CRASH OF A B-17E FLYING FORTRESS
ABOUT 28 MILES NORTH NORTH WEST OF WEIPA, QLD
ON 18 SEPTEMBER 1942

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B17-E Flying Fortress

In the late afternoon of 17 September 1942, eight B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 93rd Bombardment Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group based at Mareeba airfield in north Queensland, departed Seven Mile airfield at Port Moresby to bomb Rabaul. This mission was a repeat of a failed mission the previous day. Again they encountered cloudy weather which eventually forced them to turn back for Port Moresby.

B-17E Flying Fortress, #41-2650, piloted by 2nd Lt. Claude N. Burckey, dropped its bomb load and turned back for Port Moresby. By this time Port Moresby was also covered in cloud and the navigator, Lt. Meenagh, set a course for the Horn Island airfield. They became lost and eventually started to run out of fuel. At 2.40am on 18 September 1942, Burckey ordered his crew to bail out. They ended up way off course about 125 miles SSW of Horn Island.

The crew of the B-17 was as follows:-

1st Lt. Claude N. Burcky (0-417245) - pilot
2nd Lt. Augustin Rapisardi (0-438650) - co-pilot
1st. Lt. William F. Meenagh (0-372623) - navigator from New York
2nd Lt. Donald C. Miller (0-42644) - bombardier
Sgt Lloyd Chamberlin (6554507)
Sgt George Schmid (6558573)
Sgt Lawrence Johnson (14021680)
S/Sgt Norris Reynolds (20814112)
Pvt John Naglich (14066421)

Lt. Meenagh, the navigator was the first to bail out. The rest of the crew regrouped on the ground and eventually met up with some local aboriginals who arranged for them to be transported by boat to Weipa on the western side of Cape York. Some records show Meenagh incorrectly as Meenaugh.

RAAF Catalina A24-2, carried out a search for the missing B-17 Flying Fortress, from the 93rd Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group, from 19 to 20 September 1942.

Sergeant Jack Bertram Charlton Bramell (411279) in the Catalina spotted the first parachute on the beach, then a subsequent trail of parachutes on the ground were spotted heading inland. The Catalina finally spotted a black streak in the ground where the B-17 had crashed south of the Coen River (actually the Pennefather River - see below) on the Gulf of Carpentaria.  It is believed that the first parachute spotted was actually that of the second crew member to bail out, thus leading to the assumption that 1st. Lt. William F. Meenagh, the first crew member to bail out, ended up in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Catalina landed and picked up four survivors. Another four crew members of the downed Flying Fortress had wandered into the bush. The Catalina flew the first four survivors back to Cairns. The next day they flew to Weipa Mission to check if the other four might have arrived at the Mission.

11 Squadron RAAF Operations Record Book has the following entry for 19 September 1942 for Flight Lieutenant B. Higgins and Sergeant J. Bramell in Catalina A24-2:-

"Carried out search for crashed B17 on Cape York Peninsula. Plane located and 4 injured personnel
returned to CAIRNS. Returned to Crashed B17 to pick up remaining 4 personnel. 1 member missing."

As the other missing crew had not been seen, nine black trackers were taken by the Catalina to the crash site. The missing four were spotted on a mud flat, and the Catalina landed to collect them. By the time they had recovered the survivors, the tide had gone out leaving the Catalina high and dry. Once the tide came back in they took off for Cairns with the final four survivors.

A search party for the missing crew member 1st. Lt. William F. Meenagh was organised by Police Superintendent L.A. Cane of the Mapoon Aboriginal Mission. This Mission was located about 13 miles SE of the wreckage of the B-17. They searched for him for 2 weeks out to a radius of 50 miles from the crash site. Lt. Meenagh is still the only US servicemen missing in action on Australian soil. The crash site is about 10 kms south of the Pennefather River.

Supt. Cane wrote to 2nd Lt. Burckey on 27 October 1942, advising that the B-17 had caught fire when it hit the ground and caused a bush fire. He indicated that the aircraft had broken up into many pieces and gave details of the extensive search that they had carried out looking for Lt. Meenagh. 

Jack Bramell advised me, via his neighbour Greg Gardner, that he had spoken with the aircrew after being located by the aboriginal trackers in two separate groups over a number of days. They had mistakenly followed the river inland thinking it was leading back to the coast. The reason being is that the tide was actually running inland and the aircrew thought it was heading out to sea. Jack said that some of the aircrew - although showing being clothed in the pictures below had actually taken off most of their clothing because of the heat and were severely sunburn and dehydrated. Jack said that they had 10 gallons of water on board the Catalina and they rescued airmen drunk the lot.

The American pilots gave Jack Bramell and Tubby Higgins their leather flight jackets as a gesture of appreciation for being rescued. However, Jack made the mistake of hanging his memento up on the back of the door of his quarters at Cairns. When he returned from a the next day's mission he discovered that it had been "pinched".

 

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Photo Bob Caldwell, Flight Engineer

Jack Bertram Bramell, co-pilot and Tubby Higgins (partly obscured) the pilot of RAAF
Catalina A24-2 on Coen River (actually the Pennefather River) 20 September 1942

 

coen02.jpg (27173 bytes)
Photo Bob Caldwell
, Flight Engineer

RAAF Catalina, A24-2, high and dry on the bed of the Coen River (actually the
Pennefather River)
while rescuing the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress on 20 September 1942

 

coen03.jpg (29521 bytes)
Photo Bob Caldwell
, Flight Engineer

Helping a rescued crew member of a downed B-17 aboard RAAF Catalina A24-2 on the Coen
River
(actually the Pennefather River) on 20 September 1942. Note the colour of the skin of one
of the rescued aircrew's hands and face in contrast to the Catalina crew in the dinghy with them.

 

coen04.jpg (31162 bytes)
Photo Bob Caldwell
, Flight Engineer

RAAF Catalina A24-2 at Coen River (actually the Pennefather River) on 20 September 1942

 

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Photo Bob Caldwell, Flight Engineer

Flt Lt. Brian (Tubby) Hartley Higgins DFC (400620) and his crew on the Cairns River
in 1942. Flt Lt Higgins, the pilot of the Catalina was killed in a rough water landing
training accident
on 24 May 1943 flying Catalina A24-39 at Port Stephens, NSW.

Jack Bramell's log books showed the following information:-

Date Aircraft Pilot 2nd Pilot Comments
19 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Cairns - Coen River (Rescue)
19 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Coen River (Rescue - search)
19 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Coen - River - Cairns
20 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Cairns - Wepa* River (search)
20 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Wepa Mission (search)
20 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self search Coen River
21 Sep 42 A24-2 F/LT Higgins Self Coen river - Cairns

*Note - incorrect spelling Wepa = Weipa

Greg Gardner is currently trying to obtain a letter of "Thank You" from the US Army (as such matters were transferred to them when the USAF was created) for the search and rescue of the crew for his next door neighbour, Jack Bertram Bramell, the co-pilot of the Catalina. Jack has never received any recognition for the part he played in this rescue. Jack was the one who spotted the crashed aircraft, "a black streak in the ground", and then he saw the parachutes on the ground etc. The rest is history. 

Jack Bertram Bramell was the co-plot with Mick Seymour in a Catalina that was accidentally shot down near Havannah Harbour near Efate, by a US Navy - Wildcat. The red roundel was subsequently removed from all RAAF aircraft - to stop the yanks for mistaking it as a Japanese marking.  The United States military also removed the red centre from their star used on their aircraft.

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

Crumpled aluminium from B-17 Flying Fortress #41-2650

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

Wreckage from B-17 Flying Fortress #41-2650 spread across the bush

 

John Kirkpatrick visited the crash site with a few of his friends in 2008 and told me that based on the wreckage visible at the crash site, it would appear that the B-17 had obviously come in very shallow, spreading wreckage over a long but narrow area. The fuselage and wings appears to have been shredded upon impact. Heavier components have ended up well beyond where most of the skin has come to rest. John Kirkpatrick and his mates found 3 engines a couple of hundred metres past the first pieces of wreckage.

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

One of three engines found at the crash site. Perhaps the fourth engine has been taken from site.

 

John Kirkpatrick told me that it was hard to tell how much has been scavenged over the years. The wreck was well known to local long-term fishermen and pig shooters in the past, but the track in to the site did not look like it has seen much traffic in recent times.

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

Another one of the 3 engines left at the crash site

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

One of the landing gear oleos from the B-17

 


Photo:- John Kirkpatrick 13 August 2008

Armour plate amongst the wreckage of B-17 Flying Fortress #41-2650

 


 

Excerpt from the following book:-

On Celestial Wings
by Col Ed Whitcomb

 

William Meenagh

On 17 September 1942 William Meenagh was returning from a rough mission over Rabaul. The plane was low on fuel and needed to stop at Port Moresby on the way back to Australia. However the field at Moresby was socked in. Since it was raining hard and there was a strong crosswind, pilot Claude Burcky elected to fly on to an alternate field, but was then unable to locate the alternate in the rain and black. Since a crash landing at night in the rain was out of the question, there remained but one thing to do. The crew would have to bail out.

Pilot Burcky decided to fly south over the York Peninsula far enough to pass over lands occupied by aborigine tribes. Finally they spotted a light through the black night and used it as a reference point for bailing out. Burcky instructed the crew members to make certain that they were clear of the plane before pulling the rip cords. Meenagh was the first to leave the plane and Burcky was last. On the ground, the crew assembled and were greeted by missionaries who had heard the plane and displayed the light. All of the crew members were recovered except William Meenagh. Though an extensive search was made the next day, no trace was ever found of the Irish lad from the Bronx. It was speculated that the wind might have carried his parachute out over the sea. No one ever knew.

William Meenagh had been flying combat missions over the past nine months. How many, he did not know. He had suffered defeat after defeat in the Philippines and Java. He had survived raids where many others were lost. In one more month he would have returned to the United States with the 19th Bombardment Group as it was relieved from combat.

 

CONFUSION OVER THE COEN RIVER

Source:- Project Gutenberg Australia

Matthew Flinders visited the Pennefather River on 7 November 1802 and assumed from the Dutch chart which he was using that the river was the Coen and henceforth the hydrographic chart of the area showed that name.

In 1880 Captain Charles Edward de Fonblanque Pennefather in command of the Queensland Government Schooner (QGS) Pearl, sailed from Thursday Island to examine the coast and rivers on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He took a whaleboat into the Coen River at latitude 12 13' South and then sailed southwards to the Archer River then again back to the Batavia River. It became apparent that there were two Coen rivers in the Western Cape region: the Coen named by Flinders and the South Coen which rose in the eastern ranges and drained into the Archer River. In 1894 the Coen River was re-named the Pennefather to avoid confusion with the South Coen River and the South Coen was re-named the Coen River.

However, the British Admiralty Chart for the Gulf of Carpentaria retained the name Coen until the 1960s, possibly because the Admiralty Hydrographic Office was not advised of the change by the Queensland government. Eventually a number of placenames on western Cape York Peninsula which varied between those shown on Admiralty charts and other maps were renamed for the sake of uniformity and the name Pennefather River appeared in the Australia Pilot in 1967.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Greg Gardner who contacted me on 23 July 2004 to tell me that his 92 year old neighbour is Jack Bertram Bramell, the co-pilot of the Catalina who rescued the crew of the B-17 Flying Fortress.

I'd also like to thank Alan Leishman for his assistance with this web page.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS:-

" Forty of the Fifth"
by Michael Claringbould
"

Catalina Squadrons - First and Furthest"
"Recounting the Operations of RAAF Catalinas"
"May 1941 to March 1943"
By Jack Riddell

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?

 

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This page first produced 25 October 2003

This page last updated 30 March 2013