Wartime Aircraft Events at Sandgate

A Dialogue from Material provided by Ross Cameron at the Sandgate Historical Society

Imagine if you will that night is falling and we Ghosts of the Past are huddled round a campfire on the foreshore at Brighton. We gaze into the primeval fire and our memories of these events so long ago in our so short lives are stirring:

The American’s 80th Fighter Squadron is formed at Mitchell Field, New York, in January 1942, and by May 10th, it moves to Petrie Aerodrome, just outside Brisbane. There, for two months, the squadron trains and prepares for combat.4

There are nine aircraft accidents in the short period the Squadron is at Petrie. In mitigation, it can be said that they are a young bunch of pilots straight out of flying school.5

Those killed in air crashes in the vicinity of the RAAF base at Sandgate are:

2nd Lt Max Jones      on        May 26, 1942

1st Lt George Austin  on        July 2,   1942

1st Lt Joseph Cole      on        July 15, 1942

2nd Lt Trevis Ferguson on     July 15, 1942 1

Lieutenant Max Jones

Killed instantly when his plane hits a tree while landing at Petrie Aerodrome1

Lieutenant George Austin

 Killed instantly when his plane collides with another 80 Squadron plane while flying in formation over Redcliffe 1

“Lt Austin is the flight leader, I, Lieutenant Malcolm Sponenburgh, am his wingman. We are returning from gunnery practice, flying at about 1000 feet. He gives me the standard signal to close up the formation. I move into the spot he requires I always fly – a little below but close in. We fly along for a couple of minutes. He never looks in my direction nor can I detect any motion on his part. Then he slumps over the stick and the airplane turns into me and starts diving. I close the throttle and try to turn and dive with him. Seeing that he will soon be in a vertical dive with little altitude I try to break off, but I am not quite clear of him and we collide.”5 …

After the collision, Lieutenant George Austin tries to reach the sea, but goes into a dive. Without enough altitude to bale out, he is killed as he crashes into Charles Rossiter’s market garden situated between Josephine and Sylvester Streets. Bullets are exploding all around Mr. Rossiter when the aircraft crashes 14

Sponenbergh ditches in Moreton Bay to avoid crashing on Redcliffe. He is rescued by Mr. Larkin and his two sons who are fishing in a rowboat. Marie Mole (Moreton), who has seen the plane crash, is on the shore with a flask of tea and a blanket for the pilot 9

Lieutenant Joseph Cole

It’s winter, the sea is a beautiful pale blue with hardly a ripple. An American Airacobra fighter plane appears. The pilot really knows how to handle his plane. He runs a slalom course between the power poles and the lines. He turns seaward and then flies very low to the water as though strafing. Lifting sharply over the Shorncliffe Pier, he rolls over and flies back north belly up, and still very low over the Bay. When he goes to roll right way up, one wing tip touches the water. What happens now is incredibly graceful. The plane continues for some distance standing on its wingtip, which slides very slowly deeper into the water. Then the plane loses balance, tips over, and slides almost without a splash under the very still sea 6

It is just another routine day on the Sandgate Base, squads of WAAAF rookies marching up and down the parade ground, and RAAF personnel coming and going. Down in Headquarters orderly room, based on the foreshore of the Bay, we go about our daily duties. Suddenly the air is rent by the sound of low flying aircraft. We have become accustomed to this since our American Air Force friends had moved onto the Strathpine airfield and use the Sandgate camp as a ‘target’ for shooting up the enemy. On this occasion the pilot does a couple of low runs across the base. Coming in from the west, very low across the parade ground, making a turn out over the water and coming at us again. However, on one of these turns he is so low that when he banks to come round, the wing hits the mud, the tide being out. There before our very eyes his plane nose dives into the mud, killing the pilot 8

Len de Vene and I wade out – we dive a number of times attempting to open the submerged cockpit cowling but it could not be opened. The young pilot is still strapped in his harness, but there is no sign of life 7

In the afternoon, the Yanks have several big trucks out across the low tide sandbanks, with miles of heavy wire mesh for traction. Yanks are everywhere and armed. They are searching all the pools for wreckage, and are recovering the bigger pieces out beyond the low tide mark. They are able to recover the pilot’s body, but nobody is allowed to stand by the seawall to watch 6

Lieutenant Trevis Ferguson

We are all still in a state of unrest from this event (the Airacobra crash in the morning) and are trying to carry on with our work, when around 1600 hours, a drone is heard out to sea, immediately in front of the HQ orderly room. We all wait and watch with disbelief as a plane nose dives from a great height straight into the sea. We all hold our breath, willing the pilot to pull out of the dive, but he seems to make no attempt to do so. Speculation or rumour at the time is that he is a buddy of the pilot killed earlier in the day, the truth of which I suppose we will never know 8

It appears as though it could have been a suicide pact. Pilot Officer Don Case and other airmen swim out to the crash but cannot release the pilot; he is jammed in the cockpit and can not be extricated. It is the opinion of P/O Case that the pilot could have been alive 2… 

It is later rumoured that this pilot is the twin brother of the pilot in the first Airacobra 7

No, Ferguson and Cole were not brothers, not related in any way. I doubt they even knew one another well. Ferguson was one of the group that arrived with me, Cole had not been with the squadron very long. I haven’t the slightest idea of what caused either accident. But I can assure you that Cole wasn’t the type of person to deliberately crash, for any reason.5

Sponenburgh was appointed summary courts officer by the USAF to investigate these two incidents. Satisfying himself after investigation that the two men killed had no close association, he despatched Lt Cole’s property to his next of kin 10

The Squadron leaves piece-meal bound for Port Moresby, New Guinea, shortly after the latter two accidents 5


In 1947, five year old Mary Mateer is paddling on the Sandgate foreshore with her family. On her toe, she digs out of the mud a gold ring which Lt Cole had been wearing…with the inscription: Joseph P Cole, Kingstree, South Carolina,USA. Mary’s mother writes to the address, returning the ring. She receives a grateful reply from Lt Cole’s mother, who says it was his college ring, “which his sweetheart placed on his finger at the Christmas dance (called the Ring Dance) in his senior year at the Citadel Military College.”10

Flying Fortress:

Flying Fortress beached at Brighton Beach (Photo courtesy Albert Jeays)

The largest aircraft to come down near the Redcliffe Peninsula is an American B-17 Flying Fortress, which is heading for Amberley when it narrowly escapes disaster.

It is one of six planes flying from New Caledonia or thereabouts, which strikes heavy rain and a severe tropical thunderstorm well off the coast. In zero visibility and unable to maintain contact, the six split up, hoping to find a landing ground. One reaches Amberley, the others land along the coast as far south as Coffs Harbour. At 5.45pm on April 18, 1942, one of the six aircraft mistakes the Hornibrook Bridge lights for runway lights. After circling several times, the aircraft comes in over reclaimed land, making a forced landing on what is now Decker Park, just off the Houghton Highway Bridge 10

The area has recently been reclaimed with red soil: with heavy rain over the previous days, the ground is a real quagmire. 12

The crew of the circling Bomber recognise by the buildings that it is some kind of a Camp, and decide that they had enough room to put the plane down on the waste land, provided that the high barbed wire fence at the north west of the camp is taken down to extend the length of the landing field. So messages are flashed to the Camp from the Bomber, and the Airforce boys set to with a will, and dig out the fence, and remove it out of the way. Then, as the evening starts to close in, the Bomber heads out behind the Redcliffe Peninsula, and starts to come in low just south of Hayes Inlet. By skimming the mangroves beside the Pine Rivers mouth, and hurdling the concrete pillars at the end of the highway bridge, the pilot puts the Bomber down, and starts to rush towards the Air Force Station. As its speed decreases, it starts to sink into the soft ground, but it keeps going until it crosses the fence line of the Camp. Luckily for the plane and its crew, there is a ‘Bull Ring’ there, where the airmen drill, so the bomber trundles onto this, and looks like colliding with the row of buildings on the other side, but now, its wheels are well and truly in the grip of the soft ground, and, with a screeching crunch, the plane comes to rest with its wings flat on the ground, and its four propellers bent out of shape. Thankfully, the crew members scramble out of the plane and surveyed the damage 11

When their base at Eagle Farm is notified, the suggestion is made that a team of mechanics be sent to dismantle the plane, and they take it away on a semitrailer. But the skipper of the bomber refuses to entertain the idea, and asks that four new propellers be bought out, and he will fly the plane off and land at Eagle Farm 11

The C.O. Sandgate (named Rigby as far as I recall) instructs the Americans not to take off as it is too risky. To which direction the captain of the plane is alleged to tell Rigby to look after his own ‘kindergarten’. He has no jurisdiction over the Americans and they are going to take the plane off 13

So, whilst the Australian Air Force boys set about digging the plane out of the mud and turning it around, then filling in the tracks made by the wheels as they bogged, and laying down a runway of planks and branches, the Americans strip the guns and anything else they can remove from the plane, whilst the propellers are replaced. Then the crew are offered a lift to Eagle Farm on the transport, but they refuse, saying “The skipper flew us in here, and we reckon that the skipper can fly us out, so we’re staying” 11

The incident of the landing has attracted much attention and the men from the Meteorological Bureau have predicted that the most appropriate time so far as the weather is concerned for a take-off is on Tuesday afternoon. As a result, it is decided to take off about 4pm. People gather from near and far, on all types of transport, including bicycles and pedestrian 13

The plane is lightened, and fuel drained from the tanks, leaving only sufficient to fly to its destination. The engines are started and thoroughly warmed up and checked. They are then revved up seemingly to their maximum. With the aircraft straining to go, the brakes are released, ropes holding the plane are cut (flying in all directions) and the aircraft starts to gain momentum 12

Any rumour that the plane is roped to tractors, trees or restricted by combined manpower, is not correct. The only restriction preventing the plane from take-off while under full throttle on the ground is the brakes are locked on the wheels. After what is considered sufficient time to warm up, the brakes are released, but there must be a delay in one set releasing and as the plane lunges forward at a fast rate, it slews 13

There are only three crew aboard, two pilots and the engineer. After about a hundred yards, the pilot attempts to lift the plane, but it lifts only slightly, and seems to stall. It falls back to ground, fortunately landing on to galvanised roofing iron which has been used to get the plane out of the bog. The plane now bounces back into the air, and although not really airborne, falls back and almost touches the ground. However, it gathers momentum, skimming the ground, and to everybody’s amazement and relief, becomes airborne. A great cheer rings out from the crowd assembled, but suddenly this turns to a horrified gasp. During all this time, the plane is veering to the left, and we can see that it is travelling dangerously close to the overhead electricity wires on the side of the highway. The wing of the plane misses them, but the margin must be only inches. The crew are lucky, and certainly have guts to even attempt such a dangerous take off. A tremendous cheer arises from the crowd assembled, and the aircraft makes a circuit before wending its way south west towards Amberley 12

Photographers have a field day 2

It is late. The campfire is now just glowing coals. I thank the following for sharing their yarns with us:

1. HQ of the USAF Historical Centre, Maxwell Air Force Base, Al, USA

2. Cyril Montey

3. Mary Watson

4. John Stanaway in “Hard Driving Headhunters”.

5. Lt.Col.Malcolm Sponenbergh (ret)

6. Lorna Ferguson from “At School in World War II”

7. F.W.Smith, then a medical orderly NCO.

8. Jean Craig

9. Hilltop Herald January 1994

10.Redcliffe and Bayside Herald, July 3,2002.

11.Fr Len Ridsdale

12. Jack Woodward

13. Albert Wilson

14. Enid Scarborough in Redcliffe Herald 3.7.200

Special acknowledgement must be made to Grace Beecher, who has collected much of this material for the Sandgate Historical Society.

Peter Ludlow

January 7, 2007

(Extract from “Moreton Bay Reflections” by Peter Ludlow)