On the 7th September, 1943 a tragic aircraft accident occurred. A fully laden B-24 Liberator bomber operated by the USAAF (United States Army Air Force) 43rd Bombardment Group crashed during take off. Operating from “Jackson’s” or 7 Mile Strip (now Jackson’s Airport, Port Moresby), the stricken aircraft ploughed into four trucks at Durrand’s marshalling area, occupied by waiting troops of the 2/33rd Infantry Battalion AIF. As well as the USAAF crew, 62 Australians would lose their life and in excess of 90 men would suffer horrific burns and other injuries. Matt Sloan from the 2/33rd Battalion Association is determined that this incident be commemorated, 70 years on during September 2013. Armed with his information and the advice of reknown author and military historian Michael Claringbould; the first expedition to locate the site of this incident took place in November, 2012.
IMAGE RIGHT: The physical search begins for the location of the tragic aircraft accident involving the U.S. B-24 Liberator “Pride Of The Cornhuskers”. Armed with valuable information from reknown author Michael Claringbould and 2/33rd Battalion historian Matt Sloan, it was hoped that sufficient physical evidence remained that could confirm the location of the crash site.
On a hot November day in the blistering heat, five Australians set off in an attempt to locate the site. Amongst them was Geoffrey WATKINS, the son of Edgar WATKINS. Thankfully Edgar was not present during the crash, but he was an original member of the battalion and was convalescing in Australia as a result of a gunshot wound inflicted by a Japanese machine gun at Gona.
Thankfully, historian Michael Claringbould had supplied us with some invaluable information. Michael had crawled all over the region of Jackson’s Strip as a young boy during the early 1960’s. And Patrick HAMMOND from Batemans Bay in NSW was the first to spot a likely piece of evidence in the distance. On close examination, the rusty piece of metal proved to be the cabin of a small truck or lorry. The location lined up with the 1942 airstrip and we then knew that we were on the right trail.
IMAGE RIGHT: 2/33rd Battalion Association member, Geoff WATKINS standing next to the rusty remains of a cabin from a small lorry or truck. The high ground behind Geoff could easily have been a road or track within Durrand’s Marshalling area.
A search of the area soon began to reveal indisputable proof that we had found Durrand’s Marshalling area and the site of the “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” tragedy.
IMAGE LEFT: The remains of Australian .303 ammunition, ruptured by fire. When these items were located littering the vicinity of the rusty truck cabin, we needed no further convincing that we had found the exact spot of the air disaster.
A quantity of .303 casings were found, scattered in the surrounding area near the truck cabin. Medals Gone Missing Administrator Gary TRAYNOR pointed out a very sad fact. The men of the 2/33rd Battalion were in fact, em bussed on trucks in preparation for an airlift as part of the 7th Division’s push on Lae. As they would soon be in action, their ammunition pouches were fully laden with ammunition. As a result of the crash, reports exist of troops being set alight by fire, fuelled by spilt aircraft fuel. The flames caused ammunition on the bodies of the men to detonate. So for every exploded casing that our group located, the relic spelt out the tragic death of an Australian soldier. It was a very sombre moment.
IMAGE RIGHT: A fragment from an exploded Australian M-36 hand grenade. Without a doubt, this grenade exploded as a result of the horrific fire which resulted from ruptured fuel tanks of the B-24 Liberator. It can be said that every fragment of exploded ordnance meant the life of an Australian digger.
A scan of the surrounding area added weight to our argument that we were in the right location; as we compared the gullies and ridge lines to 1943 era photographs taken at the time of the crash.
IMAGE LEFT: Australian War Memorial photograph showing Durrand’s Marshalling area in 1943. The angle is looking back from the crash site towards the south eastern end of Jackson’s Strip. The “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” came roaring towards this location from over the ridge in the distance. Apart from the truck cabin, all major evidence has been removed.
IMAGE RIGHT: The same location in 2012 looking from the same angle. The wreckage shown in the above ‘black & white’ photograph is on the grass ridge line immediately behind Medals Gone Missing Administrator Gary Traynor who is holding the photo. The creek line is evident from the clump of dark green trees and behind the high ridge in the distance is the end of the 1943 airstrip.
Apart from the truck cabin, all other major pieces of wreckage have been removed from the site. The location of which is remote and it can safely be said is NEVER visited by tourists. The land is privately owned and permission to enter the area was granted with the local land owner escorting our party.
IMAGE LEFT: An image of the general area of the crash site, looking back towards the south eastern end of the 1943 airstrip. The rusty truck cabin is located to the bottom right of this photograph further down the gully and out of picture. The ridge line in the distance is the direction from which the “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” came with engines roaring.
Unfortunately much time was wasted in simply locating the crash site, however there is absolutely no doubt that this location was the site of the actual crash. This information has been supplied to 2/33rd Battalion Association member Matt SLOAN who is the driving force for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration which will take place next year.
It is the intent that a plaque be laid as part of the 70th Anniversary, commemorating the lives lost in this horrific event. It should also be remembered that American lives were lost and Matt is liasing with descendants of the B-24 aircrew, in the hope that they will be able to attend the ceremony which is planned for Saturday 7th September 2013. Matt SLOAN and the 2/33rd Battalion Association urges anybody who is interested in attending this event, to contact him on email 2_33BnAssoc@mail.com or Medals Gone Missing on firstname.lastname@example.org
IMAGE LEFT: An image of our group standing under a DC3 twin engine transport aircraft near Jackson’s Airport, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The DC3 (known in military service as the Douglas Dakota) was much smaller when compared to a four engined bomber such as the B24 Liberator. But the figures standing beneath give an indication of scale.
You need only to look at the above photos, to get an understanding of the horrific sight which confronted the soldiers of the 2/33rd Infantry Battalion as the ill-fated B24 Liberator screamed towards the Durrand’s Marshalling Area with engines roaring. To lose the life of a loved one in combat is too unbearable for us imagine. However to lose men during a time of war through an accident such as this, is an utter waste of precious life. And this is why events such as this need to be commemorated.
IMAGE LEFT: Further evidence of lives wasted in this sad incident. Remnants of Pattern 37 brass work were found in the gully near the rusty truck cabin. This 1″ buckle and 1″ strap tab could be found forming various parts of a soldiers equipment; from haversack and pack straps to the braces which supported the Pattern 37 webbing onto the waist belt. This equipment would have been cumbersome to remove in a hurry when confronted with the horror caused by fire. These items were donated to the 2/33rd Battalion Association to form part of a collection, commemorating the lives lost on the 7th September, 1943.
IMAGE RIGHT: Evidence that American aircrew also perished in the accident. A .50 calibre projectile was found at the crash site. B-24 Liberator aircraft, such as “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” were armed with up to 10 x .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns for defence, arranged in four turrets and two waist guns. The “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” was fully fueled and loaded up with bombs and ammunition when she crashed.
IMAGE LEFT: The .50 caliber projectile from the “Pride Of The Cornhuskers” defensive armament and the .303 rifle cartridges which would have been on issue to the infantrymen of the 2/33rd Battalion, AIF. Note that the priming caps (in the end of the .303 casings) are absent, having all detonated due to fire.
IMAGE RIGHT: A small glass bottle, recovered from Durrand’s Marshalling Area. The opaque condition of the glass may suggest that this bottle has been burned by fire. The fact that it has survived intact for the past 70 years in this harsh environment is amazing. This bottle forms part of the commemorative collection which has become a tangible reminder of the lives lost in the early hours of 7th September, 1943.
Do you wish to know more about this incident in our history which was once kept secret from the Australian public? Please contact Matt SLOAN (email 2_33BnAssoc@mail.com Telephone 0401 675069 or Gary TRAYNOR via this website (Telephone 0449 692401).