2 DECEMBER 1942
CRASH OF A B-24 LIBERATOR
NEAR BURKETOWN, QLD
Photo:- Gaston family collection via the late Barry Ralph
Grady Gaston just after his ordeal
USAAF B-24 Liberator, #41-23762, known as "Little Eva", of the 321st Squadron, 90th Bombardment Group at Iron Range was returning from a bombing mission. "Little Eva" and 4 other B-24's had taken part in a high-level bombing raid against a Japanese troop convoy about 80 kms north of Buna. "Little Eva" piloted by Lieutenant Crosson, became separated from the others and returned towards their base at Iron Range by itself.
Photo:- Gary Topping
Wreckage of Little Eva
Photo:- Gary Topping
Wreckage of Little Eva
"Little Eva" was caught in a severe thunder storm and went off course. Its radio was disabled during the storm and it eventually ran out of fuel. Lieutenant ordered his crew of nine to bail out. Six crew members parachuted safely. Four other crew members, who did not bale out, were killed when the aircraft crashed at about 2:45am on 2 December 1942 in the Moonlight Creek area north west of Burketown near the Gulf of Carpentaria coastline. The wreckage was eventually found near Burriejella waterhole.
Four crew members who did not parachute perished when the aircraft crashed. Their names are as follows:-
Lt. James Hilton
Photo supplied:- David Millican
Earlier photo of S/Sgt James Hilton who was tragically killed in this crash
On 14 December 1942 two survivors, Lieutenant Norman Crosson and Sergeant Loy Wilson, were rescued by the manager of Escott Station, 15 kms west of Burketown. They had survived for 13 days after the crash with very little food and water. The wreckage of "Little Eva" was located some 60 kms north west of Escott Station. Their discovery started a search for other survivors which lasted for almost 5 months.
Crosson had instructed his crew to regroup at the crash site. Crosson met up with only Loy Wilson at the crash site. The four other survivors decided that it was too difficult to reach the crash site from where they were so they headed for the coast which was about 24 kms away. They were:-
Staff Sergeant Grady Gaston
2nd Lieutenant Arthur Speltz
2nd Lieutenant Dale Grimes
2nd Lieutenant John Dyer
Between these four survivors they had four bars of chocolate, a jungle knife, a fish hook and fishing line, and a few matches in a waterproof container. The two groups of survivors thought they were on the east coast of Cape York, south of Iron Range, closer to Cairns. Crosson and Wilson, decided to walk east towards what they thought was the east coast of Cape York. This proved to be a good decision as it lead them straight to Escott Station. They arrived with badly blistered feet and they were exhausted due to lack of sleep and food.
Gaston and his three other companions headed west when they hit the coastline of the Gulf of Carpentaria. They followed the coastline. They sucked on leaves and chewed on green bark to quench their thirst. On the fourth day they killed a young bullock with one of the two .45 calibre pistols they had with them. They cooked pieces of meat on the ends of sticks on an open fire. They ate as much as they could and pressed on. They did not take any meat with them in an effort to lighten their load. A day later they had to throw away their pistols as they had rusted so much and were rendered useless.
They came across a number of rivers as they headed north to north west along the beach. They tried to find shallow crossing for them all but were faced with having to swim across some of them. The rivers in the Gulf country are full of crocodiles, but luckily for them none were around when they swum these rivers. They were often waist deep in mud and on other occasions they had to travel through dense tropical jungle.
On 15 December 1942, seven members of "C" Company of the Northern Australian Observer Unit (NAOU), fifteen local VDC members, a local policeman and two aboriginal trackers rode out from Escott Station to locate the wreckage. It was eventually located almost 40 miles from Escott station.
Lieutenant Stan Chapman of "C" Company drove the two survivors to the four bed Burketown hospital for treatment. A week later they were picked up by an American aircraft at Burketown and flown back to Iron Range.
Stan Chapman established his search headquarters at Burketown. After 5 days of fruitless searches he asked Ian Hosie, the Flying Doctor pilot to help locate the B-24 Liberator wreckage. He landed in the main street of Burketown to pick up Chapman. They flew to the search area where a rough bush airstrip had been cleared by the ground search party. After a cup of tea at the bush strip, they took off and it didn't take too long to find "Little Eva" about 5 miles away. They directed the ground party to the wreck site.
At the site, the ground party found 6 parachutes, two charred bodies and many tracks of some survivors. After burying the dead, NAOU Lieutenant Frank Comans led a small group to follow the tracks of the four survivors. They persisted for over 130 kms. In the wet conditions they would often lose the tracks particularly when crossing streams. They eventually lost the tracks at Settlement Creek just short of the Queensland and Northern Territory border. They could not find any tracks on the other side of Settlement Creek and they assumed that crocodiles must have taken them in the creek. Comans and his small party returned to Burketown.
Gaston and his three companions had in fact crossed Settlement Creek and continued into the Northern Territory. US aircraft continued to search the Gulf Country for the missing four airmen. On 18 December 1942, Gaston remembered seeing three B-24's crossing at 1,000 feet directly overhead. They tried to signal the aircraft but were unsuccessful.
On 24 December 1942 their hopes were raised then they found a small paperbark shack but they found that it was deserted. They found a watermelon vine at the shack and "feasted" on some small melons that night. They realised that it was Christmas Eve and decided to sing some Christmas carols and say some Christmas prayers.
After that night it rained for several days. By this time Speltz whose feet were in a very poor condition. The other three left him at the shack and headed north to look for a homestead. They reached the Robinson River which was flood bound following the recent heavy rain. They made a makeshift raft by tying small logs together using strips of material obtained by tearing up their shirts. They managed to cross the river safely on the unsteady raft.
At another flooded creek they spotted some fruit bearing trees on the opposite bank. Grimes decided to swim the creek fully clothed to get some fruit. He got into difficulties. Gaston tried to reach him but was called back by Dyer. Grimes drowned on 27 December 1942. Gaston and Dyer walked another 40 kms that day along the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, towards the mouth of the Wearyan River, near the delta of the McArthur river.
Amazingly almost five months later Grady Gaston staggered into Seven Emu Station with some aborigines who had found him on 23 April 1943. Grady had managed to survive on wild berries, crabs, snakes and dead fish and animals he found. He lost 68 pounds as a result of his ordeal. The other crew members did not survive the harsh wilderness of the Gulf country.
Photo:- Gaston family
Grady Gaston after his rescue
US Signal Corps Photo - Negative No. GHQ-SWPA-SC-43-5185
S/Sgt Grady S. Gaston being met at
Garbutt Airfield in Townsville on
13 May 1943 by Captain Milford J. Foster of the 90th Bomb Group.
Sgt. Grady Gaston's
Account of this incident
Provided by Michael Lee
The above account of this incident was written by Sergeant Grady Gaston while he was recovering at the hospital in Townsville.
Two of the large Pratt and Whitney engines, along with their mangled propellers, the rear gun turret, and two huge main under-carriage wheels from "Little Eva" are now on display at Syd Beck's Military Aviation Museum on the Kennedy Highway near Mareeba.
Photo: via Michael Musumeci
Memorial at Doomadgee in memory of the crew of "Little Eva"
Photo: via Michael Musumeci
Memorial at Doomadgee in memory of the crew of "Little Eva"
In March 2005 I was told that someone was trying to sell a sea shell which had been written on by some of the survivors of the crash of "Little Eva". It was on sale on E-Bay for $2.5M. The shell is mentioned in Barry Ralph's book. Apparently the person who currently holds the shell tried to sell it to the American Embassy back in the nineties. No one was prepared to buy it so it vanished for a while. Now it has reappeared. Although the shell is probably authentic, Gaston refused to authenticate it. He said he had no knowledge of it. This shell should be placed on display in the Australian War Memorial and not be offered for some ridiculous price on E-Bay.
The following info is from the
Internet B-24 Veterans Group WebBoard
Posted by Col Benson on January 08, 1998 at 07:46:57:
I am an honorary historian for the local ex-service organisation (RSLA, similar to VFW, etc.) in Mackay Queensland, Australia. Barry Ralph (now deceased), of Brisbane QLD, expects to publish a book next ANZAC Day 25 April 1998, "They Passed This Way" about Americans who served in Australia during WWII. He wants to know if Sgt. Grady Gaston who survived the crash of "Little Eva" in the Gulf of Carpentaria in North Queensland for about 3 months is still alive. If so, he would like to correspond with him about the crash.
When Grady Gaston wrote his story, some of the whereabouts of the B-24 crew were unknown other than one apparently refused to jump and another pulled his chute as he jumped and it fouled on the aircraft and he went down with it.
P. Nielsen, author of "Diary of WWII North Queensland" (1993) wrote that the remains of four crew were found in the wreckage. Two survivors staggered out of the bush about 2 weeks later, while three whom Gaston met up with perished in the wild country of the north.
I can put any replies in touch with Barry Ralph.
Posted by Lindsay Peet on March 12, 1998 at 06:51:14:
I recollect seeing somewhere that Gaston was still alive in the early 1990s, in the USA. It was a printed reference but at the moment I cannot find it. Keep trying, I think you will find him!
Posted by Lindsay Peet on July 01, 1998 at 06:16:07:
The June 1998 issue (No. 90) of the 90th Bomb Group Association says that Grady Gaston passed away on 08 JAN 98. He had been in ill health for some time. The published references that I could not find earlier are John Alcorn's "The Jolly Rogers", Temple City, CA, 1981, and Wiley Woods "Legacy of the 90th Bombardment Group", Turner Publishing, PAducah, Kentucky. I have both in my SWPA collection.
Subject: "LITTLE EVA"
Date: Wed, 21 Apr 1999 22:11:17 +0800
From: "Lindsay Peet" <email@example.com>
In reply to your msg of 21 APR 99, I can only give you three secondary references to the above crash. By the way Grady Gaston died last year - it was in 90th Bomb Group Association Newsletter.
Gwynn-Jones, T., "HEROIC AUSTRALIAN AIR STORIES", Rigby, Adelaide, 1981, pp. 54-72.
Alcorn, J.S., "THE JOLLY ROGERS", Historical Aviation Album, Temple City, California, 1981, pp. 21-26.
Woods, W.O., "LEGACY OF THE 90TH BOMBARDMENT GROUP, 'THE JOLLY ROGERS'", Turner, Paducah, Kentucky, 1994, pp. 23-26.
There may be primary sources at USAF Historical Research Centre, Maxwell AFB, AL. and at US National Archives, College Park, MD. I have worked at these two places on 380th BG records.
On QLD airfields of WW2, there is Roger Marks detailed work. I have a number of other books on the war in northern QLD in my collection and can detail these if you wish. Not everything is still in print (I started serious book collecting in 1988).
By the way, my research interest is military aviation in WA 1939-45 (history & heritage) - I am doing a Masters thesis at Curtin University on this. My area includes the eastern Indian Ocean, and up to Java, the Lesser Sunda Islands and Timor. I follow what happened in the NT and to a lesser extent northern QLD as it is all part of Australia's "northern air war". I have done some work on WW2 crashes in WA, and have had two sites in the northern Kimberley classified by the National Trust (WA). One is "Shady Lady" (380 BG, 14 August 1943, after the Balikpapan raid) about which I wrote a 22,000 word academic dissertation in 1995 (for a mark of 85%), and have given many talks about. I have built up a network of contacts in Australia and even get people referred to me by the USAF History Support Office, Bolling AFB, Washington DC (where I worked in 1996).
I also work in the general area of defence heritage and have strong views about the need to preserve reminders of WW2 for future generations.
I hope this is of some assistance.
With best wishes
Subject: Little Eva
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 2000 14:01:59 +1000
From: "Barry RALPH"
I have just sent you copy of an Email that it is self explanatory. You will note that I have started work on a book that describes the Little Eva crash and the aftermath.
I notice that you have done a great deal of work on this subject. It is an excellent site.
I have been in touch with the Queensland Police Department and also the 90th Bomb Group. Mrs Gaston has sent photographs.
I believe that Bob Hagarty the policeman who conducted a search for Gaston and co left a diary. Do you know whether it is available?
I have been informed that Grosson, Wilson and Gaston are now deceased. Also Hagarty, Marsh, Nuss and other police who were involved with the search are also gone (do you know when?).
One policeman, Vince Pell, who serve in Cloncurry is still alive but I have been unable to locate him.
It is a great story and I hope that I can do it justice.
Perhaps we can compare notes on this remarkable incident.
Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2000 14:58:01 +1000
From: "Barry RALPH"
I received a package from Mrs Gaston today. There are one or two familiar photos, but one superb quality shot of Grady being interrogated by an American officer.
I also have a copy of radio script that Grady did after returning home to the United States ( 1943) he mentions details about his adventure that have never been mentioned. It is self contained ( question and answer thing) that may be worthy of a place on the net.
You can certainly have a copy of the police report on the Rockhampton C47 crash. I also have a copious one (seven foolscap pages) on the Baker's Creek crash - June 1943.
Can anyone help with more information on this incident?
Barry Ralph is the author of an excellent book called "They Passed this Way"
I'd like to thank David Millican, Col Benson, Barry Ralph (now deceased), Lindsay Peet (now deceased), Gary Topping, Edward Rogers and Michael Musumeci for their kind assistance with this home page.
I'd like to thank Michael Lee for his assistance with this web page. Michael Lee is related to Lieutenant Speltz on his mother's side of the family. Sgt Grady Gaston had sent a typed copy of his encounter to Lt. Speltz's parents.
"Diary of WWII - North
Complied by Peter Nielsen
"Curtin's Cowboys - Australia's Secret Bush
By Richard Walker & Helen Walker
"Little Eva" Serial 41-23762
by Pacific Wrecks
SOURCE:- Aircraft Crash Sites - Australia
Crash: No. 13
Department of Aviation Chart No: 3220
NOTE:- "Aircraft Crash Sites" shows this crash being on 3 December 1942, whereas other sources show it as 2 December 1942.
Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 7 February 1999
This page last updated 02 February 2020