A U.S.A.A.F. B-24D Liberator bomber, similar to “Pride of the Cornhuskers” that crashed into the 2/33rd Battalion convoy. It was named in honour of Nebraska, the home state of the pilot, Captain H.J. Wood. He and the other 10 men in the crew were killed in the crash.

The huge pall of smoke that engulfed the area after the crash. There were horrendous scenes after the Liberator exploded in a huge ball of fire. Two of the Liberator’s four 500 lb bombs exploded on impact. A third exploded a few minutes later killing some of those trying to rescue survivors.

No Australian battalion in World War II suffered a greater loss in a matter of seconds than the 2/33rd did early on the morning of September 7, 1943, when a US Army Air Force B-24 bomber attempting to take off on a bombing mission at Jackson’s airfield, Port Moresby, hit a tree and crashed into a convoy of trucks parked at the end of the runway and carrying men of the 2/33rd awaiting orders to be airlifted for the start of the assault to recapture Lae from the Japanese.

Sixty members of the 2/33rd were killed or mortally injured, along with the 11 air crew and two truck drivers. Another 90 members of the battalion were injured. It was the worst air disaster in Australian history. The men had been training for weeks for what was to be the biggest airlift of Australian troops in World War II. They were to be flown in a fleet of Dakota DC3 aircraft across the Owen Stanley Ranges to Tsili Tsili and then Nadzab, the starting point for the assaut on Lae. The airlift of the battalion was to have taken place on September 6. The men were trucked to the airport early that morning and stood ready alongside their allotted aircraft until 11am when heavy fog over the ranges forced the airlift to be called off that day.

Before daylight the following morning, September 7, the large fleet of DC 3 Dakotas, the famous “biscuit bombers”, were again waiting at the adjoining Ward’s, Durand’s and Jackson’s airfields ready to fly the troops to the village of Tsili Tsili, two hours away, then a short 20-minute flight to Nadzab. Eighteen trucks packed with the battle-ready men and equipment parked in the Durand’s marshalling area, about 300 yards (270 metres) from the end of Jackson’s runway, awaiting orders to emplane. Men of A, D and C Company, a few B Company men and some from other support units, were to lift-off fi rst. Most of B Company was to follow the next day.

When the convoy arrived the air was filled with the sounds of revving aircraft engines and the early morning sky was reflecting the glare of thousands of lights. In the trucks men were dozing, catching up on sleep, or quietly contemplating the battle ahead.

At 4.20 am they heard the loud roar of a four-engine US Army Air Force B-24 Liberator taking off on a bombing mission. It cleared the convoy by about 100 feet (30 metres). One or two men shivered nervously. One remarked: “He was close. I hope we don’t hang around here too long.” At 4.25 am came the loud roar of a second Liberator attempting to take off. Suddenly, disaster. It lifted off the runway but couldn’t gain height. A wing hit a tree. Aviation fuel in its wing tank exploded. As the blazing aircraft arrowed towards the convoy somebody yelled: “It’s going to hit us.” Another man, running to escape, shouted:“ Look out! Look out!” The burning Liberator then smashed into five D Company trucks at the rear of the convoy.

On impact, two 500 lb bombs and 2,800 gallons (12,000 litres) of aviation fuel the plane was carrying exploded in a huge ball of fire. The five D Company trucks were reduced to heaps of molten metal.

Most of the men inside, incinerated or mortally injured, had no chance of surviving. The sixth D Company truck and a C Company truck, next in line in the convoy, caught fire as burning fuel, flying metal and debris rained death and injury. Most of those killed were from D Company. Five trucks were wrecked. Most of the men inside were incinerated or died of injuries. One of them was the highly popular O.C. of D Company, Syria veteran VX11997 Lieutenant John Boyd Ferguson. The crash is still one of World War II’s least known tragedies.

A sea of flame from the ruptured fuel tanks engulfed the area in seconds after the crash. The scenes were horrific. Out of the blazing inferno came the agonising cries of wounded and dying men. Others came running out with their clothes on fire, rolling on the ground trying to extinguish their burning clothing, but then dying when ammunition in bandoliers around their bodies, and grenades they were carrying, exploded in the fierce heat. Each infantryman carried 200 rounds of .303 ammunition. Boxes of grenades and mortar bombs in the trucks also exploded.

A few minutes after the crash a third 500 lb bomb exploded, killing some of the rescuers. William Crooks was one of the injured. He was sitting on the tailgate of the last C Company truck. The massive force of the explosion blew him into a tree. All but nine of his 42-strong platoon were killed or injured. The Footsoldiers contains this graphic description of the crash. William Crooks wrote: “The bomber came crashing through the trees, its engines roaring. The left hand wing sheared off and the fuselage smashed down like an arrow into the trucks. A great explosion rocked the area and a vast brilliant yellow flash lit up the surrounds brighter than day.”

“For a moment, only the sounds of falling parts of aircraft and other debris and the crackle of flames could be heard, and then almost together there broke out the screams and moans of men. In a second, all about the scene of this frightful disaster could be seen running men.

“The dreadful sound of agonising screams of despair seemed to drown out all else. Within minutes the flames had reached the ammunition carried in all the trucks and it began exploding. Men, charging about on fire would suddenly disappear as either the grenades or 2-inch mortar bombs they were carrying in their clothes or equipment exploded.

“Others who were rolling themselves on the ground to put out the flames would suddenly jerk as their bandoliers exploded.” There were many heroic rescues and attempted rescues as survivors ran into the flames to drag out mates. One rescuer, the ever-brave Doug Cullen rushed into the flames to carry out badly wounded Lieutenant Frank McTaggart on his shoulders. Many of the men were so horribly burned that some nurses at the hospitals where they were rushed for treatment broke down and cried. Others fainted at the sight of their terrible injuries.

Memories of mates being blown up or burnt to death before their eyes haunted survivors for the rest of their lives.

Even 60 years after that dreadful morning Major David MacDougall, the Commander of B Company, who was helping supervise the emplaning and lost 10 men injured, still found it difficult to talk about the crash. He said memories of seeing men on fire and being blown up by their own exploding ammunition would haunt him forever. Another haunted forever was SX1662 Lieutenant, later Captain, Jack Balfour-Ogilvy who had the unenviable, self-appointed task of laying out and identifying the body parts of 14 D Company soldiers killed outright. The full extent of the disaster wasn’t known until a roll call later that day.

The crash was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. Generals MacArthur and Blamey ordered it to be shrouded in secrecy fearing news of a US bomber killing so many Australian troops could damage morale among Allied forces. It was even kept secret from the families of the men who died. They were told they’d died in an air crash, but weren’t given any details. Survivors endured the scars of enforced silence until after the Japanese surrender and the full horror of what had happened was finally revealed. Initially it was thought the convoy had come under a Japanese air attack, perhaps due to a security leak about the impending airlift. Sabotage was suspected, but never proved. The cause is still a mystery.

A USAF inquiry blamed the pilot, Captain H..J. Wood. The Liberator, Pride of the Cornhuskers, was named in honour of Wood’s home U.S. State, Nebraska.

An Australian inquiry exonerated Wood, returning a finding of “cause unknown”.

One modern theory is that an aviation phenomena called head-up illusion, unheard of in 1943, but given as the cause of a number of modern air disasters, may have caused the crash. It can occur during a nighttime take-off from a well-lit airport into a totally dark sky, the conditions applying the morning the Liberator crashed. Head-up illusion can disorientate a pilot into mistakenly believing the nose of an accelerating aircraft is pitching up and down causing him to correct it by pushing the yoke down, causing the aircraft to crash at low level. Over the years key anniversaries of the crash have been commemorated. The last was the 75th Anniversary in 2018, for which a special badge was produced by the 2/33rd Battalion Association.

Although Kokoda stands as an eternal symbol of the courage and tenacity of Australian soldiers in war, the men of the 2/33rd faced no greater test of their steely resolve and strength of character in the face of disaster than after the Liberator crash. Despite having lost a quarter of its strength, and with many of the survivors in shock, there was no hesitation or questioning about the vital job they still had to do in the carefully planned and co-ordinated attack on Lae. The C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Cotton, ordered that A company be airlifted to Nadzab 90 minutes after the crash. Most of C Company and the remainder of those fit for battle were flown out later that day and the next. On September 9, two days after the crash, the survivors knelt in prayer at memorial services for those who died, then went straight into action, advancing down the Markham River Valley to recapture Lae. Not one man asked to be left out of battle. The battalion chaplains, especially Padre J.B. Lynch who conducted many open air services close to the front line, were highly praised for their contribution to the welfare of the crash victims. They were never more urgently needed than after the Liberator crash when they comforted the injured and the dying.

This burnt out wreck of one of the trucks shows the devastating force of the crash and explosion. The men inside were incinerated with no chance of surviving.

One of the battalion’s most highly respected officers, Captain John Boyd Ferguson, O.C. D Company, is believed to have been killed sitting in the front seat of this truck. The wrecked cab was discovered and identified at the crash site in 2012.

Left: The blackened wreck of one of the trucks. Right: Lt. Jack Balfour-Ogilvy who undertook the unenviable, self-appointed task of identifying body parts of men of D Company blown apart in the explosion. As Officer Commanding D Company after the crash he helped rebuild the company, for the Ramu Valley, Shaggy Ridge and Borneo. campaigns.

Left: The scene of the crash looking in the direction the plane was travelling when taking off. The left wing sheered off after hitting the tree on the left with the broken limbs. Fuel in the wing tank exploded and burst into flames. Seconds later the blazing aircraft laden with 500lb bombs crashed into the convoy parked in the holding area in the centre top of the photograph. Moments later it was a sea of flames and the air was filled with the cries of injured and dying men. There were many heroic rescues of men from the inferno.

The author of The Footsoldiers, Sgt. William Crooks was sitting on the tailgate of the last truck in the convoy when the Liberator crashed. The force of the blast blew him into a tree. Although injured he helped in rescue attempts and went into battle two days later. Only nine other members of his D Company survived the disaster. Left: The twisted wrecks of truck 3 and truck 4, both blown apart by the tremendous force of the exploding bombs on board the Liberator.

The skeleton-like branches of the trees, with foilage completely missing, and the blackened wreckage of the truck, indicates the intensity of the heat during the inferno that followed the crash.

The Liberator disaster was tragic news in more ways than one for the family of crash victim Acting W.O.Class 2, Jack Reinke. His brother, Acting Corporal William Reinke, of 2/10 Battalion had been killed in New Guinea eight months earlier. A number of brothers served with the 2/33rd including Peter and Robert Kelly. Peter was killed by a sniper on the road to Lae four days after the Liberator crash. Floyd Wylie, brother of Max “Rusty” Wylie was killed during the attack on Fort Khiam in Syria. Both were in 18 Platoon.

Acting Warrant Officer
QX1585 Jack Reinke.

Liberator Crash 80th Anniversary service

11:10 am Thursday, September 7, 2023.