As written by Richard (Dick) Udy, ex. 43 Sqdn RAAF, in April 1994.
Donated to Association collection by Dick Udy, May 2014.
Exactly 50 years ago this Easter, on 6th April 1944, this incident happened.
We were members of number 43 Catalina Squadron, based in Darwin at the time with our flying boats moored in Doctors Gully in Darwin harbour. Over recent months we had been flying anti-submarine convoy protection patrols, occasional bombing raids to West New Guinea and New Britain and air-sea rescue patrols when the Liberators went out from Darwin. These flights could be anything from five to fourteen hours long, maybe by day for convoy protection, maybe by night for long range bombing or mining sorties. It was taken for granted that we were always on hand for emergency rescues in the open sea if any of our planes crashed. To prepare for such eventualities at the end of our operational training programme we would go to do rough water landings in Broken Bay, (NSW). This was tricky business because instead of flying onto water with a great skid, peacefully, as we usually did, in rough water landings we had to gradually lose flying speed as close to the water as possible and then, when the plane stalled, fall with a crash on top of a swell. The strain on the thin metal skin of the plane and the battering we all had on impact meant that we would only do this in really desperate situations in the open sea – nowhere else. The very week we arrived at Rathmines for our training, our first duty was to act as pallbearers to a crew who had died doing this very thing at Port Stephens, (NSW)*.
*RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, A24-39 (USN 0826), of 3 Operational Training Unit Rathmines crashed during a landing in rough seas opposite Wonderrabah Knob, Port Stephens, New South Wales at 0915 hours on 24 May 1943. The flight was part of an inspection of the Broken Bay and Port Stephens areas. F/Lt Higgins had flown to Port Stephens to see if the water was rough enough to carry out rough water landings as laid down in No. 3 OTU training. The OTU course had been extended by one week so that the pilots could get training in rough water landings. F/Lt Higgins had apparently decided that Broken Bay was not suitable for the training and proceed to Port Stephens where he crashed on landing. Seven of the nine crew, incl F/Lt Higgins, were killed, a gunner & armourer survivied. (Ed)
We were hoping for a quiet Easter, a time to rest up after all the flying of the past weeks. At dinner time came the message that we were required as soon as possible for an air-sea rescue, not a patrol, but the real thing. It happened to be the Thursday in Holy Week, and knowing what happened on the first Good Friday there was passing thought, maybe this will be another “life giving” experience in every sense of those words. We were told we were going to Cartier Island, 490 miles due west of Darwin and 160 miles South of Koepang in Timor. What added to the dicey nature of this exercise was that we would be flying in broad daylight at about 110 knots into a place where the hornets were already aroused and within range of Japanese fighter planes. We were told that there was a cover of Beaufighters for us but we could not see them.
What was the cause of this emergency, you may ask. It appeared that a Beaufighter from 31 Squadron based at Drysdale (in the Northern Territory) had gone with seven others to Semau Island, on the southern tip of Timor on a shipping strike. An oil tanker was sighted in Pelican Bay and was attacked by two of the group, one of them piloted by F/O Stahan and F/Sgt Brassil as wireless navigator. As they attacked the enemy tanker, Strahan’s plane was caught in intense 20mm anti-aircraft fire and within minutes the starboard engine failed. Still flying low after the attack the port engine coughed and began to lose power. The crew jettisoned all the unused ammunition and fuel but it was clear that on one engine and with cross feeding problems in the fuel tanks, they could not possibly make it back to Australia. Accordingly a course was set for Cartier Island, a tiny little sandpit as big as a showground with nothing but sand and reef. As the photo shows, the plane barely had room to skid to a halt. This area is close to the present Jabiru and Challis oil fields in the Timor Sea.
F/O Strahan had been a pilot instructor previously and his great skill was certainly shown in the remarkable belly landing he did on the sand. Now this crash landing was at 1345 hours. Almost within the hour our crew had been briefed, prepared and raced to the wharf at Doctor’s Gully. Such speed meant there were a few hassles with the wireless codes of the day but by soon after 1400 hours we were airborne and heading due west. Four hours of daylight flying square in the eye of the setting tropical sun lay before us.
While this flight grinds on, I should introduce the crew. F/O Reg Marr D.F.C. was the skipper, F/O Crews second pilot, F/O Baker the navigator, F/Sgt King and F/O Udy wireless operators, F/Sgt Hines engineer, F/Sgt Gannon engineer, Sgt McDonald fitter. (Ranks are as at the time of the action). It happened that our own navigator, F/O Raynor was medically unfit when we were detailed for this job. Broken crews were not keenly welcomed by some RAAF flyers. F/O Baker proved his spot-on navigational skills when four hours later we came to where the tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean was supposed to be . . . there it was, a speck in the wide ocean. As we approached at last we saw one of the our Beaufighter cover and there on the sand, as in the photo, what appeared to be a perfectly preserved plane, as far as we could see. Actually the crew had examined the Beaufighter after landing and found the hole from the ant-aircraft fire in the starboard engine. Clearly, nothing could be done to revive her. They dismantled all the gear they could from the plane and packed it ready in their dinghies ready to take off with them. While they waited, they had a swim in the channel.
We had chosen A24-44** as the plane to use for the job even though we had been recently doing a conversion course on an amphibian Catalina for such work. Number 44 was lighter and a well-proven machine. As we approached the island there was enough light for the landing, as the photo indicates. The swell was not too great and the conditions quite reasonable. The crew of the crashed plane would have to walk quite a distance to rendezvous with us on the leeward side of the atoll. They dragged their dinghy after them but as they came to the end of the reef, walked off the edge and lost some of the booty. Now for the tricky bit; getting down on the water with them. Reg came up wind, judged the swell and the position perfectly, pulled off the engines, a second or two or eerie silence, then CRASH! We were down on the rolling waves, tossing about.
He taxied as close to the two airmen as he dared with the reef always on his mind, then – “Who can swim and take our dinghy to pull the others?” To be quite truthful, I was glad to get out of the tossing plane and man the dinghy with one of the other boys. We took the others in tow and paddled like fury to get alongside the moving plane, making for the blister in the tail where we had some chance of getting in. Finally, we all clambered aboard awkwardly while some of their precious gear could not be hauled in so it sailed off into the Indian Ocean on its own.
Now to get off! Reg had kept the engines ticking over to have control over the plane, so now with all hatches closed, with a mountain of spray and bounce we were on the take-off. Airborne one minute, dropping back onto the water to be sucked downwards the next as we hit the crests of the waves, but at last back in the air where we belonged, and heading for home. The cover Beaufighter shot up the damaged plane to set it on fire so that it would be of no use to the enemy and then they sped off home ahead of us.
Before long there were worried looking faces trying to come to terms with the facts of life and flight. We had set out with as little fuel as necessary for safety because the lightest landing on the sea would be best if that was so. Exact judgments had to be made to have enough fuel however for a return journey of nine hours. What now transpired was that a headwind not in the forecast had blown up for our return flight of 500 miles and we would be lucky to make landfall with the precious cargo we had gone out to rescue . . . . . as well as ourselves. On into the increasing darkness, skipper, navigator and engineer compared notes on our progress and fuel remaining, and we waited, ready to flash another emergency message of our own should the flow stop. Wireless silence meant that we could not discuss our dilemma with base, just wait and hope. The euphoria of the successful rescue had an ironic twist to it now. We might finish up in the sea ourselves.
As it came near to 2200 hours we knew we should be in the vicinity of Darwin. No lights of course were allowed in the city with the likelihood of returning Japanese air attacks being real. All we hoped for was to see a feeble line of flickering oil lamps on the surface of the harbor. These should be put out when our return was expected. Once again the navigational skills of F/O Baker were precise and as we peered from every vantage point in the plane, suddenly someone saw the dim little parade of lights, down there, right ahead. The fuel meters had stopped measuring, but the engineer assured us that this plane did have a bit more capacity, so down in a direct approach, Reg took A24-44. The swishing sound of a perfect landing in calm water re-assured us we had made it home. Only thing left now was to taxi to the buoy. At that moment all silence broke loose, the engines coughed a little then stopped dead. It was true: we were out of fuel. Now people started shouting to the crash boat tender to come over quickly and take us in tow before we drifted onto other planes. Finally, the sound of a strong boat pulling us to safety.
The nine and a half hour journey ended at last, we reached our mooring under tow. Now intensely relieved and euphoric, we climbed on the back of the earth-bound truck and went out to the Darwin drome for a de-briefing, a meal and some quiet thanksgiving for the double safe delivery. Quite rightly, Reg was decorated with the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and the rest of us had a cable of congratulations from the Area Officer Commanding N.W. Area, Air Vice Marshall Cole. Most of those who took part in this escapade are still around. (At time of writing.)
Reg Marr in Sydney, Dave Strahan in Melbourne, Jack Brassil in Terrigal, Kevin King in Brisbane and Dick Udy in Sydney. The propeller of the Beaufighter was taken from the wreck on 7 December, 1968 by the crew of HMAS Advance and now is mounted as a memorial on the wall of the Alice Springs RSL building.
Easter had again lived up to its name: a resurrection event.
**A24-44, PBY5, Bu.8207, delivered 20 Sqdn. 19 April 1943. To 43 Sqdn September 1943, Coded OX-K. Survived the war and sold to Kingsford Smith Air Services January 1948. (ADF Serials).
Picture taken from Catalina A24-44 of the atoll and crashed Beaufighter