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   Battle for Australia Association
    The Liberator Disaster 7 September 1943

Patron: His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d)
             Governor of New South Wales

1943 Early September - about the 2nd - or 3rd - or perhaps 4th; anyway, whatever the date, we - Jack, Jim, 'The Kid'; George, 'J.P.', Dick and I - after 19 often frustrating months, were at last getting ready to do what we enlisted for. We sat around on ammunition boxes and I can't remember what they were doing but I was priming grenades. Unscrew the baseplate, remove a priming set from its container, push the detonator into its recess and push the firing cap, connected by the 4 second fuse to the detonator, into its recess. Screw the baseplate back on, now it's ready to say goodbye to a Jap or two. Reach for another grenade .... and then another. That is, simply, my only prominent memory of the days before the disaster.

September 7th 0430. Full Battle order when you're sitting in a corner can be quite comfortable. My corner was where the tailgate joined the side of the truck, my back was cushioned by my haversack and my head by the rolled groundsheet and half• blanket belted on top. So I was sound asleep when the Liberator hit. Although I had no idea what I was reacting to, I was over the tailgate and on the ground while a 500lb bomb was rolling to a stop against the rear wheel.

To me, the scene was indescribably horrifying but my recollection of detail is scanty, dimmed, probably, by the desire to forget. The night sky turned to vividly blazing day while the air was rent with a cacophony of explosions, shouts and vociferous reactions to unbearable agony.

Full battle order with which burning men were equipped was much the same as mine - rifles already loaded with 10 rounds of .303, 2 or 3 bandoliers of SO rounds each slung over shoulders and across chests, two 2 inch mortar bombs, 2 Bren magazines loaded with 28 rounds each and at least 2 grenades each. Many of the old hands who knew how a grenade or two could get you out of trouble, carried up to 6. Men equipped with other weapons, Bren, Owen and 2 inch mortars were just as vulnerable. It isn't difficult to imagine the impossibility of shedding that load while you're being showered with blazing aviation fuel. Some men, untouched by the flames, managed to drop their equipment off to dash in and try to help, only to become casualties themselves. Others, still fully loaded, could have got out but were overcome attempting to give aid to mates.

Bill Crooks' Description

Bill Crooks was talking to Corporals Frank Smith and Billy Musgrave, two 18 Platoon section leaders. All three watched the bomber as its exhausts, spurting sparks and flame, came on. Somebody yelled: 'Christ, it's going to hit us.' Bill Crooks was aware of somebody running down the hill past him on his right screaming: 'Look out! Look out!' The bomber at that instant came crashing through the trees its engines roaring. The left hand wing sheared off and the fuselage smashed down like an arrow into the trucksjust forward of 18 Platoon's truck. A great explosion rocked the area and a vast yellow flash lit up the surrounds brighter than day. For a moment only the sounds of falling parts of aircraft and other debris and the crackle offlames could be heard, and then almost together there broke out the screams and moans of men. Jn a second, all about the scene of this frightful disaster could be seen running men. All around the little gullies and re-entrants petrol was aflame. The dreadful sound of agonising screams of despair seemed to drown out all else. Within minutes the flames had reached the ammunition carried in all the trucks and it began exploding. Men, charging about on fire would suddenly disappear as either the grenades or 2-inch mortar bombs they were carrying in their clothes exploded. Others were rolling themselves on the ground to put out the flames would suddenly jerk as their bandoliers exploded.

So much was happening to so many people within seconds after this calamity that it would be impossible to write of it in chronological order. This author was in a commandingposition on the tailgate of the last truck to see it all, and was much later to give evidence at the Army court of inquiry. At the scene of this inferno so many brave things were being done by a great number of men that it is impossible to record them all. At the time none knew the extent of the damage. It had happened in an instant. Certainly none of the survivors of the six trucks of D Company which caught the complete fuselage or parts of the bomber can recall the explosion of the first two 500-pound bombs that blew up in the crash. Some remember the third 500-pounder exploding some minutes after the crash. The blazing aircraft had hit five of D Company's trucks, four of which were completely reduced to a heap of molten metal. Flames, debris and flying metal caught the men in the back of the last truck of D Companyand the last truck of C Company, which contained mainly 15 Platoon and some men of H.Q. Company and was ahead of the first truck of D Company. A number of men were hit with petrol or metal in the second last truck of C Company, which contained 10 Platoon of B Company. Across the gully, the elbow bend in the track had put A Company back and parallel with C Company. A Company's last truck carried some men of H.Q. Company who were also injured with burning petrol or metal.

Merv Roberts' Recollection

Early morning 7 September 1943 - the roaring Liberator engines, the blinding flash, the tremendous explosions. None there that morning can ever forget the screams, the frightful vision of badly burnt men, deeds of bravery, all so graphically described on pages 269-273 of 'The Footsoldiers' - a total of 6 officers and 140 ORs or almost a quarter of battalion strength missing - D Coy almost annihilated with only a handful on their feet.

The roll call at Tsili Tsili - the very moving memorial service conducted on the 9th by Padres Skehan and Redding. Some going into action for the first time, never to demonstrate their proficiency and courage to their mates - others of proven dependability in earlier battles wrenched from our ranks.

A shattered but a determined, steadfast Commanding Officer leading his beloved unit for the first time - an undemonstrative man in unobtrusive, private sorrow, still adhering to Battalion movement orders.

We survivors never forget our lost comrades - we do remember them, but perhaps no more so much than on each 7 September.

Conclusion

Obviously this tragedy would not have occurred had trucks not been allowed to stand stationary in the direct take off path. The loss of 60 killed and another 80 unable to take part in the Battalion's first campaign for over 8 months was a very severe and unnecessary blow.

An avoidable loss is surely the greatest loss of all.

The decision to 'carry on regardless' after this dreadful disaster was unarguably proper. It is true that the psychological trauma was not confined to the survivors in the truck convoy, the battalion members who had not yet left the lines were devastated. The old maxim about getting back on the horse after he throws you probably describes the policy behind continuing our participation in the battle plan for the capture of Lae.

The post-traumatic effects were mostly postponed until later years.

LiberatorThe US Army Air Corps B-24 Liberator

Length: 21 m
Top speed: 467 km/h
Introduced: 1941
Retired: 1945
Manufacturer: Consolidated Aircraft, USA

Normally crewed by 10 men comprising a pilot/commander, bombardier, nose gunner, navigator, radio operator, two beam gunners, a ball turret gunner and a tail gunner there were 11 in the crew that crashed on us. All were killed

The B-24 could carry a bomb load of over 10,000 lbs (4,500 kg) but 'ours' carried only four 500 lb bombs (total 1,125 kg) probably because it needed 2,800 gallons of petrol for the return trip to its, presumably, Rabaul target. Three of the bombs exploded. As the bombs were fitted with a wind-driven vane on the nose that was designed to arm the bomb as it fell in the airstream, it is likely that intense heat exploded three and the fourth, thrown clear, did not explode.

Those who died

Mud and Blood, Journal of the 2/33 Bn Association, 7 September 2007

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