26 APRIL 1942
DITCHING OF ELEVEN P-39 AIRACOBRA
S
ON CAPE YORK IN NORTH QUEENSLAND

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On 26 April 1942, fifteen Bell P-39 Airacobras of the 8th Fighter Group's 35th Squadron left Woodstock airstrip headed for Port Moresby. They were on their way to relieve the RAAF's 24 Squadron. The pilots included:-

Lt. George Green (Leader)
Lt. Charles Campbell
Lt. John Casey
Lt. Harold Chivers
Lt. James Egan
Lt. Irving Erickson
Lt. Jefford Hooker
Lt. John Jacobs
Lt. John Long
Lt. William McGovern (in #41-7210)
Lt. Jack Hall
Lt. Norman "Coach" Morris

Lt. Richard Nowlin
Lt. Jerry Quandt
Lt. Ward

The Airacobras arrived in Cairns at about 9.30am. They refuelled in Cairns. The runway was quite muddy due to heavy rain which came down about 30 minutes before they arrived. Lt. Green organised the aircraft into 2 flights.

"A" Flight - 9 aircraft
Green (Flight Leader)
Egan (Element Leader)
Morris (Element Leader)
Quandt (Element Leader)

"B" Flight - 6 aircraft
Charles Campbell (Flight Leader)
Erickson (Element Leader)
Hooker (Element Leader)

The weather forecast for the next leg to Horn Island was for broken and scattered clouds with some light clearing showers. The two flights of aircraft then set off for their next refuelling stop at Horn Island.

"A" Flight, led by Lt. George Green, assembled over Cairns and headed north at 10, 000 feet above the broken clouds. As they followed the coastline about 125 miles north of Cooktown they could see scattered rain clouds to the west. When they reached the Cape Grenville area the clouds started to tower over them with cloud heights from 15, 000 to 20, 000 feet.

Lt. Green led "A" Flight in a rapid descent down to 2, 000 feet through a hole in the clouds, where they were able to continue their journey under the cloud base. Visibility of about 2 miles suddenly disappeared when they ran into some torrential rain. Lt. Green did a 180 degree left turn to retreat into the area of scattered showers to see if he could find a way around the torrential rain they had just encountered.

At this point, Green spotted the six Airacobras of Lt. Campbell's "B" Flight heading towards him. They had taken off 15 minutes after "A" Flight. Green tried unsuccessfully to contact Campbell on the radio. Green turned to follow them into what he thought may have been an opening in the clouds. By the time he had turned around he had lost sight of "B" Flight. The sky continued to get darker as the rain became heavier.

Green then did another 180 degree turn and radioed the rest of his flight that he was going to head back to Cooktown, which was about 270 miles away. By this time at least 2 of his pilots had reported they had only 45 gallons of fuel remaining which was insufficient for them to reach Cooktown. This revelation left Green with a tough decision. He had 3 options:-

1.       Fly 120 - 125 miles northwards to Horn Island through very poor weather

2.       Fly 270 miles southwards to Cooktown

3.       Fly 150 miles to the airfield at Coen

Assuming they did not get totally lost in the terrible weather, they all had sufficient fuel for Option 1.

Most of his Flight would not reach Cooktown, so Option 2 had its obvious drawbacks.

Provided they could navigate a direct flight to Coen, Option 3 could be achieved with the remaining fuel. However Green had never been to Coen before, their maps were inadequate to allow safe navigation and the weather in that direction looked as bad as the weather to the north of them.

cape01.jpg (46572 bytes) Lt. Green radioed Lt. Morris to advise that he was going to attempt to make it through the bad weather to Horn Island. Morris advised that he would follow him. Lt. Green turned his formation towards Horn island and dropped from about 1,000 - 1,500 feet down to 500 feet. Radio reception was almost impossible due to the ferocity of the storm.

Lt. Green followed the very feint outline of the coastline. He ordered everyone to drop their empty belly tanks and to throttle back to conserve fuel. He continued on with Lt. Casey, his wingman flying in close formation. As they approached Cape York, the visibility improved to about one mile.

As they passed over Cape York the rain had disappeared and they flew through broken scattered clouds. By then Green had realised that the rest of his flight were not behind him. His visibilty had been restricted inside the canopy due to his clothing bag obscuring his rearward view.

By the time they reached Horn Island, Lt. Green had about 35 gallons of fuel left. Lt. Casey had only about 15 gallons left.

The rest of the flight made emergency landings in a variety of locations. Lt. John Jacobs made a wheels up landing. Lts. Morris, Quandt and Nowlin made successful wheels-down landings. Lt. William McGovern in Airacobra #41-7210, made a forced landing south of Murdoch Point. 1st Lt. Jack Hall in P-39D #41-6770, and 2nd Lt. John Long were killed, both reported as missing in the Cape Grenville area.

Lt. Morris had not heard Lt. Green's radio message and had attempted to follow his Flight Leader to Horn Island.  Morris had maintained visual contact with Green until he ran out of fuel and made a forced landing near the tip of Cape Grenville. His wingman Lt. Quandt landed in the same area.

Some aircraft opted to return southwards rather than attempt to proceed to Horn Island. These aircraft eventually ran out of fuel.  Seven Airacobras from "A" flight and two from "B" flight crash landed on the nearest beaches. 

The book, "Attack & Conquer" indicates on page 310 that eleven aircraft were lost that day with the loss of 2 lives. Other sources indicate that only 9 aircraft were lost and the other six Airacobras that did not turn back all making it safely through to Horn Island.

In a sequel to this tragic day, another pilot was to lose his life. RAAF Flying Officer Montague David Ellerton was killed on 27th April 1942, when his wing tip of his Kittyhawk (A29-69) hit a sand dune and flipped over while attempting to land on a beach south of Murdoch Point. He was attempting to rescue Lt. William McGovern who had crash landed in the area on 26 April 1942. Ellerton was trapped in the upturned cockpit. William McGovern had to watch helplessly as Ellerton succumbed to the incoming tide.

 

NOTE:- It is interesting to note that a Richard Nowlin (35th Pursuit Squadron) and a Robert Love (36th Pursuit Squadron) were buried at the US Cemetery in Townsville on 7 November 1942. Love had months earlier been buried on a beach on 1 May 1942 by Lt. Yundt. after his Airacobra had crashed. I had initially wondered if Nowlin was actually one of the ones killed on 26 April 1942 and his body, along with Love's were not recovered until many months later? The info above suggest that he made a successful wheels-down landing. - UPDATE:- Edward Rogers has now confirmed for me that Richard Nowlin had died in another incident at Murdoch Point on 9 May 1942.

 

SOURCE:-   Aircraft Crash Sites - Australia

Crash:         No. 5  (This may be one of the above aircraft).

Position:    

Department of Aviation Chart No:       3112

 

REFERENCE BOOK

"Attack & Conquer - The 8th Fighter Group in World War II"
By John C. Stanaway & Lawrence J. Hickey

 

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