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Letter detailing the force landing of A-20G 42-86620
by Eliot Young to his wife, February 14, 1944

This is the first correspondence to his mother after his mishap, and was written while he is still in Karumba, Australia at the RAAF seaplane base located on the southeastern side of the gulf.  This letter is the “special one” in reference to the notation my Grandmother had written on her calendar.   This is the full account of his experience with the crash landing, and of their rescue by the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force).

Dad begins by mentioning that his health and spirits are fine.  He explains to his mother that he cannot relay all that’s happened recently in letters - much must wait until he can sit down with her personally over “many nights” when he returns home. 

In Dad’s words he was “missing for nine rather weary days…. I was lost in the wilds of Australia” (Queensland).  “Luckily I wasn’t alone, for I had my little gunner (Jim Wannich), the one I like so much, another pilot, and his gunner were my buddies”. 

Dad alludes to the experience as “something you read about in books, but never dream it could happen to you until it does”.  He describes the loss of the two ships while “flying on a trip… it wasn’t a combat mission, for as yet I haven’t gotten any missions in”. 

He attempts to explain the reasons for their problems, and that “bad weather was the cause of our trouble, and a bit of poor flying”. 

He describes running out of gas 60 miles from the Australian mainland, and “I landed my ship on its belly on the beach”.  Dad explains that they thought they had more of a chance to find a landing strip on one of the islands than the on the “deserted coast of Australia…. the part of Australia that we were lost in is nothing but jungle, desert, and barren wasteland for miles upon miles… so I put my ship down on this island not knowing what to expect”. 

He indicates the other pilot’s gas was almost gone too, so he came in right beside me.  Dad mentions no names in the letter, but he could have because the army censors never got their hands on this particular letter.  Joe Rutter, a fellow 389th Squadron member, commented to me, after he read it, “that we’d probably know a lot less about Babe’s (Eliot’s) Carpentaria experience if they had”.

Dad continues “Well you can imagine how we felt, miles from civilization”. 

They are down in the middle of nowhere without any real food.   In each A-20 they have tins of hard candy, and 6 vitamin tablets in each tin.  In addition, they have four thermos bottles of water and ten cans of water in the life rafts (there is a long shelf behind the pilot’s seat in the A-20, which is used for life raft storage).  Each A-20 was always equipped with a raft for water ditching purposes, and they only had one .45 pistol between the four of them for protection, “so we didn’t have much protection”. 

Dad indicates the island that they landed on was “a fairly large one”, but at the time he had no idea where in the hell they were. 

When I asked Dad where he landed he said “the Wellesley Islands”.  I now know there are three main islands that comprise this group: Mornington, the largest, Bentinck and Sweers.  Also part of the Mornington group is Bountiful Island, and according to Mike Claringbould, this is where Dad and Huber landed. 

Dad continues, “flying over it (the island where they landed) we had hurriedly looked for any signs of life but saw none - so things looked rather bleak”.  They landed fairly close to the water because they knew the sand would be harder, and make a better landing surface.  Apparently Lt. Huber, since he landed with his wheels down, was able to taxi his ship away from the water.  The pictures that we have seem to bear this out.  Dad’s ship is a long way away from Huber’s. 

He talks about immediately unloading all things of value, “because we didn’t want the tide to get to it”.  Apparently when the tide came in, Dad’s starboard side (lower) wing was over the water, and I really don’t know what he was referring to when he mentions “things of value”, other than the rafts with the water and tins of candy.  

The radios were apparently worthless, because no attempt was made to contact anyone for help.  Also, the pilots had orders to destroy the radios if they were ever forced down, but this I believe applied only in the combat zones, which of course Australia was not.

Dad continues, “Our first thought was obtaining water in case we were there for any length of time”.  They tried to boil salt water and to catch the steam.  This is an interesting concept, and he doesn’t elaborate on how they attempted to catch the steam, “but the tank we used had contained a terrible tasting fluid and we simply could not drink it, so water still remained our first problem”. 

Their next move was to try and dig for water not far from the beach, and Dad explains, “Our efforts were rewarded for, about five feet down, we hit water which was fairly fresh…and did we drink…cup after cup until we were all quite bloated”.

After the water problem was solved, “food was our next worry and that was partially taken care of by crabs we caught along the beach”.  Apparently this was their only source of sustenance other than the hard candy “and at times though they (the crabs) were hard to find and many days we went without food at all”. 

I kind of get the feeling that this where he developed his dislike for hard shell crabs, and this is unusual for a Maryland boy.  He did however like the crabmeat but only if it was out of the shell.  At some point I asked him about this, and he said simply  “I like the meat, I just never liked fooling with those shells”. 

Their first four days in the wild were basically spent trying to catch fish, “at which we were unsuccessful”.  He talks about exploring an inland river, “rowing for twelve straight hours, five of them in the dark”.  Since Dad does not elaborate on the reason for this, I don’t know why they expended all this energy. 

They apparently are hopeful of being rescued by air, because there are planes flying over in the general area, although too far in the distance to see them. 

Dad continues, “Well, mother, after being there for four and half days and seeing three airplanes but not being able to catch their eye, we figured we’d take our rafts and try for the mainland some sixty miles away and save ourselves”.

They begin their quest in the early morning hours the following day.  Dad explains, “So we set out across the ocean (which is actually the Gulf of Carpentaria which is almost as large as an ocean) for the mainland”.  They apparently lost the rafts for a brief period because of the tide, but “got them back just before we started on our journey”. 

Dad mentions several bad thunderstorms that caused them to “ride with the weather”.  Apparently the weather was a big problem during their journey, and they got caught several times in rough seas, up to ten-foot swells. 

They found it was better to row at night when the Gulf was much calmer.  “The sea got so rough here that we had to land on a small island where lived the mammoth turtles that possibly you’ve seen”.  There is a small island next to Bountiful Island (see map).  He talks of killing and eating the “turtle steaks as they came up on the beach to lay their eggs at night”.  This sentence is a little irregular, but that’s how Dad had written it. 

Up until this point they have eaten little food - in fact only the crabs mentioned earlier.  He explains, “We had been about 7 days with only a few crabs to eat, so as a result we couldn’t eat but a very small bit of meat each”. 

I’m almost sure Dad told me he didn’t eat that turtle… but apparently it was the raw fish story later, and I got the story wrong. 

He goes on to explain how they killed the turtle, “by throwing our hatchets at his head and eventually hitting the brain”. 

Apparently the turtle weighed close to two hundred and fifty pounds, “for two of us could barely turn him on his back after we had smashed him”.

Dad said the gunner in Huber’s plane (Thomas Smith, who is not on the current 312th roster – and for that matter neither is Huber or Wannich) “was an old farm boy who knew about butchering”.  Here he talks about the turtle not tasting so bad “and it sorta killed that empty feeling that comes after lack of food”.  He talks about cutting the turtle up by flashlight as “these huge monsters kept coming up onto the beach all around us to lay their eggs, and although we were close by none of them bothered us”. 

They did have a little trouble with the sea snakes that would come up on the beach to eat the turtle eggs and he doesn’t elaborate about the trouble, “but we killed one right behind our camp with an oar”. 

Dad continues, “Towards the end of our trip the ability to light a fire became a problem”.  Their matches got wet during their journey, “and once after catching a few small fish we found that we couldn’t get a fire started so we couldn’t eat.  Two of the fellows ate some raw fish, which I at that stage couldn’t see, so I went without”.  This might be what he meant when he said he couldn’t eat the raw fish, rather than the turtle.

Dad continues, “After one day on this last island we thought we had been rescued when three flying boats (PBY Catalinas - most army aviators referred to them as lovingly as “Dumbos”) passed right over us.  Dad was very dejected when apparently the airplanes failed to see them “as we signaled our very hearts out”. 

The airplanes gave them no recognition sign whatsoever and Dad writes, “I can’t begin to express the utter despair that came over me, and for a couple of hours I just said about three words and I didn’t feel like doing anything except sitting down and staring at the water”. 

They set out again for the mainland about 9AM the next day “which we calculated to be closer than it really was”.  They are in the water about five hours when the flying boats re-appear, “returning in the opposite direction from whence they came the morning before”.  All four of them “waved and waved, and I’ll tell you truthfully we all prayed a silent prayer that they’d see us, but none did, so on we rowed”. 

About ten minutes later Jim Wannich (again, he does not mention names, but indicates his gunner) over his shoulder spotted another flying boat “right down on the water about five miles away headed in our direction”.  Dad felt if this guy doesn’t see us “that we never would be seen or picked up”.  Again they were all waving madly, “and finally about one half mile away he wiggled his wings and flew out and around us in a large circle, waving as wildly at us as we were at him”.   Dad continues, “All I could do is wave, shout and blow kisses at him, I was so happy”.  The plane disappeared from view and “we imagined he had gone for another plane to help load us in”. 

The pilot (Flight-Lt. Bert Delahunty, 43rd  Squadron; my source on this is again, Mike Claringbould) had actually gone to look for calmer water in which to land, and about a half hour later they spotted the same plane taxiing toward them in the rough Gulf to finally pick them up.  These guys were members of the RAAF and had just returned from a mission against the Japs the night before.  “Altogether these chaps had been flying for eighteen hours and they were dead tired from flying”.

He is sending “a couple of snaps” that were taken during the rescue which he will send home.  The rescue pictures he sent home have maintained good quality; unfortunately the ones we have of the crash site have not.  He should have sent the whole bunch home to his mother.

They are now safe at the RAAF flying boat base at Karumba, and “finer treatment we have never received”.  His opinion has now dramatically changed since he first arrived in Australia.  “They have been just wonderful to us, no sir I’ll never forget the way we’ve been treated as long as I live, I’m a firm friend of Australia for life”.

He also learns from the Aussies that 12 miles from where they landed was another island “on which dwelt hostile natives.  These natives have repeatedly caused the Australian soldiers much trouble, and their intelligence has warned all aircraft and boats that if they ever get lost in that sector to stay strictly away from this island”.  According to Mike Claringbould the island where the aborigines “were causing trouble” was Sweers.

Dad continues, “Many is the white man who has been cruelly tortured and slain by this bunch….yes sir, a missionary that I talked to said that if we had been unlucky enough to have strayed in that direction upon leaving our island (where he landed) that we wouldn’t have had a chance in the world against them, so I am now thanking my lucky stars that one of the many storms we encountered didn’t drive us in their direction, or we’d just be memories now”. 

My Dad is trying to get transportation back to the 312th but it is slow in coming.  He indicates that he should leave tomorrow but doesn’t specify the particulars.  It is now the 14th of February and he has been missing since the 19th of January.  He indicates the mail was slow because there is no army mail service (APOs) at the Aussie air base.  He is worried that his mother has been notified that he was missing, and is worried about the despair and anxiety she has been through.  He hopes this particular letter will assuage all fears and apprehensions. 

He is also concerned about the A-20 he has lost.  Mainly what the army will attempt to do to him discipline wise.  An A-20 cost $67,000.00 in 1943 and he was worried they would try and make him pay for it.   Regarding the loss of the plane, “Some people say it will only consist of a written report, and others say a personal interview with several colonels and such.  I really don’t care because I’m alive and none the worse for my trip except being far wiser”.  When Dad and I discussed this he indicated he really was concerned about his possible punishment “for being so stupid”.

Dad continues that he is at an unspecified Australian seaplane base (Karumba, about one hours flying time from where they landed) and is arranging transportation out with the Aussies rather than waiting for the US Army or Navy (which apparently would have taken a lot more time).

This letter to his mother was actually mailed in the US by members of two Australian flying crews who were with Dad at this base and were scheduled to visit the US in the next couple of weeks to pick up a plane.  Dad figured the letter would reach his mom sooner if these guys had hand-carried it to the USA, rather than wait until he returns to his unit (the 312th).

Lastly, he briefly mentions about the disparity in pay between the Aussie and US flyers, which apparently was discussed briefly amongst the flyers.  The British had an interesting, yet rather derogatory saying about the Americans in the 8th Air Force stationed in England during the war.  It is however, a classic: “They’re over paid, over sexed and over here"

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