Texas Terror’s last flight

Today is the 80th anniversary of the USAAF B-24 Liberator, #41-23825, commonly known as Texas Terror, of the 400th Bomb Squadron of the 90th Bombardment Group, crashing into the southern side of Mount Straloch on Hinchinbrook Island shortly after its departure from Garbutt Field in Townsville. The accident was to be blamed on a violent storm and navigational errors.

An air-to-air left side view of four B-24 Liberator aircraft in formation. The B-24 was built for World War II combat.

On 18th December 1942 the factory-new Texas Terror B-24 Liberator was being flown from Amberley to Iron Range in north Queensland by 1st Lieutenant James Gumaer for delivery to the 90th Bombardment Group. A total of 12 persons were killed in this tragic crash. 1st Lt. Gumaer and his 4 crewmen had picked up at least 7 passengers at Garbutt airfield in Townsville on their way to Iron Range.

This was the fourth B-24 (and crew) that the 90th Bombardment Group had lost in almost as many days.

18th December 1942 was to be the last day of their war for the crew of the Texas Terror, a B-24 Liberator belonging to the United States Army Corps 90th Bombardment Group. The day dawned hot and overcast. The tropical low that had halted air operations all along the coast for nearly a week was beginning to lift. Although flying conditions in some places and at some times would be marginal at best, the war would not wait.

From soon after first light, Garbutt Air Base, Townsville began to accept and despatch aircraft that had spent a week weather bound along the coast, from Brisbane, 800 miles to the south of Townsville, to Iron Range, 500 miles further north.

Conceived in the panic days between the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway when it appeared that the advancing Japanese would overrun New Guinea, the airstrip at Iron Range was a dusty red scar gouged in the rain forest on the eastern coast of Cape York, a temporary pierced-steel-planking strip from which the 90th Bombardment Group entered the war in mid-November 1942. For the 90th, Iron Range was a harsh initiation to the rigors of a tropical campaign.

Most of the 90th’s aircraft had been grounded by the weather between 14 and 18 December, 1942. On the 15th December, 1942 a B-24 left Iron Range for Garbutt to collect a load of bomb fuses and flares. One of the crew, Staff Sergeant F.A. Matthews noted laconically in his diary:

Ran into bad weather on the way down. Mighty rough. We were grounded here until 18 December”.

About 10.30am on the morning of 18 December 1942, Matthews flew out of Garbutt to return to Iron Range. He makes no mention of the weather in his account of the return flight; presumably it was clear on their track and at their time of flight along the Queensland coast between Garbutt and Iron Range. An hour after they arrived they were away on a mission over New Guinea during which the weather claimed a 400 Squadron aircraft. Several others on the strike were forced back by a ferocious snowstorm over the Owen Stanley Ranges.

Some northbound aircraft that day passed Garbutt without landing. Captain Everett Woods and his crew had spent a month hanging about in Brisbane waiting for an aircraft. On 18th December 1942, they finally boarded their brand new B-24 and took off from Amberley outside Brisbane for Iron Range. It was very nearly their last flight. As Captain Woods reported:

… passing Townsville, we encountered bad weather, so I dropped down to sea level in an attempt to fly along the coast, but the visibility was zero, and there were so many mountains to the left of us, I proceeded to head out to sea. At 3000 feet I levelled off, not wishing to get too far from shore, and took up my old heading. Twenty minutes passed (blind) when my navigator screamed into the interphone that we had just missed a mountain on our right. This meant that for 20 minutes I had been flying over land that was covered with 4000-foot hills, while I was at 3000 feet. I immediately hit the throttles, increased the RPM and climbed out of danger, expecting at each moment to crash into an unseen mountain”.

1st Lieutenant James Gumaer also took off from Amberley on the morning of 18th December 1942, ferrying another new B-24 to Iron Range. Gumaer was the operations officer of 400 Squadron. After bringing a B-24 across the Pacific in early November 1942, he had taken part in several operations out of Iron Range. His crew on that December 1942 morning were Second Lieutenant Dewey Hooper (co-pilot), Second Lieutenant David Lowe (navigator), Technical Sergeant Waldo Kellner (engineer) and Staff Sergeant Walter Haydt (radio operator).

The aircraft that Gumaer was delivering was B-24 41-23825, built by Consolidated at its San Diego plant, the first of a run of 25 B-24 D-7’s. The Army Air Corps had taken delivery of her on 20th August 1942, at a cost to the US taxpayer of $287,276. On 3 November 1942, Gumaer and his B-24 left Hickham Field for the long flight across the Pacific Ocean. While the B-24 was at Amberley she had been modified by strengthening the nose strut. In the fashion of the day she bore a nickname, Texas Terror.

During the flight north along the east coast of Australia, Gumaer was diverted into Garbutt. The purpose of the diversion can only be guessed but while the crew were on the ground they collected a group of passengers for Iron Range, transients drawn from various arms and services scattered along the route to New Guinea.

The most senior of the passengers was Colonel Carroll Riggs, a West Pointer commanding the 197th Coastal Artillery. He had held the appointment since 26 June 1942 when the regiment had been deployed to protect Perth from Japanese aircraft. The regiment was now fulfilling the same function in Townsville but two batteries had been deployed to Iron Range. Colonel Riggs was paying his first visit to these detachments.

Accompanying Colonel Riggs was Lieutenant Raymond Dakin, also of the 197th, carrying money for the gunners who had not been paid since August 1942.

Captains Peter Kiple and Carl Silber were both members of the 8th Fighter Group stationed at New Guinea.

Lieutenant John Cooper was on attachment to the 19th Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bombardment Group.

The last member of the services to board the aircraft was Technician 4th Grade Michael Goldstrop of the 1156th Quarter Master Company.

One civilian completed the passenger list. He was Robert Trevithick, a representative of the Pratt & Whitney Division of the United Aircraft Corporation whose motors powered the B-24.

At a quarter past eight on the morning of 18th December 1942 the Texas Terror lifted off from Garbutt, disappeared into the overcast sky and passed from the knowledge of all people.

Searches were started immediately but no trace of the big bomber was found. Two clues came from civilian sources. About nine o’clock that morning while Ingham, 70 miles to the north of Townsville, was being lashed by a heavy storm, the residents heard an aircraft circling overhead. At roughly the same time the inhabitants of the small coastal settlements near Ingham reported having seen a flash high on the face of Mount Stralock on Hinchinbrook Island, just off the coast.

For several nights from then on there were reports of a flashing light on the shoulder of Mount Stralock. Workers in a nearby sugar mill claimed that in certain conditions they could see reflections from metal on Mount Stralock. The American and Australian authorities discounted these sightings. They considered the missing Texas Terror aircraft would have been much further north by 9am on the day she went missing.

The search was abandoned a month later. Hinchinbrook Island is extremely rugged, covered with dense tropical rainforest and uninhabited. The discovery of the missing aircraft might, except for the remotest of chances, have been delayed indefinitely.

It wasn`t until late in 1943 that Aborigines reported to authorities that they had discovered burnt US currency whilst scratching for tin in the creeks at the southern base of Mount Straloch on Hinchinbrook Island.

A search party found the plane on 7th January 1944 and the remains of the crew were removed and interred in the US Armed Forces Cemetery at Ipswich before they were disinterred and interred as a group at Fort McPherson National Cemetery, Nebraska.

Amongst the debris was also found a red stiletto heal shoe. Its presence is yet to be explained as there were no women listed in the crew.

The Texas Terror Memorial in Ingham was unveiled in 1999 and commemorates the American airmen who were killed in the crash of the B-24 Liberator Bomber in 1942.

On 18th December 2002, the 60th anniversary of the crash, a memorial commemorating the victims of the Texas Terror was unveiled at Borello Park, Lucinda.

A cross has also been erected at Mount Straloch on Hinchinbrook Island.

It is as well to remember, in the grand sweep of historical events, that the fighting and dying in the Second World War was done by individuals. Many of them died far from home and found their graves in unlikely places.

We Swear by the Southern Cross – Eureka Stockade Day

Today, 3 December 2022 marks the 168th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade Rebellion.

On 30 November 1854 miners from the Victorian town of Ballarat, disgruntled with the way the colonial government had been administering the goldfields, swore allegiance to the Southern Cross flag at Bakery Hill and built a stockade at the nearby Eureka diggings. Early on the morning of Sunday 3 December 1854, when the stockade was only lightly guarded, government troops attacked. At least 22 diggers and six soldiers were killed. The rebellion of miners at Eureka Stockade is a key event in the development of Australia’s representational structures and attitudes towards democracy and egalitarianism.

In the early 1850s gold was discovered in Victoria. Thousands of people moved to the state to search for treasure. The state soon made laws that the gold diggers felt were unfair to them. For instance, all diggers had to buy a mining license to dig for gold. Diggers often fought with the police when the police checked these licenses and collected fees. The diggers were also upset about not being able to vote.

Starting in 1853, miners began to gather in ‘monster’ meetings to voice their complaints. Delegations presented their concerns to Governor La Trobe, but he was unreceptive to the requests. Many of the diggers were politically engaged – some had participated in the Chartist movement for political reform in Britain during the 1830s and 1840s while others had been involved in the anti-authoritarian revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848. The situation on the goldfields was tense as police regularly ran ‘licence hunts’ to track down diggers who hadn’t paid their fees. The miners claimed the police were extorting money, accepting bribes and imprisoning people without due process.

When Charles Hotham became the new lieutenant governor of Victoria, he made the police check mining licenses twice a week instead of once a month. Conflicts between the police and the diggers became more frequent. On 6 October 1854 the Scottish miner James Scobie was killed in an altercation at the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat. The proprietor, JF Bentley, was accused of the killing. A court of inquiry was held and Bentley was quickly exonerated. The diggers sensed a miscarriage of justice; not a difficult conclusion since one of the court members, John D’Ewes, was a police magistrate well known to have taken bribes from Bentley. On the 17 October 1854 about 5,000 men and women gathered to discuss the case. They decided to appeal the decision, but after the dispersal of the crowd, a small group decided to set fire to the Eureka Hotel. Having done so, they were arrested by police.

Over the next weeks the miners met and elected delegates who, on 27 November 1854, approached the new Victorian Governor, Charles Hotham. They demanded the release of the men who burned down Bentley’s hotel but the governor took offence to having demands made of him and dismissed their grievances. He then despatched 150 British soldiers of the 40th Regiment of Foot to Ballarat to reinforce the police and soldiers already stationed there. Sensing a change in atmosphere, the diggers held another mass meeting on 29 November 1854 at Bakery Hill. It was here the newly created Eureka flag was unfurled.

The police were unsettled by the hostility building among the diggers and decided to implement a licence hunt the next day. That morning, as the police moved through the miners’ tents, the diggers decided they had had enough, they gathered and marched to Bakery Hill. At this meeting the charismatic Irishman Peter Lalor became the leader of the protest. Lalor led the miners to the Eureka diggings, where the men and women joined him in an oath:

We swear by the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties’.

Then the company gathered timber from the nearby mineshafts and created a stockade.

Over the next two days, the men and women remained in and around the stockade, many performing military drills in preparation for possible conflict. This was too much for the Commissioner of the Ballarat goldfields, Robert Rede. He called for the police and army to destroy the stockade at first light on Sunday 3 December 1854.

That morning almost 300 mounted and foot troopers, and police attacked the stockade. The assault was over in 15 minutes, with at least 22 diggers (including one woman) and six soldiers losing their lives.

The police arrested and detained 113 of the miners. Eventually 13 were taken to Melbourne to stand trial. Governor Hotham called for a Goldfields Commission of Enquiry on 7 December 1854, but the citizens of Victoria were opposed to what the government had done in Ballarat and one by one the 13 leaders of the rebellion were tried by jury and released. The Eureka Stockade rising accelerated the enactment of reforms, which followed in 1855.

The battle at the Eureka Stockade near Ballarat in 1854 changed Australia forever. It has come to represent popular struggle and has been called the birthplace of Australian democracy. The Eureka Stockade became a legend, not only because it was the birth of Australian Democracy, but because of the courage, and determination of the diggers and their willingness to defend their rights.

In 1888, the Bulletin launched a campaign to change the date of Australia Day from 26th January (the day Convicts were landed) to 3rd December, the date of the rebellion. In its own words,

Australia began her political history as a crouching serf kept in subjection by the whip of a ruffian gaoler, and her progress, so far, consists merely in a change of masters. Instead of a foreign slave-driver, she has a foreign admiral; the loud-mouthed tyrant has given place to the suave hireling in uniform; but when the day comes to claim their independence the new ruler will probably prove more dangerous and more formidable that the old.’ Rather than ‘the day we were lagged’, Australia’s national day should be December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka rebellion, ‘the day that Australia set her teeth in the face of the British Lion”.