COLLISION OF TWO P-400 AIRACOBRAS
NEAR REDCLIFFE, QLD
ON 2 JULY 1942
OR WAS IT 5 JULY 1942?

 

On the 2nd July (1942) Lt. George L. Austin, Jr. (0-392733) was killed instantly when his plane collided with another '80 Squadron' plane while flying in formation over Redcliffe, a town several miles from Petrie.  Lt. Austin attempted to reach the sea but the plane went into a dive and he did not have enough altitude to bail out"

Lt. Colonel Sponenberg, who survived the war, gave his version of events which are generally as follows:-

Lt. Austin was the flight leader, and Sponenberg was his wing-man.  They were returning from gunnery practice, flying at about 1,000 feet.  Austin gave the signal to close up.  He moved to the spot he was used to fly, a little below but close in. They flew in this manner for a couple of minutes and then Austin slumped over the stick and the plane turned into Sponenberg and began diving.  "I closed the throttle tried to turn and dive with him. Seeing that we would soon be in a vertical dive, with little altitude I tried to break off, but I wasn't clear of him and we collided."

Sponenberg's plane had the blades of the propeller bent and the plane refused to respond to added power. He released the door to bail out and found he was directly above Redcliffe. He headed out to sea and jumped when he crossed the shore line. He jumped and because of the low altitude he submerged and tangled in the shrouds. He cut his way out and as he surfaced some fishermen arrived. He was rescued by Thomas Larkin and his two sons, Thomas  (17 yrs old) and Edward (12 years old) who were fishing in the bay at the time of the accident.

Austin crashed into the town. Flight Surgeon Capt. Patrick had been informed Sponenberg that he was asphyxiated and no doubt unconscious when he hit the ground, and was probably unconscious at the time of the collision.

Sponenberg had been a witness to an earlier crash of another 80th Fighter Squadron aircraft at Petrie on 26 May 1942.

Mrs. E. Scarborough of Redcliffe said that her husband's grandfather, Charles Rossiter, was working in his market garden between Josephine and Sylvester Streets, Redcliffe when he became aware of the plane piloted by Austin, crashing towards him.  It crashed into the ground about 100 feet from where he was chipping weeds. The event deeply shocked him as he was an elderly man even at that time. There were flames where the plane had crashed and it gouged a deep hole into the ground and bullets were going off from the vicinity of the plane. First the Police arrived, and the US Air Force personnel arrived promptly and the area was cordoned off.  The Americans quickly cleared up the scene of the crash.

Mrs. Jean Houghton of Redcliffe, just off Sutton Street, stated she was on her back door landing when she heard a noise and saw the two planes crash into one another. One flew to the direction of the beach and the other slightly northward. She went to the location where the plane crashed into the sea and found that the pilot had been dragged out of the water by fishermen and they wanted to take him to a house owned by people named Rodgers (?). American Service personnel had arrived on the scene shortly afterwards, she cannot say how long, but although the local people thought the Pilot needed rest and attention, the officer in charge of the American group was adamant that he be taken back to the Airfield as soon as possible and back into a plane (The idea was to retain his services as a pilot before shock or some other consideration, cause him to lose his nerve and render him ineffective as a pilot.)

The following account of this collision was supplied to me by Victor Miscampbell. It represents the collective memories of Victor and his older brother Don.

 

COLLISION OF TWO P-39 AIRACOBRAS AT REDCLIFFE 1942

My brother Don,14 years old, and myself, 9 years old in 1942, grew up at Redcliffe. Before, during and after World War 11 and because of the influx of US servicemen on the peninsular, we took extreme interest in their activities. The Yanks had taken over all the hotels for their Officers and every Friday night we went to the Scarborough Hotel which accommodated Air Force (or Army Air Force) Officers to look at movies and their collection of beautiful black aircraft ID models. Some of these models got into our possession and I only wish I still had some as they were of equal to the plastic scale models of today. I have no idea what they were made of, but did have an unusual odour.

Naturally we were all mad about aircraft and collected anything we could find about them. Ammunition was always a favourite and we had quite a collection of belts of .303" and .5" and even the cannon shell and bullet (less explosive) from the nose cannon of the P-39. Most of this was collected from the Air Force firing range which was on a mud flat situated between where the Redcliffe Aerodrome now is and Newport Waters to the west of Redcliffe. The Yanks had put a couple of 44 gal. drums in the centre and we would dig around for the bullets and collect the shells and clips. Once Don and his mate Billy Marsh got caught out there when the P-39’s came over and although they would have been seen, firing continued. Probably just to scare them away.

Each weekend, the older boys and sometimes me, would ride our bikes to Petrie and visit the Australian P-39 field at Lawnton. This grass field lying east/west on the bank of the North Pine River is still vacant land and the outline, now crossed by fences can still be seen. There were no buildings except a dilapidated wooden farm house which was the Squadron Headquarters. The runway was only short and the pilots preferred taking off to the west as the ground fell away to the river flats at that end. I only saw Australian Airacobras there, a Tiger Moth and occassionally a Kittyhawk. The RAAF would let you roam all over the place but when the Yanks took over, we were not so welcome. They always carried revolvers and treated us like foreigners until, after a while they became very friendly. The P-39’s were the first aircraft we had ever seen with nose wheels and we would climb on the rear fuselage and jump up and down to get the nose wheel off the ground. This airstrip always appeared to be the main operational one and it was not for a year or so that the south/north runway at Strathpine was opened. This later became the Strathpine Motor Racing circuit. I never knew of the runaway behind Bald Hills but Don did and thinks it may have been an emergency strip only. Boomerangs, Spitfires and Kittyhawks were the only fighters I ever saw at Strathpine.

As to the collision of the P-39' over Redcliffe, I cannot recall the date but it occurred about 11 oclock in the morning. I was at Scarborough State School and Don was at home "sick" in Shields St., Redcliffe at the time. As usual we could hear the aircraft at the firing range which was about 3 to 4 miles west of the school. This was almost a daily occurrence and every now and then we could see the aircraft on their run-in. We heard the sound of the collision and as we were on war alert at this time, our teacher, Miss Walker (a character to say the least) told us all to get under the desks. Of course we all rushed to the windows which in this room faced south. Seconds later I saw one P-39 flash pass about 200 yards out. 100 yards high and at a descending angle of about 30 degrees. The plane was rolling and a large hole was in the front port side where the engine would be on a conventional aircraft, about 3 ft, from the spinner where I knew the canon magazine and .5 ‘s were. Shells were falling out. The door (Airacobra’s had a door like a car instead of a sliding canopy, which could be jettisoned with explosive charge in emergency) was off and the pilot had been thrown to the top of the canopy by the forces. He was moving so may have been conscious. Seconds later the aircraft crossed Oxley Av. and crashed about 300 yards away in Rossiter's farm, missing all houses nearby.

The explosion, ball of fire and smoke we all over within minutes. I still remember how fast the fire burnt out. The doomed aircraft would have been travelling in an East/South East direction. At the same time we heard a loud clatter in the roof of the adjoining classroom and we later found out that the canopy door from one of the Airacobras, on being released, had fallen on the school roof and lodged in the ceiling. I have no idea which aircraft it came from. It could have been thrown from the rolling aircraft just before I saw it, but more likely from the aircraft which crashed into the sea. Both Australian and US servicemen were quickly on the scene and we were not let out off the room until late in the afternoon after the grounds had been searched and cleared of any debris and ammunition. All afternoon another US Airacobra came screeming over the crash site at house top height, from south to north. Why? no idea.

Don heard the collision from our home and he would have been about the same distance away but exactly on the other side. He rushed outside and saw the final seconds of the fatal plane, coming from a north west direction. Just before impact he believes he saw the pilot leave but whatever it may have been, it followed the same path as the aircraft. He did not go to the crash site that day but my grandfather, Joe Russell who lived closer still to the site, did and said the pilot’s remains were entangled in an overhead irrigation system on Rossiter's property. So he may have exited but much too late. I saw the crater the next day and souvenired some aluminium which I subsequently cut up. Charlie Rossiter late dug up the propeller and had it in his possession some time later. Maybe his sons, Eric or Charlie may know of its whereabouts.

Don saw the other aircraft diving to the north of the school in an easterly direction, climb a little and then go over the beach where the pilot parachuted out. He was very low and the chute was not fully opened when he lost sight of it behind houses and trees. The fisherman would pulled the pilot from the sea was Larry O’Keefe who owned the Jetty Newsagency at Redcliffe for many years. Later in the afternoon Larry found the nose wheel assembly floating near the Redcliffe pier. Where is it now?

This wreck was never recovered from the bay and over the years I saw pieces of it on the bottom. It lies about 300 to 500 yards directly out from Sylvester St. entry to the beach. The water would be less than 20 ft. deep. Prawners are operating further out and I have heard no reports of them snagging anything, so it must still be there, closer in than where they net.

It was so fascinating to finally get names to the pilots concerned in this crash and end a chapter in such a way.

 

E-mails from Victor Miscampbell

 

The Ipswich US Military Cemetery records show that 1st Lt. George L. Austin (0-392733) died on 5 July 1942 and was buried at the Ipswich US Military Cemetery on 6 July 1942.

 


 

NOTE:- The book "Attack & Conquer - The 8th Fighter Group in World War II" gives a totally different version of the death of 1st Lt. George L. Austin as follows, which appears to be based on vague memories and which I believe are totally incorrect:-

On 2 July 1942, a P-39 Airacobra of the 35th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group, USAAF crashed on landing at Woodstock airfield about 41 kms west of Townsville. Captain Greene pulled the badly injured pilot, 1st Lieutenant George L. Austin from the wrecked P-39. 1st Lt. Austin died later in hospital.

Austin had originally been assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron but Captain Greene believes he was with the 35th Fighter Squadron at the time of this incident. Captain Green's recollections were that the incident occurred at Milne Bay in New Guinea but official records put the date for the accident as 2 July 194. Note that this was when the unit was based at Woodstock airfield prior to going to New Guinea. Austin was not buried at the US Cemetery in Townsville.

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?

 

There were two more fatal Airacobra accidents over Redcliffe on 15 July 1942 as follows:-

 

Crash of a P-400 Airacobra
into sea at Redcliffe on 15 July 1942

 

Crash of a P-400 Airacobra
into sea at Redcliffe on 15 July 1942

 

REFERENCES

Attack & Conquer - The 8th Fighter Group in World War II
by John C. Stanaway & Lawrence J. Hickey

My Time - Moreton Haunts by Liam Baker
Page 44 of My Town Magazine - Lifestyle & Business in the Moreton Bay Region

 

Can anyone help me with more information on this crash?

 

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This page first produced 24 September 2000

This page last updated 10 September 2018