For almost 50 years, the crash of USAAF B-17C, serial number 40-2072, was known only to people living in Mackay, Queensland, Australia. Apart from a civil police report, there are no records about the crash in Australia, and scant information in US military archives. Statistics show it was Australia’s worst air disaster and the worst air crash in the South West Pacific during WWII.
In late 1991, a small committee met to design and construct a memorial tribute to American allies who died. Many came to Mackay on leave where they were billeted and made to feel at home by Australians. Many older locals still fondly remember those men and when Eleanor Roosevelt visited in September 1943. The Captain and crew from the USS Reuben James were at the Memorial unveiling in 1992.
I have researched the crash that took the lives of 40 American servicemen. The sole survivor, Foye K. Roberts, was left with a lifelong legacy of his injuries. I keep in contact with his wife, Vera, an ex-patriot Australian. A few American ex-servicemen who served in Mackay helped with research. Most recently, I organised a commemorative parade, on May 12, 1999, in which a contingent of sailors and Marines from USS Harpers Ferry took part.
The aims of myself and fellow researcher, former USAF Chief Master Sergeant Teddy Hanks, now in his 80’s with failing health, of Wichita Falls, Texas, is helping tell the world and the victim’s families about the crash, its aftermath, and to locate their final resting places. Through Teddy’s research, we have a list of 41 casualties recognised/confirmed by the US Army Mortuary Affairs Department as having been aboard the plane. We traced and photographed about 20 of the final resting places in Hawaii and on the US mainland. Tributes from Mackay have been placed on graves by friends and families of the deceased.
A few years ago, an elementary school about a mile from the crash site incorporated the Bakers Creek Memorial into its logo. Although the school band played the Australian National Anthem for the last two ceremonies, their music teacher hopes in time to also have them play the American National Anthem.
There is a remarkable story of a high school graduation ring found by a young girl at the crash site, around Christmas 1943. Her mother told her never to give it to anyone but the family of the man who owned it. It remained unidentified until January 1993, when within 10 days of seeing it, I helped identify it. The lady still has the ring – but I have never been able to raise the airfare to have her return it to the family of the deceased airman who came from Altoona, Pennsylvania.
The tragedy that took the lives of young men who could not be broadcast because of restrictions of war, and few families ever learned about the circumstances.
About the Author
Col. Colin Benson is a member and honorary historian of the Veterans’ organization the Mackay Sub Branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia – commonly known as the “RSL.” Through his involvement and research, he is a defacto custodian of history relating to the Bakers Creek Crash of 14 June 1943. Contact Col. Colin Benson [email protected].