West Australian Article – Sub Staged airmen’s great escape

August 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

THE West Australian ran this piece in their Saturday paper ahead of the release of the B Format (mass market edition) of Rescue at 2100 Hours. Out in all book stores September, 2014.


West Australian article

Here’s the text —

In addition to the centenary of Anzac, 25 April 2015 will mark the anniversary of another significant day in Australian military history.

On that day in 1942, an American submarine nosed its way into Fremantle Harbour, completing what many regard as the most daring escape of the Pacific War.

The submarine was bringing home 31 RAAF personnel, plucked off the coast of Japanese-occupied Timor after being trapped for two months.

On board the submarine were two Perth locals, 21-year old pilot Viv Leithhead and 19-year old wireless operator George Ettridge.

The group had been charged with keeping an aerodrome in Dutch Timor operational ahead of a huge Japanese invasion force.

Plans to evacuate the airmen were thwarted when the aircraft designated to collect them were destroyed in the Darwin raids on February 19.

As destroyers shelled the aerodrome and Japanese marines landed on Timor’s southern coast, the airmen were forced into the mountainous interior.

With the aid of a 180-kilogram radio transceiver they managed to organise a flying boat rescue off the remote northwest coast on March 3.

The date of the planned rescue coincided with the devastating raid on Broome.

The Empire flying boat slated to collect the men was among 15 flying boats destroyed in the attack.

The group eventually received the signal: “Broome raided. All flying boats destroyed. No hope possible for rescue.”

The group had very limited supplies – a handful of aspirin and quinine and a haversack of tinned food.

Four men would die, three from malaria and one from snakebite.

Two 300-strong Japanese patrols were dispatched to their position after a Timorese chief betrayed the stranded party’s location to the occupying force.

Finally, when all hope was lost – on the very day the group’s 24-year old leader, Flight Lieutenant Bryan Rofe, wrote that “eight men were at the brink of death through starvation” – an unlikely signal was received.

The USS Searaven sent the signal and it read: “Do you have a way of shining a light out to sea.”

Operating out of the submarine base in Fremantle, Searaven had been on a mission to supply Corregidor with 50 tonnes of anti-aircraft ammunition.

The mission was aborted en route following the news that the Philippines had fallen.

Searaven was redeployed to collect the airmen.

Many factors militated against the successful rescue of the trapped airmen.

The skies above the rendezvous point were streaked with reconnaissance planes while Japanese soldiers patrolled the beaches.

The location of the airmen was only 30 kilometres north of Kupang Bay, a significant Japanese naval base comprising light cruisers, destroyers and transports.

Given the number of enemy ships in the area, Searaven would surface at night adjacent to the rendezvous point.

Once in place, a 16-foot wooden boat held in the submarine’s superstructure was launched.

The plan was simple: three men would row the boat to the shore, pick up the airmen, and then row back to the submarine.

The problem was the surf. On the night of the rescue it was running at 15 feet.

To avoid capsizing, the boat would have to anchor beyond the surf while a submariner swam ashore with a rope attached to his wrist.

The rope would be anchored in the sand, enabling the malaria-stricken airmen to pull themselves through the surf.

Ensign George Cook volunteered to swim ashore.

As he prepared to leap out of the boat, something disturbed the surface of the water.

Cook shone a torch into the sea and counted three six-metre long sharks swimming beneath the boat.

He jumped in all the same.

It was the first of seven trips he would make from the boat to the beach to assist the sick airmen, earning Cook the Navy Cross, the US Navy’s highest decoration.

The airmen were loaded into the Searaven and a course was set for Fremantle.

In one final twist, a fire broke out in the submarine’s forward torpedo room a day from Fremantle.

The fire was extinguished, but the submarine’s engines were destroyed, requiring her to be towed into port.

Searaven docked in the submarine base on the morning of 25 April 1942 and the airmen were taken directly to Perth’s Hollywood Hospital.

All of them were dangerously underweight, one man going from 92 kilograms to 38 kilograms in two months.

Over the ensuing weeks and months, they were all nursed back to health.

Like the rest of the group, George Ettridge would return to active duty, serving on the islands to Australia’s near north until the war’s end.

Viv Leitthead was the only man not to survive the war, his Beaufighter crashing near the Aru Islands in August 1943.

All the airmen would suffer malarial attacks and nightmarish flashbacks

It serves as a reminder that the suffering they endured was not confined to their period of entrapment on Timor, but would last a lifetime.


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