USSAF C-47 ‘CANAL CREEK’ CRASH MEMORIAL CEREMONY (6th December, 2003) REPORT

On the morning of December 19th, 1943, a USSAF C-47 S/N 43-30742 Transport Aircraft crashed en-route from Townsville to Brisbane (Queensland, Australia). It was scheduled to make a short stopover at Rockhampton (approx ½ way).

All 31 souls onboard perished in this incident. The ‘passenger’ complement was a mix of US and Australian personnel. Still today (60-years on) this is Australia’s 2nd worst aviation disaster.

From substantial research undertaken by Yeppoon historian, Mary O’Brien, it would appear that this aircraft – a reasonably new one – suffered an engine fire while overflying an area of fairly rough terrain, some 60klms north of Rockhampton. Rockhampton is approx 750-klms south of Townsville.

The location of the crash, on the remote and isolated Canal Creek Cattle Station (Ranch) approx 50-klms north of Rockhampton would suggest the pilot had selected a ‘clay pan’ in preparation for an emergency/forced landing. However witness reports indicate that while on decent, an explosion occurred and the burning wing parted from the aircraft.  The plane did reach the lightly treed flat plain – but was already doomed due to its uncontrollable, unflyable condition.

Of the US personnel onboard there were 3 men from the 345/499th Bomb Group – all Flight Crew Members of “Doodle”.

Capt Orlen N LOVERIN – a Highly Decorated Pilot,

1st Lt George K SNYDER – a Navigator,

2nd Lt William B GRAHAM – a Co-Pilot.

Due to the dedication and intense research undertaken by Mary, she was able to arrange a very fitting (the first ever) commemoration service on the exact site. Some 55 people were able to attend this service, held at 10.00 am on Saturday 6th of December 2003.

Many of those 55 attendees were relatives of the Australians killed. There were 14 from one family alone – all travelling vast distances to be present. Included in that party was Mrs Edith Styles, the sister of one of those who perished, Mr William TIBBS, an Australian Salvation Army Chaplin.

Fittingly – the Saturdays Service was conducted by a serving Salvation Army Officer, Mr Graham Ivers. Another guest of honour was Mr Frank Rumpf. Frank was a worker on the property at the time and witnessed the approaching aircraft – obviously in trouble.  Along with 3 other people from the property, they were the first ones on the scene – a couple of klms from the station homestead. Frank still holds photos he took of the wreckage – probably the only visual record still in existence today.

It was indeed a moving experience to see Mrs Styles and Mr Rumpf, chatting to each other about their respective experiences – sharing such precious details about the event. As is so (sadly) typical with these war time incidents – the relatives were never told the real or full story, of what happened to their loved ones. On this occasion – 60 years later – Mrs Styles was finally able to get a very rare, first hand account – one that differed to what she had known for those 60 intervening years.

After the service concluded, we were able to walk the immediate area and inspect items of wreckage that are still very desrenable/identifiable today. Including, an albeit smaller than original, depression in the ground – the impact crater.

The morning concluded with all those present joining in a traditional Australian ‘Smoko’ – ‘a morning tea’ – held under the shade of the tree line – on the bank of a ‘flowing’ Canal Creek. The whole day was blessed by the arrival (the previous afternoon) of a heavy rainstorm – the first in many, many months.

Apart from other relatives and friends, we were graced with the presence of the Mayor of the Livingstone Shire Council, Mr Bill Ludwig; Members of the Yeppoon area RSL (Returned Serviceman’s League); and a US WW2 Veteran, Mr Jack Fleming. Jack did a sterling job (duty  - I think he would call it) – as the US Flag bearer on the day. Again, another moving part of the ceremony  (for me at least) – was to see this 85yo Veteran – hold that flag aloft for the duration of the ceremony. These guys are made of very special stuff.

Interestingly (or should that be - fittingly), the attending Mayor and one of the RSL contingent, an ex Vietnam Veteran – are both of Australian/American heritage, direct descendants of that WW2 influence. This long-lived, War born Australian/American association  - which was very relevant to/in this particular incident and the ceremony  - in the very fact that this fateful flight carried both US and Australian Service men and women.

This relationship was typified in a passage read by the M/C, Mr Col Benson – a passage from a story (the memories) supplied to me by Mr Tal Epps.

“When the movie began - the curtain opened  - and the Australian National Anthem was played, - then the American National Anthem – and then - a message flashed on the screen. ‘WE WISH TO WELCOME OUR AMERICAN COUSINS’ -- this message - at that moment in my life - caused a warm glow to come flooding over me. The message didn’t say:- “friends”, or – “good neighbours”, - it said:- “cousins”, I took that to mean we were "Family". This warm glow for Australia, and more directly, for it’s people, still remains with me today”.

Of course – Tal would know – as he is one who ‘put his mouth where his money is’ – and married our Ruth. And yes – both National Anthems were again sung at the commencement of Saturday’s Service. But this time – the American Anthem lead ahead of the Australian Anthem, albeit our new one.

Our Master of Ceremonies for the occasion – was Mr Col Benson. Col is an ex RAAF and Vietnam Veteran, and is one of those credited with seeing Australia’s worst air disaster permanently commemorated. The June 1943 USAAF B-17 (“Miss Every Morning Fix It”) crash at Bakers Creek near Mackay Queensland. Mackay is situated ½ way between Townsville and Rockhampton. 40 US lives were lost in this incident.

So you can appreciate that this part of our country, the 750-klms of coastline, from Townsville – south to Rockhampton, has the horrific record of hosting 4 out of the top 5 of Australians worst aviation events. 3 of those occurring in the period – June thru December 1943.

1)     USAAF B17, S/N 40-2072, Bakers Creek, Mackay, 14th June 1943 – 40 killed.

2)     USAAF C47, S/N 43-30742, Canal Creek, Rockhampton, 19th December 1943 – 31 killed.

3)     Civilian (Trans Australian Airlines) F29 Fokker Friendship, in to the sea just off Mackay, 10th June 1960 – 29 killed.

4)     Not relevant to comparison.

5)     USAAF C47, S/N 41-7733, into the sea just off Townsville, 7th August 1943 – 27 killed. (19 from 345/500th & 1 from 345/499th).

Through Mary O’Brien’s efforts – I have no doubt that she will be successful (before too long) in having a permenant memorial established to commemorate ‘The Canal Creek Disaster’.

As per my separate message, the wheels are rolling – to see a memorial erected – to commemorate the tragic loss of the 27 American lives in the crash of the C47 – into Cleveland Bay off Townsville – 7th August 1943 – (No 5 above).

It was indeed a pleasure and a great honour to have travelled the 1,500-klms, to be part of Saturdays Ceremony – and to have been able to place a rose – (one for each soul) – in memory of those 3 men from the 345/499th.

Peter Murray
Townsville
Queensland
Australia

13th December 2003

 
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