B24 Liberator Wreck at Moonlight Creek

WWII Aviation

Gliding Over the Edge
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Whether we call it sacrifice, or poetry, or adventure, it is always the same voice that calls. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Rugged Search for Missing U.S. Bomber 
Word spread quickly. An American Bomber had crashed in the Gulf.  A civilian search party went looking for survivors, but the closing wet season forced them to return. Police officer Bob Hagarty carried on and then led a four man search. He relates his story:

The news broke on December 17, 1942. People in the Gulf were made aware that an American bomber had crashed in the Moonlight Creek area west of Burketown.

I was at the Gregory Downs police station at the time, and as the crashed occurred within the Burketown police division I thought no more about the matter.

However, on January 10 Inspector Galligan, of Cloncurry, instructed me to go immediately to Burketown in connection with the crashed aircraft. I left the same afternoon.

Recently I located the pocket book in which I kept a daily record on that patrol, some forty years ago. I am now relating the story in all fairness to my three mates who formed the four-man search party to put the record straight.

On January 12 when about 10 miles from Burketown near the Brook [probably Beam's Brook], I met up with some members o fa civilian search party who were returning home. They stated they did not want to be trapped in the Moonlight Creek country in the wet season.

Frank Comans and Phil Schaffert (1) showed me with pencil and paper where they said they had searched and where the Turriechelpa Hole was located.

They were sincere and trying to help.  HOwever I did not tell them that constable Roy Marsh, of Burketown, and I had been in the Moonlight Creek and Browns Creek areas on a joint stock patrol on two previous occasions, and knew where the Turriechelpa Hole and several others were located in that area.

On January 13, I left Burketown accompanied by tracker Willie, constable Roy Marsh and his tracker Norman. The next [day] we by-passed Turriechelpa Hole and went to a sight (sic) where we had camped some 14 months previously and made camp  there.

On January 15, working to an agreed plan, we commenced search for the aircraft and at 11am that day we located it.

The efforts of those men in making more than 150 miles through that type of country, showed that whatever they may have lacked, it most certainly wasn't sheer old-fashioned guts and determination.

It was a type B.24 Liberator bomber No:123762. It had been manned by a crew of 10 and had crashed at 3am on December 4. Six of the crew had parachuted to a safe landing.

Four had not. Three of the bodies were inside the fuselage and the fourth was outside on the ground, several yards from the rear port door, still attached to his parachute harness.

It was evident that this man had pulled his ripcord too soon, and the ballooning chute had caught and held on a projection near the doorway, resulting in his being swept aft to coming in violent contact with the leading edge of the tail prances (sic), killing him instantly.

Examination of the others in the aircraft showed that they had sustained multiple injuries as a result of the crash and had died instantly.

After making an examination of the aircraft, I sent tracker Willie to search for tracks north and west to Browns Creek, and tracker Norman south and west as far as Browns Creek. They were then to return to camp. Roy and I worked on detaching the instruments which was the main object of the search, and after parcelling [them] in [tee] tree bark and a section of parachute  we commenced grave digging before returning to camp.

On January 16 at 4am I dispatched the two trackers for Burketown with the parcel and letter for delivery to the U.S.A.F. Officer waiting there.

Roy and I returned to the crash and finished digging the graves and burying the bodies wrapped in their own parachutes. All bar the body in the forward section, whose chute was charred and useless, so we were obliged to use one of the chutes the trackers had found to contain the decomposed remains.

We marked each grave with an air tank half embedded at the head of each one and read the burial service. Wc made a further detailed inspection of the plane and surrounding areas, finished making notes, sketches etc., and returned to camp.

On January 17 at daylight we broke camp and commenced a search for the survivors. We found the tracks that the trackers told us about and worked out from there.

The tracks were faint and at intervals. We found where they had crossed Browns Creek on a westward course. Their tracks were plainer west of Browns Creek, but still visible only at intervals.

The six men who had landed safely had met up. Tow of them, Cross and Wilson, had decided to take an easterly course. The other four, Grimes, Speltz, Dyer and Gaston (who was the only one to survive) decided to head west.

On the 16th, 12 days after landing, the east bound pair Cross and Wilson were accidentally found on Gin Arm Creek near Escott station, by the owner Fred Waldon and aboriginal Paddy.

It was from Cross and Wilson that the news of the crash was obtained, and the information that the other four survivors were heading westward. Of the four west bound survivors, Grimes was drowned in Robinson River, N.T. in mid-January 19443. He was endeavouring to secure a rotten fish from floating downstream, but in his starved and weakened condition failed to reach his objective and drowned. His body was washed out to sea, and later washed ashore on a beach further westward, where it was eventually found by an army patrol from Borroloola.

Dyer died at Robinson River from starvation on 19.2.43. Speltz died likewise on 24.2.43. Gaston was later found by an aboriginal from Seven Emus Station, who told Jack Keiran (owner of Seven Emus and who rescued Gaston and nursed him back to health). The U.S.A.F. flew Gaston back to the States.

Those four men had arrived at Robinson River on December 24 after traversing country that in places defies the imagination and description, harbouring every type of pest that flew and crawled.

The efforts of those men in making more than 150 miles through that type of country, showed that whatever they may have [lacked], it most certainly wasn't sheer old-fashioned guts and determination.

On the evening of January 19, the wet really set in, heavy and continuous, obliterating the last faint tracks and even our own behind us.

Midday on the 20th Willie and Norman caught up with us, and the next day we [were] able to adopt an enveloping pattern of search, in which each man in rotation took his place. Two at a time, one working south to an apex of a mile or so and gradually converging. The other working north in a similar pattern. That pattern was adopted because of the absence of tracks and knowing [that] the movements of lost persons are unpredictable. We held to that pattern as far as circumstances and the terrain allowed. It is [the] latter that dictated the pattern of search, not the searchers.

On January the 6th bad luck struck us. Buckle, one of our best pack-horses, was bitten by a king brown snake and bolted into the unbroken scrub. He was down when we got to him and died shortly after we arrived. Busted pack bags and loss of rations, of which we were able to salvage very little.

On the 26th we lost yet another [horse]. Jitter was stung by wasps and jumped out of line into the unbroken undergrowth and fatally staked himself up through the soft underbelly in front of the sheath. A rather ghastly business. There was nothing that even a vet could have done to help him. I had to shoot him. A good horse that rarely put a foot wrong. It was like losing some good friends as you can't help getting attached to good horses. that cut the plant down to 14 head, tow short of the minimum requirements. We changed round often and spelled them frequently, but the heavy going, frequent swims etc., was taking its toll of them and the incessant torture of march flies and mosquitoes didn't help much either. The horses and men were always accompanied by the faint misty grey haze of mosquitoes. Horses underbellies were a constant quivering mass of march flies. The only relief, and it was hard to assess what was preferable, was when we had to swim the horses over the many creeks. there were so many that we began to wonder if we had known any other kind of life.

Two took the horses over, one in the lead and the other on the tail. Two to make a pack saddle boat with all the gear and the tarps, peel off and swim and push it across to the other side. Some were sizeable ones. But long or short the mosquitoes and sandflies were always waiting for us on the other side.

We always rotated the work, the two who swam the horses last time pushed the pack saddle boat this time.

So it went on from day to day until February the 4th wen we reached Settlement Creek just over the border of the Northern Territory, our horses were nearly played out (our supplies were). We had lived in the bush for the last five days. With no alternative, we turned south and nursed them along to Wollogorang, arriving there on the 6th.

Duncan McLean, one of the owners, met us at the yards. I had a chestnut gelding in the plant that Duncan had previously tried to buy from me. He said "Well, I recognize that chestnut horse well enough but the nearest I can get the two blokes is Steve Hart and Dan Kelly". Roy had a beard as black and shiny as a crow's wing.

While we unpacked, Duncan walked around inspecting the horses. We didn't have to ask him. He said he would have a fresh plant run up in the  morning and we could get whatever we wanted from the station store. That night Duncan told us that three parties of Aboriginals had searched much of Wollogorang country with a negative result. He stated that if there had been any trace of the survivors, he was confident that his boys would have found it.

Next morning I pencilled a telegram and Duncan sent it out to the outpost radio. We saddled and packed a fresh plant and started out from the yards, confident that within another week we would catch up with eh survivors, or know what had happened to them. We knew that whatever lay ahead of us, the country to the west could not be worse than [that] which we [had] already come through.

With a fresh plant of good horses under us, full bellies and packbags, we were happy. What more could a man want in the days when his beard was black!

Jack Crowley, the station cook, whose skills in the culinary arts would have graced the Waldorf Astoria, waved cheerio from the kitchen door. I well remember that February morning in 1943, and the frustration and bitter disappointment that ensued.

Somebody yelled. Looking back I saw Duncan on the verandah, beckoning. We blocked the horses and I rode back. Duncan handed me a telegram. I read it twice before I could believe it.

I was ordered to abandon search and take up another assignment at Turn Off Lagoons. Roy was to return to Burketown. I saw it was signed by one who was evidently temporarily relieving the permanent inspector.

Roy rode up and I handed him the telegram. He read it, and suddenly [shouted?] in a voice that made the horses jump. It echoed the sentiments of us all. The stunning realisation that all our efforts under conditions normally described as vile for more than 100 miles, and when the job was nearing completion and we had the means and confidence to do so, it was wiped from the slate, completely [negated], along with wo men's chances of living. My original instructions were that I was to search as far as Borroloola if necessary. Thinking the "new bloke" may not know of that, I sent another telegram. The reply that came next day emphasized the orders to abandon the search.

One learns early in the job that in conflict of opinion with bureaucracy, the rebel has as much chance of winning as the one-armed man afflicted with St. Vitus's dance in a "thread the needle competition".

On February 12, after our horses had a much needed spell, four profoundly disgusted men rode slowly along the track headed for Turn Off Lagoons. What happened from there on is quite another matter, not connected with the search and therefore not part of this record. Except to say that I got home on March 10.

On January 15 we had commenced search from our camp at 6am and five hours later we located the aircraft. Seven days after I left home, the instrument which was the main object of the search, was delivered into the hands of the U.S.A.F.

Three weeks after I left home we were more than 200 miles away from home, and some 95 miles west of the crash, doing a dual purpose job. Searching for survivors, and serving as blood donors to the hordes of hungry mosquitoes who gave us an enthusiastic welcome.

Of necessity we learned something of the virtue of tolerance and took comfort in the thought that somebody still loved us, even though it was only the bloody mosquitoes.

In tribute to my three mates, may I state that they were men whose professional efficiency in their occupation is unquestionable, and a credit to the Queensland Police Force.

I am proud of the fact that they were my comrades, and where ever they may be now, it is my sincere wish that the best of good fortune attend them.

(1) Phil Schaffert's diaries were the subject of a series of articles in the North Queensland Register. The issue of Oct 7th 1983 carries the story of the rescue of the American airman who survived for 5 months in the rugged conditions of the Gulf country.

More Photos and Information on the WWII Liberator
Sgt Gaston's Account (6mb PDF)