CRASH OF A B-17 FLYING FORTRESS
AT SANDGATE, QLD
ON 18 APRIL 1942
B-17E Flying Fortress
B-17E Flying Fortress #41-2435 made an emergency landing at Decker Park, Sandgate on 18 April 1942
USAAF B-17E Flying Fortress #41-2435 made an emergency landing at Decker Park, Sandgate adjacent to RAAF Sandgate at 5:45pm on 18 April 1942 in light drizzling rain. The B-17 landed on reclaimed land slightly north of the RAAF station at Sandgate, between the Base and the start of the Hornibrook Highway
The Pilot circled the area several times looking for a landing spot. He obviously did not see the racecourse and oval at Deagon due to the light rain and his low altitude. The pilot eventually made a forced landing after just clearing the cotton trees near the seawall. The plane came to an abrupt halt not far from the northern boundary of the Air Training School.
The official report states that there was "no damage or injury to personnel or equipment".
The crew was as follows:-
Captain G.R. Montgomery (pilot)
C.J. Holdridge (co-pilot)
Lieutenant Robert Wasson (Navigator)
Master Sergeant Heard (Engineer)
Staff Sergeant Jacula (Bombardier)
Sergeant Loeber (Radio-operator)
Sergeant Buller (Gunner)
Sergeant Elder (Gunner)
plus 13 passengers
The B-17 had to be dug out of the mud. The B-17 took off again in full sunshine a few days later at 4:00pm on 21 April 1942 with minimal crew on board as follows:-
Captain G.R. Montgomery (pilot)
C.J. Holdridge (co-pilot)
Master Sergeant Heard (Engineer)
Many of the locals prayed for the pilots of the aircraft when they took off, aiming for the specially cut gap in the Cotton Trees. Once off the ground it the B-17 flew to Archerfield airfield. The remainder of the US party left Sandgate by U.S. Service Transport at 0800 hours on 22 April 1942 headed for Archerfield airfield.
One eyewitness to the event was Lorna Ferguson (nee Gillingham, a student who living next door to RAAF Sandgate). The following is an excerpt from the booklet "R.A.A.F. Sandgate - At the mouth of the Pine - 50th Anniversary" by the Sandgate and District Historical Society and Museum, Inc.:-
"she recalls it was wet weather at the time when the "Biggest thing we had ever seen in our skies" came over the Station. The pilot "wiggled his wings when those present waved a towel at him". The plane circled the area several times, then came in over the reclaimed land with his wings down and after a dummy run, "This time the plane landed, as it did so the wheels began to sink into the wet clay and the plane lurched over to one side and ground looped. One wing had dug into the clay. Propellers were bent, and in spite of all that that was happening, there was still no action from the air school."
"The crew got out and dived for a nearby ditch and several yelled out that there were bombs on board. The civilians ran to the plane and began to congregate around it. When the airmen returned to the plane they learned that the plane had been on a bombing mission. It had run into trouble, first with the engines, and then the bomb-bay would not open and they had been unable to jettison the bombs. They were lost, Brisbane, and or Amberley was the nearest place with suitable landing facilities. It was some time before officialdom from the RAAF Base arrived, and the forerunner was an officer on a wobbly bicycle, yelling to the citizens to clear off, and "keep away from the plane."
"After several days when the plane had been overhauled, and a road extended to the sea wall the plane was ready for take-off. After 50 years memories have been dimmed, or stories grown, but rumours going around suggest that the bomber was either anchored to a tree, or a bull dozer, engines revved to full power, and the connecting rope then cut with an axe. It is from this kind of stuff that Legends are made."
"A number of schools in the area granted the children, unofficially of course, permissions to see the bomber take off. Which it did with dexterity and without mishap. People still talk of the mystery Flying Fortress that landed at Sandgate."
20 April 1942
BIG BOMBER DOWN AT COAST TOWN
A skilful landing was made by the pilot of a heavy bomber plane which was forced down through fuel shortage over a Queensland coastal town, after flying through rain squalls.
He had to choose between bringing the big machine down in the sea or attempting a landing on a reclaimed area, which had been transformed from a swamp into a recreational ground.
Although the landing area was restricted the pilot was able to bring the plane to a standstill without material damage. One wheel became bogged. An Air Force ambulance stood by in emergency, but the crew escaped injury.
21 April 1942
BOMBER MAY BE SAVED
An attempt will be made within a few days to fly a heavy bomber off a recreation area on which it made a forced landing at a Queensland coastal town. Fencing at a nearby air station is to be pulled down to provide the bomber with the biggest possible runway.
The pilot of the plane made a skilful landing on a reclaimed area which had been built up from swamp, the machine coming to a standstill when one wheel became bogged.
22 April 1942
The heavy bomber which made a forced landing near a Queensland coastal town when forced down by petrol shortage, was extricated yesterday afternoon and flown to its station.
When it landed, the plane sank into soft earth, and six motor trucks were used yesterday to draw it to firmer ground.
Portion of a fence was removed to give the plane a run of 500 yards for the take-off. Everything that could be removed was taken from the machine to lighten it.
AT THE MOUTH OF THE PINE
Sandgate and District Historical Society and Museum, Inc.
Bertram Ernest Wilson, Ex W.O. No. 414976
Address: 8 Nikel St., Zillmere
He had completed his initial training course, at the R.A.A.F. Base Sandgate and was awaiting a further posting.
He recalls that late on a Saturday afternoon, in 1942. One of several Flying Fortresses made a forced landing on the spare land between the R.A.A.F. Base and the Highway leading up to the Hornibrook Highway Viaduct. It was wet at the time and had been raining for some time prior to that day and on landing the plane got bogged, which saved it from crashing into the R.A.A.F. Buildings nearby.
As he, and a number of other R.A.A.F. Personnel were awaiting posting posting, their services were engaged for the purpose of getting the plane out of the bog. A platform of old railway sleepers was laid under the plane and it was jacked up until it was freed from the mud.
As such a plane required a large runway, the longest available was in the direction of the sea wall, near the Highway and some men were detailed to cut a break in a line of trees which grew near the shore line to enable the plane to fly unhindered towards the water.
The plane was hauled to a position as far back from the wall as possible, somewhere in the vicinity of the two storied shop-residence on the western side of the road opposite the base.
The surrounding ground in this area was not totally smooth, with some holes in the surface especially where the plane had been bogged. In that vicinity the sleepers had been stacked up after the plane had been freed.
As far as he can recall, the commanding officer of the R.A.A.F. base was named Rigby. This would be S/Leader H.A. Rigby. M.C.
He claims that when the task of freeing the plane, and preparing the take off path was completed, the C.O. Sandgate instructed the Americans not to take off as it was too risky with such a small runway. To which direction the Captain of the plane Cpt. Montgomery is alleged to have informed Rigby "To look after his own kindergarten, he had no jurisdiction over the Americans and they were going to take off"
The incident of the landing had attracted much attention and the men from the Meteorological Bureau had predicted that the most appropriate time so far as weather was concerned for a take off was on the Tuesday afternoon. As a result it was decided to take off about 4pm. People gathered from near and far, arriving on bicycles, walking and all form of transport.
At the allotted time the reduced crew of the plane tested each of the engines for from 20 to 30 seconds, with the brakes full on the wheels. The engines were running at idling speed to get the right temperatures.
The 4 engines were then opened to full take off power, and the plane held from moving forward by the brakes.
The brakes were then released, but one on the left side held for one or two seconds longer than the others, with the result that the plane turned to the left out of it's proposed path. On the release of the brakes, under full power, the plane surged forward and from a position directly behind the tail, some distance back from the turbulence from the slipstream, Wilson could see that it was off course from the clearing and heading for trees to the left of the clearing. The pilot stood it on its tail and just cleared the trees. The claxon in the plane went off indicating the plane was about to stall and the pilot dropped the nose and gradually gained height and momentum. He had turned to the right of the Bridge and gradually was able to fly away towards Brisbane.
Wilson states that the incidents inside the plane when it cleared the trees was related to men at Sandgate the same night as he had returned there after taking the plane to Archerfield drome. (This fact has not been recounted by any of the witnesses who have given their version of the incident).
When the plane lurched forward from where it took off, it bounced over the uneven ground, and Wilson could see that the left wing just missed the the stacked sleepers, previously mentioned.
It appears that the Captain of the plane had allowed the airmen detailed for the work to have a look over the plane, which at that time was on the "hush-hush" list.
"Three Times Lucky"
by Jack Woodward
Sandgate Embarkation Station
There had been one interesting incident during my time at Sandgate. In early May (1942) (It was actually the 18 April 1942), coming back to the Station at night after leave and entering the sergeants' mess, I was told that an American Flying Fortress plane had landed during the afternoon on spare ground beside the camp, next to the Hornibrook Highway. Nobody believed the story, which sounded very far fetched, but our informers were most insistent that the story was true.
Early next morning, we were absolutely amazed to find out the story was correct. The Flying Fortress plane (B. 17) was bogged in the soft ground next to the huts on the station.
Evidently six planes had been flying to Amberley from New Caledonia or thereabouts. They had struck heavy rain and a severe tropical thunderstorm a hundred miles or so off the coast. With visibility down to zero they could not maintain contact, and split up hoping to locate a landing ground.
We believe that one aircraft landed at Amberley, whilst others landed at various places on the coast as far south as Coffs Harbour.
This particular plane circled low over the coast near Sandgate in very nasty weather. Seeing the buildings, the pilot assumed that it was a military site, and decided to try to land on the area beside the huts.
The area had recently been reclaimed with red soil; with heavy rain over the previous days, the ground was a real quagmire. The cleared area of land was less than 1,000 yards, and if the ground had been hard, the aircraft could not have pulled up before running into a building. With the soft soil it pulled up quickly, stopping with the wheels bogged to their axles. Miraculously nobody was hurt, which was most fortunate.
The pilot must have switched off the engines when landing, as there did not seem to be any damage to the propellers. There was no sign of them being bent in any way. After the plane was dragged out, the engines were started and responded quite well. It was quite astounding that the plane could have come out of it with no sign of damage.
By the time we got down there, quite a crowd from the station had congregated. The area was cordoned off with rope and patrolled by American military police. No civilians were allowed into the area, though they would have had a view of the plane from the Highway. The M.P.'s were letting everybody know, bellowing at the top of their voices as only United States M.P.'s can do, that no cameras were allowed; anybody caught with one would have it confiscated, and charges laid.
That was a real challenge, which we R.A.A.F. sergeants took up. I had a small folding Kodak camera, which could be concealed quite easily in my great coat. With four of my fellow sergeants, we made our way to a good position as close to the aircraft as we could, and in the front row of the large crowd. Two stood in front, and the other two beside me; when we thought the M.P.'s were not looking, the two in front opened up and I quickly took the photo. It is shown here after all these years (see above).
Three days later, with fine weather and the area drying out a little (though still soft), a large gang of U.S. air force and army personnel had dragged the Fortress out of the bog. It was their intention to attempt to fly the aircraft to Amberley. Everyone thought that the chances of the plane taking off were very slight, and we were not going to miss the opportunity of watching the attempt.
The plane was lightened, and fuel drained from the tanks, leaving only sufficient to fly to its destination. The engines were started, and thoroughly warmed up and checked. They were then revved up seemingly to their maximum. With the aircraft straining to go, the brakes were released, ropes holding the plane were cut (flying in all directions) and the aircraft started to gain momentum.
There were only three crew aboard, two pilots and the engineer. After about a hundred yards, the pilot attempted to lift the plane, but it lifted only slightly, and seemed to stall. It fell back to ground, fortunately landing on to galvanised roofing iron which had been used to get the plane out of the bog. The plane then bounced back into the air, and although not really airborne, fell back and almost touched the ground. However, it gathered momentum, skimming the ground, and to everybody's amazement and relief, became airborne. A great cheer rang out from the crowd assembled, but suddenly this turned to a horrified gasp.
During all this time, the plane was veering to the left, and we could see that it was travelling dangerously close to the overhead electricity wires on the side of the highway. The wing of the plane missed them, but the margin must have been only inches. The crew were lucky, and certainly had guts to even attempt such a dangerous takeoff. A tremendous cheer arose from the crowd assembled, and the aircraft made a circuit before wending its way south west towards Amberley.
I'd like to thank Mark Clayton for his assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn OAM 2020
This page first produced 20 February 1999
This page last updated 25 February 2020