B-24 "in the drink". Old warbird found in Sulawesi. Photo courtesy of:
The South-West Pacific campaign of World War ll reanimated when I peered into the cockpit of a B-24 Liberator bomber that sat 22 metres underwater in the Bay of Tomini in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The bomber had been there since May 1945 but it's aura was as immediate and pungent, as if she'd gone down yesterday. The feelings that it conjured inspired me to search for the history of the old war bird and led me to my maiden voyage on the Internet in 1997.
The campaign in the Celebes, now known as Sulawesi, occurred as General Macarthur fulfilled his 1942 pledge to return to the Philippines. The area is littered with relics of the time.Today, Sulawesi is a destination for the adventurous traveller, especially scuba divers. The reef at Bunaken Island is classed with Australia's wondrous Great Barrier Reef.
I wanted to scuba dive at Bunaken so before leaving Darwin I completed a dive course in the murky, silted waters of Darwin Harbour where sometimes visibility was less than two metres.
The flight from Bali to southern Sulawesi took about an hour and a half and landed in the old Dutch trading port of Makasser, now known as Ujung Pandang. Makasser was one of the centres of the spice trade in the 17th and 18th centuries during the days of the Dutch East India Company, and the home islands for cloves, Ternate, and nutmeg, Banda, are off to the east.
Forty metre wooden cargo vessels, hand-crafted on the beaches of southern Sulawesi line the wharf. Not so long ago these behemoths were powered by sail but now chug - chug into dock to discharge their cargoes of rice, fuel and consumer goods. Giant 'painter's planks' protrude from each vessel down to the wharf and bounce rhythmically as labourers jog up and down them. Men carry enough cargo on their backs to give any union delegate in Australia a heart attack.
The long and mountainous road north to Bunaken, Manado and Tomini Bay took two weeks to traverse. While in the Central Sulawesi town of Poso I heard of a WW ll plane underwater near the tiny island of Kedidiri in the Bay of Tomini. My interest sparked and I determined to find it. Poso remains memorable for the 'Muezzin Idol' competition that occurred each morning between the local mosques. It was impossible to sleep through the 4 am call to prayer so I wandered the room or sat on the verandah as six or seven separate mosques, with their PA systems turned up to 11, called the faithful.
Ampana is a small town on the southern shore of Tomini Bay. As the open boat to Kedidiri was not leaving until the next day I went bush walking with two sturdy Swiss frauleins who wore appropriate footwear and backpacks and me in my shorts and sneakers. We hiked up and over a mountain to a bewildering place, Tanjung Api or Cape Fire, where the 'Ring of Fire' lurks just under the surface of the Earth. It was the most amazing sight. On the beach next to the water we poked the sand with a stick and watched mesmerised as flames leaped a metre into the air and then slowly subsided. Seawater gurgled as the earth regurgitated its internal gases. We reheated our nasi goreng in an old Milo tin over the flames in the sand and ate sitting in warm shallows that bubbled around us.
Wakai, an isolated fishing village on the way to Kedidiri, is home to a huge rambling wooden u-shaped hotel with an undulating boardwalk through and around it. It is perched on stilts and juts over the reef. Its cavernous lobby was empty but there was one guest. Catherine, a German anthropologist, maintained a permanent booking, and stayed there between excursions on the water documenting the daily life of the last Bajo fisherman living on the reef. He was seventy-five or eighty years old and lived in his sampan and on the bamboo fishing platforms out in the bay. He had never lived on land and rarely stepped onto any island. What does he do all day? I asked.
He fishes and collects shells and sings songs all day... very loudly! She replied
When diving he wore eye goggles carved from wood and glass. Catherine spent some time wondering if she should give him her own mask. Would this be a further erosion of his culture? She decided to give it to him anyway with the proviso that,
You should not sell them or give them away.
He looked aghast and replied.
When I am gone these are for my son.
And then he kissed them. After wearing them underwater he exclaimed.
Everything is so clear and bright!
Kedidiri is a coral island with a scraggly rainforest wig. Its scrambled egg like limestone hills plunge headlong down to its beaches. Over the water you can see the volcano on Una Una and the other islands of the Togian group. Una Una was evacuated in 1983 when the volcano had something to say and wiped out the copra industry. Now a herd of black goats inhabit the white tiled, vine-covered mosque and tall grass has devoured stranded motor vehicles on the roadside. The people moved away and started new towns like Wakai.
Before the arrival of bamboo tourist bungalows, Kedidiri was unpopulated. When you stroll behind the tourist huts you can see one reason why; tiny graves of Bajo children, lost in childbirth and youth are dotted over the landscape. It seemed heartless to build a resort on top of a cemetery but I suppose flat ground is at a premium around here. The Bajo people had all moved ashore by then anyway. Another reason is lack of fresh water; all water is imported in 200 litre drums. At night Babi Rusa or Pigdeer scuffle about looking for scraps and making unholy screeches. Not only do they sound like a horror movie but their car-crash faces and protruding tusks made them look like it too.
In the Togians, after my less than perfect introduction to diving in Darwin Harbour, I was thrilled to be in clear water and carried along on the current beside a Technicolor coral garden wall that disappeared into the deep blue depths.
I was thrilled, but it was not the reason I was here. I was waiting for the day when Gonsague, the Swiss dive master, would guide us to the final resting place of the plane I had heard about in Poso. According to Paul, the Aussie dive instructor, it was a B-24 Liberator bomber. I was intrigued but my curiosity would soon be salved.
One morning, to time travel back to 1945, we motored with Gonsague in the open wooden dive boat to an obscure bay in the Togian Islands. Gonsague was a happy-go-lucky character always offering the unattached females half price for going topless, Non, non, only joking! He would add.
The boat chugged past Wakai, along a mangrove channel and then past a Bajo village of bamboo houses built on stilts over the water. The people there appeared to have almost nothing but they waved to us and we waved to them. The channel opened out into a bay. To our left was the village of Liberte and to our right a coral outcrop that reminded me of a tailplane protruding from the water.
Gonsague accurately gauged the site of the plane by aligning a big tree on a hilltop with a hut on the beach and two coconut trees on the next ridge with a tree below them. Then, he knew he was over the plane. We dived. It grew darker as we descended. At fifteen metres, a shadowy wing and an engine emerged from the blue-green background. She was intact and sitting on the bottom pointing to 330 degrees and leaning over because the port landing gear was down. My first impulse was to look into the cockpit. Paul and I swam down the coral encrusted wing to peer inside. Everything seemed in place. I was waiting to see a skeleton but the cockpit was empty. The whole plane, including the seats and instrument panel, was covered in a velvet patina of corals as if painted with a spray gun. We swam up and over the starboard wing that disappeared down into the green then along the fuselage, past chiffon-winged lionfish the size of cats.
There was more life clinging to the old kite than I could count. The machine gun posts stood silently in the open waist doorways. It was cramped and I imagined those two gunners always bumping into each other. Two three-metre uprights formed the tail. Living underneath was a giant two-metre sponge and a nearby coral-encrusted lump suspected of being a bomb. A shaft of sunlight brightened the library of life inhabiting the fuselage. Of the four engines only one had its propeller. We circumnavigated the beast a couple of times then headed back to the surface leaving the plane and its history to the fish. At the five-metre safety stop a huge school of silver shining trevalli, each about a foot long, swirled around us . We broke the surface and laughed.
It is unusual to find a ditched aircraft in such complete condition; they usually break up on impact. This one made a perfect landing and the technique was later included in training manuals for rookie bomber pilots.
Back in Darwin I visited the State Library and entered 'B-24 Liberator' in the search engine on their computer. The B-24 Liberator Veterans Group Bulletin Board was the result. I sent a message containing the co-ordinates of the downed war plane thereby dropping a pebble into their pond.
B-24 in the drink. 121 degrees 58 minutes East
0 degrees 26 minutes South
After conveying the crash site co-ordinates to Mr. James Kendall, the official historian of the 307th Bombardment Group, I got the story. The aircraft remains unnamed and unnumbered in the records but the crash site position confirms its identity. Perhaps, it was newly commissioned and no one had yet painted it's nose art, as was common for American military aircraft.
The confidential ditching report by the pilot Lt. Henry Etheridge and dated May 3 1945 contains the following:
"Our number one engine caught fire about one and a half hours from target, when at the northern tip of the Gulf of Bone...we closed the cowl flap....set rpm's to full low... with these power settings the fuel supply would have been inadequate to return to base. We decided to ditch the plane rather than to parachute because all these islands are heavily wooded with rough terrain. We passed over the landing sight two times at 2000 feet while all crewmembers were briefed on the proposed landing and last minute preparations were completed before setting the plane down. There was an 8 knot surface wind. All men wore winter flying equipment to act as padding against the shock of landing. Airspeed was 110 MPH, losing altitude at a rate of 50 to 100 feet per minute... the power was held to within approximately 5 feet of the water......One long ring of the alarm bell was used to warn crew of immediate impact....The plane skidded an estimated 50 yards on water before coming to a stop. Every man was out of the plane within one minute. At this time medical attention was given to those with cuts and abrasions. As the plane was still afloat we were able to salvage and inflate six one-man life rafts...the sound of air escaping the gas tanks could be heard after landing but the plane was still afloat one and a half hours later when rescue was effected."
All secret papers and cryptographic materials were destroyed and sunk in a weighted bag. The crew was rescued by a Catalina flying boat from the 13th Emergency Rescue Group.
The search for this story became an emotional roller coaster as I sent letters and waited for replies. I wrote to E J Sigmon, crewmember on the plane known as 'Woody Woodpecker' and others who thought it could be their plane. 'Woody Woodpecker' was attacked by four enemy fighters. Number 4 engine was hit and later, engines 1 and 2 began to smoke. The crew bailed out close to the correct co-ordinates on May 9 1945 and the plane flew off over the horizon never to be seen again.
I wrote the story, included the crash report, and sent it to the dive camp on Kedidiri to give others background information on the wreck. The experience made my trip all the more interesting and broadened my knowledge of the actions and conditions during the war in the South-West Pacific.
Recently I found this video on YouTube via the "Pacific Wrecks" web site. It appears to be the same plane and runs for nine minutes.
B-24 video 9min.
Here is another video found on YouTube.
This video runs for just 1.5 minutes but gives a good idea of the wreck.
B-24 video 1.5 min.