CRASH OF A B-25 MITCHELL
3 MILES FROM RATTLESNAKE ISLAND
ON 23 SEPTEMBER 1943

 

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B-25 Mitchell

 

Field Modifications to install extra machine guns to the nose of B-25G Mitchell #42-64882 were tested on 23 September 1943 at a live firing range on a small island just north of Townsville called Rattlesnake Island. The B-25G Mitchell crashed during these tests killing 3 Majors and the rest of the crew. Unsatisfactory condition of the external fuselage package guns caused a fire in the navigator's compartment. The plane crashed in 50 feet of water, three miles off shore of Rattlesnake Island. 

The four killed were:-

Major Robert P. Duncan - pilot
Major Julian ("Jake") S. Schuster (Serial No. 0-377988),
Major George T. Starck (5th Air Service Command)
2nd Lt. James G. Helton (Serial No. 0-888616).

James Helton was the crew chief for this flight. Helton was award the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. James Helton had earlier in his military career, been a crew member of General George Kenney's private B-17 "Sally".

 

Jim Helton while he was a crew member of "Sally"

 

Jake Schuster had been sent to Townsville by Patterson-Wright as a trouble shooter.

When the B-25 did not return from its test firing flight at Rattlesnake Island, Colonel Victor Bertrandis, the Commanding Officer of the 4th Air Depot Group took off in a small aircraft, possibly a Lodestar, to carry out a search. Walter Krell of the 22nd Bomb Group grabbed one of their B-25's and rounded up a rag tag crew including Sergeant Sardom to act as observers to search for the missing B-25. Nothing was found. Some floating debris was recovered from the area by a boat. Walter Krell inspected the debris in one of the offices at the 4th Air Depot Group at Mount Louisa. It consisted of an intact parachute, some papers, maps, manuals and a cushion. It was all badly charred. Krell deduced that it was all from the cockpit area and that the most likely cause of the crash was an intense fire in the cockpit caused by a pistol flare igniting. The magnesium in these flares would have burnt fiercely.

Krell was called to a Board of enquiry meeting headed by General Ennis Whitehead at the Depot Headquarters, where he explained his theory on the cause of the crash.

The Operations Record Book for 9 Squadron Detachment on board HMAS Australia has the following entry:-

TOWNSVILLE 23/9/43
Airborne at 16.15 to return to Ship with mail and messages. Carried out search, in vicinity of Rattlesnake Island, for wreckage of crashed Aircraft. Sighted one body, released two, (2) Smoke Floats, landed and directed Crash Boat to scene and handed over to Crash Party. Returned to ship and hoisted inboard at 17.20.

The Operations Record book for 3 Fighter Sector Headquarters had the following entry:-

TOWNSVILLE 23.9.43
A B25 on gunnery practice at RATTLESNAKE IS. crashed into the sea and 41 Squadron crash boat was sent out.

TOWNSVILLE 24.9.43
 No. 41 Squadron reported that the crash boat had recovered one body and some wreckage.

 

Walter Krell's description of this crash, the search and the enquiry

 

The B-25 modifications proved to be so successful that the project was assigned to the 15th Air Depot Group for mass production. A series of open-ended metal Butler hangars were erected at Depot #2 at Mount Louisa with an assembly line set-up like a Detroit automobile factory. Eventually, several hundred B-25's were equipped with four 20-calibers, four nose 50-calibers, four side-cockpit 50-calibers and even several with a 75-mm artillery field piece. Later, some historians have given credit to these modifications along with General LeMay's B-29 fire-bombings of Japan as the Air Force's major turning-points in Japan's defeat.

As many as 4,000 American personnel worked and lived at Depot #2 at the base of Mount Louisa. Entertainment in the camp was held at Helton Hall, which was an open aired building named after Master Sergeant Helton who was killed in the B-25 crash at Rattlesnake Island. Some famous Hollywood stars appeared at Helton Hall including John Wayne, Joe E. Brown, Gary Cooper, Una Merkel and Phyllis Brook. The famous Woody Herman's orchestra also appeared at Helton Hall.

Rattlesnake Island has continued to be used by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as a live firing range for their various aircraft.

I was contacted by John Schuster the son of Major Jake (aka Julian) Schusteron on 13 October 2002. Other than the sanitized and inaccurate accounts provided to his mother by the U.S. Army Air Forces in the days following his death, there were a few letters from friends who had spoken with people who had been there and had on-the-spot information, albeit second-hand. John sent me a three-page letter (see below) from Louise Starck, whose husband, Major Starck was also killed in the crash, and a one-page letter from Billye Schaffer, a friend of John's mother. The letters contain similar information, with differing details. Mrs. Starck's letter indicates that Major Duncan was piloting the plane. 

John Schuster's cousin, George Freitas, of Santa Maria, California, had received a copy of the official inquiry made regarding the crash, and was forwarding it to John. It had been classified for a long time, but finally had been totally declassified, and was available. According to what George told John over the phone, the inquiry brought out that the men had been recovered a few days after the crash, and that John's father was burned in the crash.

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3 page letter from Louise Starck

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Letter from Billye Schaffer

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank John Schuster, David Hanzl and Mike Stowe for their assistance with this home page.

I would like to thank Carl C. Jordan of the 15th Air Depot Group for providing most of the above information.

I'd also like to thank Christopher C. Stout of Ridgewood, N.J. 07450, for his assistance with this home page. He is researching Major George T. Starck whose obituary said he died in a plane crash near Townsville on 23 Sep 1943.  Christopher has a copy of the accident report from the USAF on this crash.

 

Is the date of 23 Sep 43 correct?

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?

 

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This page first produced 21 July 2000

This page last updated 31 July 2023