Air Force: Official Service Journal of the U.S. Army Air Forces

vol. 26 no. 4 (April 1943)

p. 10-11

"Bail-out Off Australia"

There are lessons for every airman in this fighter pilotís story of survival.

THIS is the story of Lieutenant Clarence E. Sanford, pilot of a fighter group operating with an advanced echelon off the northern tip of Australia.

On the fourteenth of March, 1942, Lieutenant Sanford, on an interception mission with three other American P-40s, encountered twelve Zeros and ten Jap bombers. Six Zeros were downed in the melee. Sanford, who accounted for two, chose to chase one of the bombers.

His P-40 was pretty badly shot up. The only instruments he had left were his airspeed, altimeter and compass; the canopy was gone, and Sanford himself had caught a grazing foot wound. The remaining Zeros caught him at 15,000 feet and mauled him further. He got away from them through a 1,500 foot overcast, but when he pulled back up to 9,000 feet, his wheels were down, the hydraulic system shot up, and the right wing heavy. Altogether, his P-40 was in a very decrepit state. He headed south and west, and just as his fuel gave out, he saw land.

Sanford bailed out over water at about five in the afternoon, three miles from shore, carrying only his jungle pack. He got out of his chute fifteen feet before he hit the water. To his dismay, his Mae West failed him. He got rid of it, and discarded his shirt, shoes, and sox. The jungle kit got waterlogged quickly as he swam. He discarded it as useless, salvaging only the machete. But the machete impeded his swimming. It began to weigh a ton and to assume the proportions of a fire-axe. He tried holding it between his teeth, but it cut his mouth. Finally, in desperation, he let it go, and struck out in earnest for the distant land. Luckily, the offshore tide was slack and, with the last strength remaining in him, he stumbled up on the beach and promptly fainted.

Sanford came to before dark. The prospect was bleak and terrifying. He found himself on a sandy, barren island he judged to be about five miles long and two miles wide. Frantically taking stock of the situation, he found himself appallingly defenseless. Inventory: one religious medallion, one ring, one pair of shorts and a shocked Sanford inside them. Exhaustion mercifully blotted out the prospect in sleep on the beach.

HE awoke in a blazing sun. He was hungry and thirsty. He hunted for food. He caught sight of a "dingo" (native dog) but couldn't get near it. Finally, he found some shrub roots with nodules on them. They were soft to the bite, proved edible. There were some leaves, too, which he nibbled. He found he could get water by scraping the sand some hundred yards from the shore. The water seeped up. It was brackish, but it was free from sea salt. All this time the sun blazed. Sanford estimated the temperature at well over 125°F. There was no shelter, no shade. He began to burn painfully. The symptoms of sunstroke came on. Late that afternoon, in a mental bout with fantastic colored images, he lost consciousness.

This time, he was awakened by a sensation of the presence of life near him. Three Caledon Bay headmen stood their distance, eyeing him intently. One held a spear in readiness. "Are you Jap?” came the query from the spearman, using three of his twelve words of Pidgin English. Sanford shook his head violently in the negative.


Sanford replied: "American."

They didn't seem to understand. Sanford pointed vaguely to suggest that he came from far away. He wasn't doing too well. Suddenly, the spearman pointed to the medallion and asked: "Jesus" Sanford nodded "Yes." There was a prolonged pow-wow among the three natives. They came closer. Sanford, lying there, scratched a rough outline of Australia in the sand and asked them in sign language to point out his position. They seemed to understand and pointed it out.

Finally they seemed to reach an agreement. They carried the helpless Sanford away from the beach, dug a hole in the sand, laid him in it, and covered him with leaves and branches. Then they brought him turtle eggs to suck, and fish which they speared ingeniously in the surf and cooked in a fire started in boy-scout woodspindle fashion. Sanford didn't eat much. One of the eggs was bad. Finally, the natives covered him with sand as dusk fell. He couldn't sleep. He was scared. He had feverish visions of a cannibal feast. He could sec the waiting pot.

IN the morning, he felt stronger and started to hike with the natives to the end of the island. The hot rocks burned his bare feet. His sunburn broke into blisters. The three natives talked about a "missionary" and pointed toward the mainland. They came to a dugout canoe drawn up on the beach. There was another long powwow which left Sanford apprehensive. It turned out the Caledons were waiting for the tide. Finally, late in the afternoon, they set out in the canoe across five miles of water toward the mainland. They sat close to the water and schools of sharks bumped the frail craft. Sanford didn't like it at all.

They got to the mainland all right. They left the canoe on the beach and struck out along the shore on foot. Sanford got woozy again and rested. The natives brought him water. His sunburn was torturing. Open wounds began to appear. He struggled into the sea-water at intervals for temporary relief. The Caledons didn't seem to understand sunburn.

Sanford doesn't remember, but he thinks they spent the night on the beach. In the morning, they resumed the trek again. His feet were terribly swollen. The skin cracked open. Wantjuik, the spearman, removed his own loinknot, tore it into strips, and with some green bark made mocassins for Sanford's feet. That helped. They hiked on. They ate more turtle eggs and raw fish. They drank brackish water seeping up from the scraped sand.

Sanford was still apprehensive, felt he was being spared only to become cannibal bait. He armed himself with a jagged piece of coral. Wantjuik sensed his fear. He took the coral out of Sanford's hand, had another pow-wow with his buddies, and suddenly all three broke into the hymnal strains of "Don't pass me by" sung in native Kopapingo. Sanford couldn't appreciate the humor of the situation. But he began to feel reassured. Physically, he was deteriorating rapidly. His sunburn was excruciatingly painful; his tongue had begun to swell; his liver had gone bad, and the symptoms of yellow jaundice were setting in; he was feverish. When he cried out in pain the Caledons laughed aloud. They couldn't understand it.

The trek to the mission covered 50 terrible miles, alternately along the beach and back into the bush when steep cliffs intervened. Sanford gave out completely some five miles outside the mission station. Wantjuik picked him up and carried him in. One of the Caledons went ahead bringing the news. The missionary came out to meet Sanford, bringing bully beef and water. The pilot was put to bed, suffering from jaundice, fever, sunburn, and shock.

The missionary called Darwin on his pedal wireless, and did what he could for Sanford. The three natives were rewarded with tobacco and a bolt of cloth. They felt kinglike and were local heroes. Later, Sanford learned that they had seen him bail out and regarded his descent as a major miracle. They frequented Sanford's island for one or two days each six or seven months on hunting expeditions, and their presence was Sanford's great luck. They had been educated at the mission, knew a little about Australian geography, knew about the war and hated the Japs (who annoyed Caledon women on their local pearlfishing expeditions).

After a week and a half, Sanford was transferred by mission boat 350 miles up the coast to Millingimbi, the main mission station in the region. He stayed there for five days and grew steadily worse. The missionary wirelessed to Darwin, describing his critical condition. A Hudson bomber flew out and brought Sanford back to Darwin- just in time to catch a strong Jap bombing raid. It proved almost the last straw when a bomb fell just a few yards from where Sanford lay. Finally, however, he was transported to Brisbane where he spent eleven weeks in various hospitals. Several months later, and apparently none the worse for wear, Sanford came home to the States.

His story holds a significant moral for every combat crewman. Sanford now states that if he knew when these events transpired what he knows today, much of his suffering could have been avoided. His native resourcefulness and his great good luck were the sole factors in his survival.

IN examining Sanford's experience, these vital facts stand out:-

1. Before you set out on a given mission, check your emergency equipment. If Sanford had checked his CO., bottles, his Mae West wouldn't have failed him. Also, if he had considered the possibility of hailing out over water, he would have carried a flotation-type emergency kit. If Sanford had carried a map of the region in his plane and had oriented himself during the Right, he would have had an idea of his position Ė an important factor in survival.

2. Stay calm when you are face-to-face with a forced landing or hail-out emergency. Weigh the factors. Don't get frantic. If you know what you're doing, you can survive even under the most discouraging circumstances.

3. Knowledge of the terrain and conditions under which you are operating is all-important. It prevents hysteria and panic. It's insurance for survival. Sanford would have been helped measurably if he had known more about the natives and their language; if he had possessed a practical working knowledge of the edible plant and animal life of the region, and if he had known how to obtain and use them. He learned the facts when he watched the Caledons. Sanford had no grasp of the terrible effect of the sun on the exposed body. He could see no way of escaping the sun once his clothing was gone. There was no shade anywhere. Yet there was a way-the natives showed him how to dig himself into the sand and to cover himself with brush. Today, Sanford declares that if he had possessed this knowledge, he would have had the utmost confidence in his ability to survive for months if necessary on his desolate island.

The experience related in this article is one of the many gathered by the Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center at Eglin Field, Florida. It is the function of this organization to prepare and disseminate information on all aspects of Air Force operations (maintenance, health, shelter, clothing, etc.) in non-temperate zones. Information on forced landing procedures and survival is a major interest of the Center. All Air Force units are invited to request such information from the Arctic, Desert, and Tropic Information Center.



Wandjuk Marika and another aboriginal were collecting turtle eggs and fishing on the western side of Bremer Island when they spotted an aircraft trying to find the mainland around midday. They travelled over to the east side of the island and saw a white man parachute from the aircraft. They found the pilot lying on the beach at the water's edge in only a pair of shorts and a singlet. You can read more about Wandjuk's recollection of the event in his Life Story, see the References section below.



Wandjuk Marika: Life Story
by Wandjuk Marika and Jennifer Isaacs



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