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.

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