my love to May, Anne & Carlene and best wishes to Laurie and the boys.
The Liberator crash – the worst aviation related disaster in Australia’s history – September 7 1943
– from The Footsoldiers
(On September 4) the unit was told that the great offensive, which was to be the largest single operation yet staged in the southern hemisphere, had commenced with the successful landing of the 9th Division on the Huon Gulf some 15 miles northeast of Lae. On the following day the 503rd Parachute Regiment had successfully captured Nadzab and we were warned that night we were to emplane for Tsili Tsili at dawn on the 6th…..The first lift of the unit waited until 1130 hours when the message came that the flight was cancelled and troops were to return to camp. The weather had closed in over the mountains and delayed the move…. By late afternoon the unit learned that operation was going fine and that 9th Division had not yet struck any Japanese and the 503rd had landed unopposed…. The 2/25th Battalion had got away, having been the first to move, and had arrived at Tsili Tsili together with 7th Division Tactical Headquarters…..(pp267-8)
There is a great deal of detail about the crash and its aftermath in The Footsoldiers, but as copies of this – the official Battalion history – are now extremely rare, the following site is recommended:
The disaster unfolds
This website provides eye witness accounts, battalion diary entries, reports of US and Australian Army inquiries, many photographs of both the preparations and the aftermath, and commentary on various myths surrounding the Liberator disaster. There are also photographs of the recent re-discovery of the crash site, and of the 70th anniversary commemoration service at the Australian War Memorial in September 2013.
The following are excerpts from the website’s home page:
….For the drivers of the 158 General Transport Company it was just another routine day in the heat and dust of Port Moresby. Their passengers had already been delayed by 24 hours as a result of bad weather over the Owen Stanley Range. However today’s conditions looked promising. Fully loaded up with rifle or machine carbine ammunition and grenades, the diggers could expect to be in action within a day or so of landing on the other side of the mountains. Some carried 2” mortars, others stowed spare magazines in their webbing for the Bren guns. As such, they were fully prepared for what lay ahead. Or so they thought…..
Beyond the end of the runway, the ground was relatively flat and clear for a distance of approximately 1000 yards. A low ridge, peppered with trees ran perpendicular to the runway. On the reverse side of this tree line, the ground dropped steadily away to form a small valley through which a creek ambled lazily. The undulating ground then rose gently to form a second ridge, much lower than the first..… Capable of housing a large number of vehicles, this rise was designated the marshalling area for troop transport vehicles bound for Durand Airstrip …..
At the opposite end of 7 Mile Drome – known to most as Jackson’s airfield, the Pratt & Whitney engines of an American bomber turned over in the pre-dawn darkness. Flight Officer Howard J. Wood busily worked through his pre- take off checks. Hailing from Nebraska U.S.A, Wood’s mount was christened “Pride of the Cornhuskers” in honour of his home state…This ‘D’ model Liberator, Serial Number 42-40682 could carry a bomb load of 12 x 500 lb bombs when not fitted with supplementary bomb bay fuel tanks. However on this day, the aircraft would be loaded up with just 4 x 500 pounders – perhaps this decision unwittingly saved many lives. …
For reasons unknown, when the Liberator took off at 4.30am it failed to gain sufficient height and hurtled towards the men on the ground. Witnesses yelled of the impending danger but there was no time to take evasive action. The port wing was sheared off when it struck a tree on the downward slope, across the other side of the creek. Like a wounded bird, the huge bomber came crashing down onto the hillside near the Durand marshalling area – spewing forward a wave of burning aviation fuel. Five lorries were hit by flying wreckage and engulfed in the resulting fire which turned night into day….
Despite the uncertainty of what caused the accident, what can be proven is the moral fibre of the men who performed their duties during the aftermath of this tragic crash. The courage of the U.S. fire fighters on a rescue mission, clad in asbestos suits that walked directly into the flames is without question. And the bravery of diggers who thought of their mates, before themselves is reflected by a quote from the official 7th Division Inquiry:- “At the time of the crash there was not the slightest degree of panic and everyone who was able to do so, did what they could to assist the injured. Considerable presence of mind and initiative on the part of members present, no doubt contributed largely to minimising injuries and saving lives.” The men received no honours or awards, because despite the fact they were waiting to emplane to fly into battle, they were not already in battle. The strict censorship at the time of the crash also prevented any honours or awards for the heroic actions of these men.…
Port Moresby area. The scene after a crash of a Liberator bomber on the marshalling park at Jackson’s airfield on September 7 1943. The aircraft hit the tree shown in the left foreground and crashed into trucks carrying members of the 2/33rd Infantry Battalion and the 158th General Transport Company…59 were killed or died of injuries and 92 were injured but survived. Photograph taken looking SE along line of flight.
Same information as for previous photo (with the exception of final sentence).
Two of five trucks carrying members of the 2/33rd Infantry Battalion and the 158th General Transport Company which were destroyed when a Liberator bomber crashed into the marshalling park near Jackson’s airfield on 7-9-1943, causing the death of 59 men and injuries to 92. The members of the Liberator’s crew also died in the accident.
The medical response
from A Special Kind of Service – the story of the 2/9 Australian General Hospital 1940 – 46 by Colonel Joan Crouch (APCOL 1986) pp95-97
Ninety-six AAWMS (Australian Army Womens Medical Service)…arrived in Port Moresby on 6 September 1943. These were the first AAWMS posted to the 2/9 AGH…..(they) were given the first day to settle into their tents and adjust to the tropical heat. .Their appearance in the wards was eagerly awaited by the patients: …..On… 7 September, a tragic accident occurred at 4.30am at Ward’s Airfield in Moresby. The 25th Brigade of the 7th Division was ready for the advance from Nadzab, and was waiting to emplane in full battledress, when a Liberator bomber …. crashed on take-off into a Company of the 2/ 33rd Battalion. The scene was devastating.
All staff of the 2/9 AGH were called on duty, dressed quickly and ran to the operating theatres and a surgical ward which had been hastily cleared of all patients. One officer and 23 other ranks with serious burns were admitted to the 2/9 AGH. The remaining survivors went to the 2/5 AGH…
On arrival at the 2/9 AGH, the burn victims were quickly assessed. Those with 17% burns were sent to the operating theatres for resuscitation and surgery. There were six with 90% burns and death was rapid. Some others lived for up to thirteen days, but eventually there were only seven survivors….The AAWMS volunteered to come on duty and the sisters who were ‘specialising’ the surviving burns found the AAWMS most helpful in assisting then with their exacting task…..
Everyone wanted to help. Ships in port offered fresh food, the Salvation Army and YMCA representatives called at the wards regularly, offering practical help. The whole area was shocked by this accident. In spite of this, the movement for the capture of Lae went on as scheduled….
– from Jungle Warfare – the AWM Christmas Book of 1944 –
Chapter – The Battle for New Guinea – subsection ‘Seventh in action’ –
The first brigade to be committed was the 25th. While the troops were waiting to emplane at Ward’s Drome, a Liberator had crashed into a company of the 2/33rd Battalion causing many casualties, but the movement went on as scheduled. By the 9th of September two battalions of the brigade were moving along the road to Lae….