GOLD COAST – It was August 1972 and I was returning from a patrol through the Yamap-Hotte-Musim census division between Wau/Bulolo and Salamaua.
We had left the forest behind and walked through the kunai for number of hours before arriving at Salamaua. Crikey it was hot!
I arrived at a Lutheran Mission guest house overlooking Salamaua and was given some cool lemon sherbet by the mission people who were holidaying there. I was dehydrated and couldn’t get enough of it.
Camping overnight in the Namasu store that night, we waited for a boat to take us to Lae. I tried to sleep among the bags of copra and hoped the rats that leapt between the bags all night wouldn’t bite me. There was also a pungent odour emitting from rancid coconuts that made it very pleasant to get going in the morning.
The coastal boat arrived on schedule and we boarded and set out for Lae. Arriving at Lae wharf, I telephoned the sub district office and the assistant district commissioner allocated a Toyota and driver to get us back to Wau the next day.
Driving through the Mumeng sub district, we noticed aircraft lights towards Bulolo and by the time we drove past the Bulolo road it looked like every aircraft in PNG was flying around Wau. The afternoon sky was lit up with flashing aircraft navigation lights.
When I reported to the sub district office on 28 August, I learned that a Royal Australian Air Force Caribou aircraft had crashed somewhere between Wau and Port Moresby. The Caribou was one of two transporting PNG Army cadets on an exercise and had disappeared in cloud half way through the flight. The other aircraft had arrived safely.
First thing next morning all field staff were required at the airport. There were choppers and light aircraft everywhere. I was designated as lookout on a Bell 60 Sioux helicopter which had instructions to land at each village along the lost aircraft’s flight path through the Waria area of Garaina Patrol Post and ask if the people had seen an Army balus.
“Yupela lukim balus bilong Ami long asde a?” (Did any of you see an Army plane yesterday?)
“Yes sah. Mipela lukim wanpela balus igo olsem na narapela ikam long hap na narapela igo long.......“ (Yes sir, we saw an aircraft fly over there and another fly this way and.... ) Hands and arms pointed in every direction.
There had been so many aircraft in the air the previous afternoon, no one could distinguish between them. Unless someone had heard or seen the crash, any other information was useless.
It eventually turned out the aircraft had speared into an uninhabited part of forest and left virtually no trace of where it had crashed.
We continued on to and over the Papuan border, eventually running short of fuel. At that point a mild anxiety crept in as we weren’t exactly sure where we were due to the clouds having come down behind us.
We circled and I spotted the old World War II Bulldog Track. I suggested following the track towards Wau. We did this with the low cloud closing in around us.
‘Oh Oh!’ I thought as the pilot switched fuel tanks. The right tank was completely empty and the left dangerously low. We were now boxed in by cloud.
The pilot looked at the map and decided to ascend through the murk. There were no peaks over 12,000 feet in the area so if we got above the clouds we would be right. Up we went with the fuel gauge getting lower every minute and eventually broke out of the cloud cover at over 12,000 feet and headed in the direction of Wau. We could see that the entire region was totally clouded in.
At any other time it would have been pleasing to admire the scenery. As we made our way to Wau, it was like floating on a flat, white ocean with the sun shining brightly above.
The pilot took a compass bearing and headed towards where Wau should be under all that cloud. Constant checks with the air traffic controllers confirmed there was total cloud cover on the ground at Wau. Meanwhile, the needle in the left fuel gauge had begun to bounce up and down on the empty indicator.
A sudden message from Wau advised that a small gap in the cloud cover had opened up and was moving over the airstrip. The pilot spotted it and, as moved over it, wound off the pitch of the rotors and we dropped like a stone. As my stomach tried to adjust from 12,000 feet, we plummeted towards earth at frightening speed.
When we were at about 100 feet, the pilot engaged full pitch again and I felt like my backside was being pushed up through my throat. We hit the ground hard and neither fuel gauge moved once. The pilot said later there may have been a pint of fuel left in the fuel lines.
Thick cloud stopped the air search for the rest of the day and I wasn’t complaining.
Three days later, five young survivors, who had been at the rear of the Caribou, were found walking along a creek bed. The 24 other cadets and the aircrew died in the crash. Later one of the survivors died in hospital. It was the RAAF’s worst peacetime disaster.
The Caribou transport had come down in the Kudjeru Gap after poor weather forced the crew to retrace their route back through the gap, The aircraft’s starboard wing had hit treetops on a ridgeline, bringing down the plane.
The Caribou’s crew included Flight Lieutenant Graham Thomas, Pilot Officer Gregory Ebsary and Corporal Gary Power. Captain Robert Loftus, a ground liaison officer with the Australian Army, was also killed in the accident.
I remember seeing the injured boys on Moresby airstrip when I went south on leave some days later.
That was the end of the Army cadet scheme in Papua New Guinea.