CRASH OF AN  LB-30 LIBERATOR
AT ESSENDON AIRFIELD, VIC
ON 18 MAY 1942

 

USAAF LB-30 Liberator, AL508, of the 435th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group, piloted by Lt. A.A. "Bud" Fletcher, crashed at Essendon airfield on 18 May 1942. The Liberator had taken off from Essendon airfield in Victoria on its way to Batchelor airfield in the Northern Territory. After the aircraft had taken off, smoke was observed in the cockpit. The engines were throttled back and the smoke started to dissipate. 

The pilot decided to return to Essendon airfield, but as he made his final approach to the airfield, the flaps would not actuate and he aborted the landing and tried to go around. The weather on the day was typical for Melbourne, drizzling rain and low cloud.

Smoke started to pour into the cockpit again and it was the realised that all four engines were now on fire. The pilot feathered and unfeathered various engines to get enough power to try to turn around for another attempt at landing. The aircraft started to lose height quickly, so the pilot had to make a wheels-up landing at right angles to the runway on wet grass. By this time one engine had burned right through its upper mounts and was half falling off the wing. This engine was ripped off when the aircraft  touched down.

 


Photo: Al Fletcher via Bob Livingstone

AL508 burns beside Essendon runway on 18 May 1942

 

Closeup of the crash scene. No. 4 Engine which fell off, is at the far right of the photo

 


Photo: Al Fletcher via Bob Livingstone

No. 4 engine which fell off, is at the far right of the photo

 


Photo: Al Fletcher via Bob Livingstone

The cockpit area of AL508. The nose wheel strut is in the foreground.
No. 3 engine at the rear. Oxygen bottles lie scattered around the crash scene.

 

1st Lt. Robert S. Rogers was killed when he fell out of the nose wheel doors. "The morning edition of the Melbourne paper "The Age" reported the crash and indicated there were no deaths but that nine of the crew members received burns that were not serious.

The rest of the crew escaped the burning aircraft. Ammunition was exploding around them as a result of the intense fire. They all received varying degrees of burns as they escaped through the flames.

 


Photo: Al Fletcher via Bob Livingstone

Pilot Officer John C. Norrie was badly burnt on the hands and face.
Picture of him in the US Hospital near the Haymarket in Melbourne
the day after the crash. He spent 7 months on hospital.

 

bobliv198.jpg (23200 bytes)
Photo: Al Fletche
 via Bob Livingstone

Charlie Wilhelm was the mostly
badly burnt crew member. He
had extensive plastic surgery.

 

The crew of AL508 was as follows:-

Lt. A.A."Bud" Fletcher Pilot
2nd Lt. T.L. Patrick  Co pilot
2nd Lt. Norman R. Appleton     Navigator 
1st Lt. Robert S. Rogers Bombardier
Staff Sgt. Clair B. Wilcox Engineer
Sgt. Jodie B. Thornell Assistant Engineer
Cpl. Charles F. Wilhelm 1st Radio Operator
Cpl. T.J. Stewart Assistant Radio Operator
Pilot Officer John C. Norrie RAAF Radar Officer
Sgt. Fraser Wilson RAAF Radar Mechanic

All of the survivors except Cpl. Wilhelm returned to serve with the 19th Bomb Group at Mareeba in north Queensland.

The Liberator was an ex 7th Bomb Group in Java which had been modified at Essendon with sea search radar (the Australian version of the British ASV Mk.1).

 


 

Eric McCleery was a a 16 year old schoolboy at the time of this crash, living near Essendon airport. He watched a USAAC Liberator taking off at around 10 a.m. As it reached about 1,000 feet altitude, an engine fell off, and it turned over and went in not far from the airfield. Eric climbed on his bicycle and went over to the site and found US personnel already there inspecting the burning wreck. 

Eric can remember seeing nothing but a burnt out wreck of a large plane and the shock that the crew had no chance of surviving. There were several other Liberators at Essendon at the time. 

 


 

"Ainslie Sharpe" was a very young child, living in North Essendon, near the airport during WW2. Ainslie saw "an aircraft fly over with its engine on fire, and it's engine sounding very erratic, apparently trying to make it to Essendon airport." Ainslie can remember the sound of the engines spluttering, and the site of the fire coming from at least one of the engines and the very dense smoke from the crash site.

Ainslie remember that the plane was fairly large - a transport or bomber. Ainslie's father was in the RAAF at the time, flying out of Essendon, so she was very distressed at the thought that her father may have been in the aircraft. Ainslie can remember the sirens and the streets being blocked off from civilians. Ainslie was assured by her mother, and father on his safe return, that "everything was alright, and that no-one was hurt".

Nearly 50 years later, whilst on a holiday with her husband, they met a couple from Victoria. The man had also lived in North Essendon during WW2. He enlightened Ainslie regarding the fate of the aircraft. They indicated that the plane had crashed when trying to land and all on board had been killed. (in fact only one person was killed)

Ainslie's father was later transferred to Mt Druitt in NSW with 6 Repair & Salvage Unit where he worked with Liberators and subsequently this unit was transferred to Fenton, Moratai and Borneo.

 


 

WAS THIS THE SAME CRASH?

Frank MacDonough witnessed the crash of a USAAC B-24 Liberator at Essendon airfield. He believes that it was in 1943. 

Frank told me that the Liberator was en-route to the far North. It crashed in the paddocks (wheels- up) at a spot where there are now two hangars right on the tram line in Matthews Avenue, Airport West.

Frank believes that only two of the 12 persons on board survived the accident.

Frank's sister was being courted by a U.S Marine at the time of the accident. The Marine (now living in New Jersey) was a patient in the U.S.  Military hospital (now the Royal Melbourne Hospital). He saw the 2 survivors admitted.  

 


 

Gordon Russell watched a Liberator flying that day. He said it was pouring smoke out of all engines, and he thought it would crash. Gordon was in an office building on the second floor of the ordnance factory at Maryibyrnong (Map 35 D6), very close to the Essendon Airfield. He was due to report to the R.A.A.F in a few days in aircrew.

 


 

Lindsay Braden also remembers this crash. He witnessed it as a schoolboy. At that time the airfield was only half the area it is today. Bulla Road went through the middle, and there were no sealed strips. As the Liberator was taking off an engine caught fire. The bomber headed south towards Melbourne and then came back to the eastern side of the airfield. By this time the flames had spread and the aircraft was well alight. It flew across Bulla Road and crashed on the adjacent vacant field west of this thoroughfare. Lindsay can still see the mad scramble of the fire tenders, Jeeps etc to get to the disaster. Ammunition was exploding.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"Under the Southern Cross - The B-24 Liberator in the Southern Pacific"
by Bob Livingstone

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Bob Livingstone for sharing the details of this crash in the "Vintage and Warbirds" Mailing List.

 

Does anyone know the names of the crew members?

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?

 

I need your help

Copyright

 Peter Dunn 2015

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This page first produced 25 January 2002

This page last updated 31 August 2015