For all enquiries from relatives of the passengers and crew, please contact Lee McCarthy (grandson of passenger Francis McCarthy) at email@example.com
COPYRIGHT: The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book regarding the disappearance of VH-CIZ A65-83 and may only be copied or redistributed with my prior written consent.
Ambon and homeward bound
It was now mid-morning on the 19th of December 1945 and A65-83 had landed safely at Ambon aerodrome and was being prepared for the second leg of its journey to Darwin and ultimately onto Townsville.
The flight from Morotai south to Ambon was apparently uneventful although I was told by wireless operator Doug Harvey, who had flown the exact route on the same day, that the weather was so bad “water was coming in through the cockpit.” He described encountering weather during his flight as “like running into a brick wall.”
Another respected R.A.A.F. pilot I spoke to, Wal Moore from Caloundra in Queensland, told me he had spoken with Lieutenant Ronald G Cornfoot who also flew direct from Morotai to Ambon on the same day. Wal said to me that Lt. Cornfoot, an experienced pilot who at the time was posted to Morotai with the 38th Squadron, described it as “the worst flight he’d ever had” and that he “couldn’t get to the mess quick enough to have a beer!”
I have confirmed the basis of Wal’s story because Lieutenant Cornfoot was in fact flying in Morotai on the 18th of December 1945. It turns out he was involved in a trial flight of a consignment of beef from Archerfield in Queensland to Morotai – a journey of some 30 hours. It therefore makes sense he would return to Acherfield in Queensland via Ambon and Darwin the very next day. I’ll return to Wal shortly as he was a witness at the Court of Enquiry in January 1946 and one of the last people to see the men of A65-83 before they departed Ambon.
Ambon in Indonesia is located roughly 620 miles or 1000 kilometres North Northwest of Darwin in the Banda Sea, and due to its location right near the equator, is typically hot, humid and wet in December. Despite it’s beautiful tropical vistas, it was far from being a quiet backwater during and after the war. In fact many of the harrowing black and white images we see today of emaciated Australian POWs were taken in Ambon when the Allies had finally liberated the island from Japanese control in late August 1945. Keep in mind the formal surrender of the Japanese 2nd Army took place as late as the 9th of September 1945 in Morotai and the Allies had only just began to repatriate POWs from Ambon around the same time.
There had been some horrific war crimes carried out on Ambon, most notably the execution of 300 men from Australia’s Gull Force. The men had surrendered to the Japanese at Laha airfield only to be brutally killed by bayonet and club. A serious war crime in anyone’s language and one made even more heinous by the mode in which the men were murdered. Not a single Allied solider survived the massacre.
Such was the magnitude of this crime that the Japanese had dug mass graves all around the Laha township but mostly around the palm-fringed areas adjacent to the muddy aerodrome where A65-83 had just landed.
The Japanese were now being ordered by the Australians to locate and exhume the remains of the soldiers they had killed earlier in the war during their brutal occupation of Ambon in 1942. This macabre exhumation was in fact going on in the vicinity of the Aerodrome while A65-83 was there for its final departure on the 19th of December – and so too were the interrogations and prosecution of Japanese war criminals.
A65-83 had taken on additional fuel during her stopover at Ambon and was in fact 500 pounds over-loaded when it departed. This apparent overloading would’ve had little effect on the airworthiness of the C47B and filling her tanks to the brim would certainly ensure a maximum range of around 2,500 kilometers if it did indeed get into trouble. The homeward leg of the journey was just over 1000km, or less than half the plane’s theoretical range. This is an important point because the extended range of the aircraft meant that it could easily turn back to Ambon or divert to another location without the risk of running out of fuel. But I wonder; knowing the appalling weather on the way to Darwin, and with their knowledge that Ambon had no homing beacon, did the crew fill the Dakota’s tanks because one of their alternative flight-plans included the possibility of having to return to their original point of departure, Morotai to the north?
The fuel itself was perhaps another fly in the ointment. There’s every chance the 500 gallons she took on in Ambon was of a poor quality. Although there is no definitive way of confirming this, it was well known at the time that plenty of aviation fuel around the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines during the later stages of the war was out of spec. Retired R.A.A.F. Group Captain, Col Harvey told me that he had “seen photographs of three R.A.A.F. Dakotas on the tarmac at Darwin in 1945, all with engine cowls off, seeking to find the reason for rough-running engines. One of these aircraft was captained by my friend and contemporary, the late John Gerber. He made no secret of the fact he was extremely lucky to reach Darwin (from Ambon) with frequent power surges, vibration and back-firing.”
The task of refueling was often carried out by the many captured Japanese soldiers, themselves waiting patiently to get back home after facing oppressive conditions and a hierarchy that seemed to have lost all control in terms of supply and communication across the region. Knowing that some of these Japanese soldiers may well have been involved in the massacre of the men from Gull Force, and at the very least, involved in the POW camps, their treatment by the Australians may not have been ideal. However, from most accounts I’ve read about Japanese behaviour in the post-war environment they seem to have been generally hard working, well disciplined and certainly obedient to any orders given by the Allies.
The numbers of Japanese military men in Indonesia was surprisingly high. In fact, some estimates put the number of Japanese Imperial Army in the “Dutch East Indies” at 250,000 in December 1945. Getting them home would be a logistical problem in itself – let alone allied soldiers.
The Dutch too had enrolled the Japanese soldiers but for another reason. In some regions where they held a tenuous grip on control, the Dutch had them assist in the fight against the Indonesians, while bizarrely, other groups of Japanese had sided with the Indonesians in their war of independence against the Dutch. It was certainly a more complicated time than many of us have been led to believe and that’s why I’ll devote some time discussing the bloody Indonesian War of Independence in this book. But for now, we can safely say that despite the fact Japanese internees had refueled the aircraft in Ambon, it is more likely the fuel was of reasonable quality but with a chance of being somewhat out of spec. As far as sabotaging the fuel goes – well that’s probably unlikely in this instance.
George Royer, a classic old Digger from Busselton in Western Australia called me about A65-83 in 2003, he helped load the plane on its previous leg in Morotai and was keen to tell me more. Like most of us with an interest in this incident, George had always wondered too – just what happened to those blokes?
George described A65-83 as not being in great shape with “some rivets loose on the aircraft skin” but that was not unusual for a wartime Dakota. The planes were operating in extreme conditions and were pushed hard as aerial transports or “biscuit bombers” as they were often called. They were seen as work horses and were often scrapped, or in the case of fighter planes, even dumped overboard from Navy ships into the deep blue sea when their useful life had come to an end. You could argue planes such as the C47 perhaps didn’t have the sentimental value that say a Navy vessel would hold for its crew and you could certainly see that in the overall appearance of many of the aircraft.
George ended our conversation with the most poignant of comments; “You know, I can still see those blokes looking out the window.”
Departing with bad fuel and a slightly banged-up plane was one thing but the total lack of backup and support, should anything go wrong, must have been infuriating for pilots at the time. Ambon had no operational radio on that fateful day, neither did it have a fire truck, an ambulance, any medical supplies, a medical orderly or even the personnel to operate any of this equipment. And to top it off, the meteorological reports were often given to pilots the day before in Morotai. For anyone who has flown in the region you’ll understand just how quickly tropical weather can change, especially in December during the monsoon season and how inaccurate some of these reports might have been.
In hindsight we can see a cavalcade of potential risks, all lining up to conspire against the passengers and crew of A65-83 even before they departed Ambon.
For example, 35th Squadron in Townsville, where A65-83 was based, were experiencing major delays in getting new engines into their aircraft at the time. Many of the aircraft were due for new engines and vital parts but the shortage of supplies was becoming “acute” in the post-war period. Even finding experienced personnel with the mechanical know-how to carry out the complex task of engine exchange was proving difficult as many of them were leaving Townsville and returning to their homes for Christmas. The dire situation in December 1945, which saw only 64.7% of the squadron’s C47 aircraft being operational, was made worse when a shipment of 10 engines was erroneously sent to Pearce Air Base in Western Australia instead of Townsville in Queensland – a distance of some 4200 kilometers.
Who knows what might have happened to the passengers and crew of A65-83 had this shipment of engines arrived in Townsville on time?
This was no minor issue. In fact, on the 19th of July 1946 the Hansard from the Australian House of Representatives shines a light on the concerns some within the RAAF were having regarding shortages of equipment and personnel. Mr Josiah Francis, who would later become the Minister for the Army under Sir Robert Menzies, asked the Minister for Air, Arthur Drakeford, the following:
“1. Has he seen the statement in a Sydney weekly paper that the forced flying of aircraft, unserviced because of an acute shortage of maintenance crews, had resulted in an alarming increase in Royal Australian Air Force air crew casualties?
2. Is it a fact that at Mascot aerodrome in one recent week, out of twelve transport aircraft that took off for various destinations, six unfortunately failed to arrive?
3. Will he cause an immediate investigation to be conducted into this matter, and supply advice of the result?
Mr Drakeford – The answers to the honorable member’s questions are as follows:
1. No air crew casualties in the Royal Australian Air Force Dakota transport aircraft have occurred since Dakota VH-CIZ [A65-83] disappeared in bad weather between Ambon and Darwin on the 19th December, 1945. The only other air crew casualty in Australia since the 19th December, 1945, occurred when a Norseman aircraft crashed in very bad weather near Iron Range. Cape York, on the 14th February, 1940, in which two air crew and one passenger were killed.
2. No. It is not known which week is referred to but, as stated in No. 1, there have been no Dakota transport aircraft losses since the 19th December, 1945. Aircraft are occasionally diverted from originally planned destinations, due to bad weather and to comply with the safety policy of the Royal Australian Air Force.
Minor adjustments are occasionally effected at aerodromes en route, but this practice is not uncommon in either civil or service flying activities.
3. See replies in Nos. 1 and 2 above.”
Compounding the problem was a major issue with the new Morotai-Ambon-Darwin route itself. It had become evident that if the route was to remain safe for planes to fly in, there would need to be some major improvements with radio facilities in the region. 35th Squadron’s Commanding Officer’s Report from December 1945 paints a very bleak picture of radio installations indeed:
“The new route through Darwin and Ambon to Morotai whilst an improvement in many respects for actual flying conditions, leaves much to be desired with regards to radio aids and signals generally.
A separate report on signals in that area has been submitted and it is hoped that some action will be taken immediately by DFS to improve signals to a standard consistent with flying safety, bearing in mind that this squadron has lost an aircraft (A65-83) this month on a flight from Ambon to Darwin, the cause of which is unknown until the findings of the court of enquiry are to hand.”
And going back to November 1945, just one month before A65-83 disappeared, his Operational Report points out:
“It is to be hoped that the Aerodrome at Ambon will shortly be open and complete with all facilities.”
It’s clear from the Court of Enquiry that radio facilities were not operational at Ambon on the 19th of December 1945. This was still the case when the Court of Enquiry was held in January 1946.
It’s now late morning on December 19, 1945, and A65-83’s crew were beginning to hear first hand reports of bad weather on the way from Ambon to Darwin. The reports would have been conveyed from returning pilots and not from the meteorological office based back in Morotai. These anecdotal reports obviously had Pilot Officer Robinson and Flight Lieutenant Hazle a little worried because they quite rightly decided it would be best to delay their departure until they could collect more information about the conditions on the way to Darwin. In fact, records show they waited for well over an hour from their expected time of departure to ensure they had the information they needed to make the flight safe, and I imagine, to wait for the storms along the route to pass.
It must be said that the passengers and crew would appear to be in safe hands with Pilot Robinson. He had only been flying as captain since July, however all records and previous incidents appear to show someone who was fairly cool under pressure and not prone to making rash decisions. In fact, on his very first flight as captain, his plane VH-RFM, also a Dakota C47B, had experienced a blown tyre on takeoff. His squadron leader, NW Webster recounts the incident in his Operations Record Book at the time:
“This morning the Archerfield Schedule aircraft, RFM blew a tyre on takeoff. No. 429742 W/O Robinson, F, was making his first trip as captain and aircraft had a full load of personnel. The skipper did an excellent job and kept aircraft on the strip – he was commended for his sound handling…”
At 11.50am, pilot Wal Moore departs Ambon just 20 minutes before A65-83. He told me that he had spoken with the crew of A65-83 and he said pilot Frank Robinson had made the decision to “take the direct route to Darwin and that they would fly low.” Wal described the weather on his flight that day as a “wall of blackness to the east of track and looked very dangerous to fly in.” Wal went on to say that his log book from the day shows his own flight to Darwin took an additional 40 minutes because he flew so far west of track to avoid the weather.
These are important facts that were never mentioned in the 1946 court of enquiry.
It’s now 12.10pm on the 19th of December 1945 and Frank Robinson is located at the end of the Laha runway in Ambon with 24 other men onboard his Dakota C47. The crew have already stepped through the extensive pre-flight checklist and the exceedingly long list of manual operations which will enable the Dakota to get off the ground. He pushes the throttles forward, releases the brakes and the two 14-cylinder twin-row Pratt & Wittney engines roar into life.
The aircraft, with full tanks and 25 men on board accelerates down the runway and lifts off slowly but surely into the foreboding Indonesian sky. The dull background droning of its massive engines eventually fade from casual observers on the ground. The C47 and the 25 men onboard her have started their short journey home for Christmas, however fate and lady luck will have other ideas.