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Agony of the Flying Dutchman
Excerpt from Forty of the Fifth by Michael Claringbould via
C-47A Dakota 41-18564
33rd Troop Carrier Squadron, 374th Troop Carrier Group
Crashed into Mt Obree 10th November 1942

Residing in the storage area of the PNG cultural Museum is a section of noseart, still fresh with the original paintwork. The easily readable letters are UTCHMAN, and the artwork is from the C-47 Flying Dutchman. Click here to see a color photo of the noseart

Of all the accounts of tragedy in the annals of the Fifth Air Force, that of C-47 Flying Dutchman counts among the more remarkable. Through promise of reward it was New Guinea natives who finally found the relatively intact wreckage of the elusive American transport high on a mountainside. It was a pathetic site. Among scattered and decaying bodies there was still one man alive, although barely. He was blind from malnutrition and so light that he “felt like a baby" when the natives moved Captain Barron, an Army Chaplain, from his squatting position. A bare semi-circle outside the aircraft's bent cargo door indicated he had been tearing up mountain moss for sustenance and moisture. The natives cooked banana and tried to feed the padre but after more than sixty days of ruthless exposure he died in their arms. They left his body beside the others but retrieved a Holy Bible, into which he had scribbled his last days. The Bible served as proof of their discovery, and shook heads of disbelief when it found its way back into American hands. The tragedy of Flying Dutchman breaks into separate accounts of seven injured Americans stranded at nine thousand feet in the wreckage of their transport, two parties of four which set out for help, and finally a saga of several Australians who tried to locate the wreckage and rescue those left behind.

The fateful flight started from Wards Strip outside Port Moresby at 1300 hours on 10th November 1942, with its destination as Pongani, on New Guinea’s northern coast on the other side of the Owen Stanley Ranges, to feed troops into the Gona/Buna fight. Flying Dutchman had been one of the original thirteen 33rd Troop Carrier Squadron transports which departed Hamilton Field, California, for the SWPA in October 1942. Its assigned crew were 2/Lt George W. Vandervort (pilot), S/Sgt John J, Gerrity (co-pilot), Cpl Kirshner (radio operator) and T/Sgt Steven J. Pitch (crew-chief). That morning Gerrity had come down with fever and dysentery however, so Vandervort prepared to fly the day without a co-pilot. Most of the 33rd Squadron was flying to and from Pongani that week. Vandervort had named the transport to highlight his Dutch ancestry. The reduced crew of three commanded by Vandervort would today be flying an Army Chaplain and his assistant, and eighteen other US soldiers intending to join the Allied attack advance on Buna.

S/Sgt Edward Holleman, who would later walk to safety, would recount:

"We had been flying for almost half an hour when suddenly the plane was caught in a downdraft and fell. Someone who was looking out of a window said “boy, that was close”! We clipped the tops of some trees. The next moment we crashed. I remember spinning out of my seat, a fire was burning fiercely and ammunition was exploding all over the place. Seventeen of us got clear through the door, walked and slid down a steep slope to a more level spot. It was raining and all immediately began to shiver from the cold. Several hours later when the flames died down, we were able to return to the plane. It was lying on the Mountainside but was being held fairly level by the stumps of the trees cut down as it crashed. The front was destroyed back to the wings and only a third of the rear was still intact. The next morning we found all the supplies had perished in the fire but in the back compartment were three rifles, six K rations, 1 and a 1/2 gallons of tomato juice, a first-aid kit, two balloons, a box kite and some flares. At night if a plane was heard, I would climb up on top of the fuselage and strike a flare. It seemed to light up the sky so much that we felt they couldn't help but see it, but so far as I know no-one ever did. During the day we kept the entire fuselage, which was a camouflage colour, covered with maps found in the aircraft. It was hoped in this way we would be spotted easier. The first attempt to launch a balloon above the tree tops was unsuccessful. However a second one was a little luckier. It started rising in the sky drawing with it the aerial which could be used as an anchor. It had just cleared the tree tops when a plane exactly like ours appeared out of the mists as if by magic, flew directly over us only to be swallowed up a moment later in the low clouds. Our last hope of attracting attention had disappeared when the balloon sank back into the jungle. While searching around the wreckage one day we ventured further in front of it than usual when suddenly we came upon the body of the engineer Sgt Steven J. Pitch, who had been catapulted there in the accident. Beside him was the instrument panel with an unbroken compass."

The survivors then buried Pitch and unscrewed the compass from the panel. Holleman would later credit this compass with saving his life and three others’ when they eventually trekked to safety. Two separate parties of four decided to set out for assistance. Eight injured would remain behind (one had since died), with the fittest of the injured, Private Patton, tending them and carrying water. Back at Wards word quickly spread that Flying Dutchman had gone down. The transports searched on every trip over the ranges but saw nothing. The first party of survivors departed two days after the crash and headed for the base of the mountain, generally in an Easterly direction. On the fifth day of their journey they came to a narrow gorge of the Moni River scattered with boulders. The sides of this ravine were too steep to traverse, so each man secured a log and attempted to ride the fast-flowing rapids. According to Privates Thomas and Butler, the other two quickly disappeared out of sight downstream and presumably drowned where a waterfall dropped approximately eight feet. Thomas and Butler searched for them along the riverbank for two days without success, then proceeded towards Safia, being guided from village to village by natives. They ate rations from an emergency foodstore near the small airfield at Safia, before being escorted to Abau on the south coast. This party of men had taken thirty-two days to get to the coast after the crash, where they were interviewed by ANGAU (Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit) officer, Warrant-Officer David Marsh.

Thomas and Butler were then flown to Port Moresby by light aircraft where they were both hospitalized on 14th December 1942 for burns and exposure. Incredibly and unbeknown to them, badly-injured survivors back at the Flying Dutchman lingered on. The second party had meanwhile departed the wreck site on 16th November 1942. This group consisted of Sergeants Kershner and Holleman, as well as Privates August and Mobley. For the first ten days they scarcely saw the sun, except on the second day out when they traversed a silent, eerie field covered with moss. Direction was maintained by Holleman with the retrieved aircraft compass. They remembered the plane's approximate heading and applied the track as best they could, being south-westerly. On the tenth day the four struck a defined trail where they met up with friendly villagers. Eventually, after a month in the jungle, they arrived at Kokobagu Plantation near Rigo. Here they were met by Australians, Warrant Officer Ed Hicks and Medical Orderly Ron Davies. The survivors were fed, showered, given fresh clothes and had their injuries treated. [1]

Meanwhile an attempt to locate the wreck, and hopefully any survivors, quickly got underway with David Marsh, Lt Ethell (ANGAU) and an American, Private Scheer, who was flown into Safia from Port Moresby. By Christmas day 1943 this rescue team was well upstream, sleeping in shallow caves where possible, and rationed to half a tin of meat and four ounces of rice daily. Ethell had brought with him a radio and antenna which could be carried aloft with an inflatable balloon. The equipment was tested once, but unsuccessfully (had it functioned, air supply drops would have made life more comfortable). On 28th December 1942 Marsh celebrated his 21st birthday. By the next day the rescue party's movements were noticeably drained by the high altitude. Where steep gullies could not be traversed because of strong streams, a stout stick attached in the center by rope, was thrown across until it caught between boulders. Then it was a case of individually crossing each stream, hand over hand.

On the afternoon of 31st December 1942 they stumbled across a tell-tale discovery. There, perched on top of a boulder was a pair of US Army leggings. On New Years day 1943 the rescue party turned left and headed south-west towards the crest of Mt Obree which peaks at 10,200 feet. They assessed that from the top they would have an overall view, but also (mistakenly) thought that the wreck lay in that same direction (on the way they had encountered the same eerie moss forest which the Holleman party struck). None had brought coats or wet-weather gear, and each carried only half a blanket to ward off the evening’s chill. Evening meals consisted of hard biscuits, ground and mixed with milk powder. Not surprisingly, everybody including the native carriers, began to suffer intensely. Ice was found in the water bucket next morning, and within a few hours of bitter disappointment, they made the decision to withdraw before they too became casualties. At this stage the would-be rescuers were not to know that if they had turned right at the "leggings" discovery they undoubtedly would have found the elusive Flying Dutchman. After their return to the coast, ANGAU proclaimed a reward for the discovery of the wreck. It was shortly thereafter that the natives discovered Barron as described at the beginning of this passage, tried to revive him, then had to abandon him at the site. ANGAU officers remained keen to retrieve the remains however. Two months later the Flying Dutchman was sighted from the air on a small ridge near the headwaters of the Awara River, and another ANGAU team led by Warrant Officer White made the wreck. All human remains and personal effects were recovered and returned to the United States the same year.

Left behind however was an artifact which would bear testament to the pathetic chronology of those left behind. Ironically, it would take another aircraft loss for this artifact to be recovered. On 8th March 1961 Australian civilian pilot Geoff Wallace departed Popondetta in Piaggio registration VH-PAU, a twin-engine passenger aircraft. It belonged to the recently-established airline PATAIR, a young company on the rise to success. Wallace was returning to Port Moresby on a routine flight and at 1010 hours that morning he reported to flight service at Port Moresby on HF frequency that he was at 13,500 feet over the Kokoda Gap. This was his last transmission, and despite one of the biggest peace-time aerial searches in that country, the Piaggio has never been found. However during the search Flying Dutchman was relocated, as indeed were other Fifth Air Force wrecks. It was unclear from records held by the Papua New Guinea administration whether the transport had been discovered before, so Cadet Patrol Officer J. Absolom directed a patrol into the site. The Flying Dutchman was located only with considerable difficulty, the last three days requiring a path to be cut. During the visit the legible diary written in charcoal on the aircraft's rear cargo door was noticed.

The diary door was subsequently retrieved on a second trip there by Absolom, and brought back to Port Moresby where it was exhibited at the PNG Cultural Museum. The writing on the door, which now resides in the USAF Museum, is here tabled in its entirety:

Crashed 1.30 pm Tues. 10 Nov 1942

Tue 10 – 17 men alive

Wed 11 – 16 men alive

Thur 12 – 4 men started for help

Sat 14 – tried to put up balloon

Sun 15 – cracker and cheese

Mon 16 – 4 men started for help due south – leaves 8 men left

Tue 17 –small piece of cheese

Wed 18 –chocolate bar

Thur 19 –found one chocolate bar

Fri 20 –1/3 can tomato juice

Sat 21 – 1/3 can tomato juice

Sun 22 – drank last 1/3 can of tomato juice

Mon 23 – last cigarette – even butts

Tue 24 – first day – no rain

Wed 25 – 2nd day – no rain

Thanksgiving Thur 26 – rain today also clear in morning

Fri 27 – buckets full water this morn still got our chin up

Sat 28 – clearest day we have had

Sun 29 – nice clear day. Boy we’re getting weak still have our hope

Mon 30 – still going strong on imaginary meals

December Tue 1 – My My ! Summer is here – went to Spring today

Wed 2 – just slid by but Boy it rained

Thur 3 – kinda cold and cloudy today – still plenty hungry. Boy a cig would do good.

Fri 4 – Boy nothing happened just waiting

Sun 6 – Had service today. Still lots of hope.

Mon 7 – year ago today the war started. Boy, we didn’t think of this then

Wed 9 – Cloudy. God is looking out for our water supply

Thur 10 – Just thirty days ago. We can take it but it would be nice of someone came

Fri 11 – Cold rainy day today. We would like to start out before Christmas

Sat 12 – Fairly nice day – still plenty of water

Sun 13 – beautiful morning everyone has high hopes

Mon 14 – Waiting

Tue 15 – waiting

Wed 16 – new water place today

Thu 17 – running out of imaginary meals. Boys shouldn’t be long in coming now, 6 more shoping [sic] days

Fri 18 – Nice and warm this morning. Rained this afternoon.

Sat 19 – pretty cold last night. Cold this morning too. Water pretty low, five moe [sic] days to Xmas.

Mon 21 – Plenty of water

Tue 22 – Rained all three days

Wed 23 – thinking about home and Christmas. Still hoping.

Thur 24 – Tonite is Christmas eve. God make them happy at home.

Fri 25 – Christmas Day

Mon 28 – rain every day

Wed 30 – Johnnie died today

Fri 1 – new year’s eve

Pat, Mart, Ted

[1] Through intriguing coincidence Hicks and Holleman had been on patrol together the month previous, in the same area seeking a route over the mountains. A scribbled note sent forward with natives by Sgt Holleman was received by Ed Hicks at Rigo. He had recognized Holleman’s name and quickly moved up the mountains to Kokobagu to greet the party.

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