|Pilot 1st Lt Vern J. Gidcumb (KIA) IL
Crew List Crew & Passengers List (40 KIA)
Passenger Sgt Robert Foye (sole survivor) Witchita Falls, TX
Crashed June 14, 1943
Built by Boeing at Seattle. Assigned to the USAAF, 19th Bombardment Group based at March Field.
On March 31, 1941 this B-17 was one of twenty one 19th Bombardment Group B-17s flown from March Field to Hamilton Field. That same evening the B-17s departed for a 2,400 mile flight to Hickam Field on Oahu. This was the first mass flight of land base aircraft to make this trip, and the first time that the US Army had flown land-base aircraft to reinforce an overseas base.
During October 1941, this B-17 was flown from Hickam Field bound for the Philippines, piloted by 1st Lt. Alvin H. Mueller. The flight across the Pacific included stops at Midway Airfield, Wake Airfield, 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby, Batchelor Field near Darwin then to the Philippines.
On December 24, 1942 returning from a bombing mission, this B-17 dove from 20,000' to 12,000' when the bomber pulled out of the dive, the wing flexed causing permanent structural damage but returned to Australia safely.
After the dive, the bomber's wingtips were a foot higher than normal, according to crew chief Del Sparrow. Repairs were attempted, but instead the B-17 was reassigned to the 317 Troop Carrier Group, 46th Troop Carrier Squadron. All armament and flooring were removed and the transport was stationed at Mackay Airfield.
As a transport, this aircraft was nicknamed "Miss E.M.F." (Every Morning Fixing) with Australian call sign VH-CBA. Along with an LB-30 also converted to a transport, this B-17 flew Allied servicemen and supplies from rest & recouperation in Australia via Mackay Airfield back to 7-Mile Drome near Port Moresby (a 4.5 hour flight) and vice-versa.
These flights were described by a number of people including Teddy Hanks and Robert Foye both of Witchita Falls, Texas and Del Sparrow of Sonoma, California, as packing the troops in the B-17C like sardines in a can. When the aircraft took off the passenger had to try and inch forward so that the B-17 was not tail heavy during takeoff. Passengers did not mind the inconvenience of sitting on the floor without seat belts, because landing meant the start of R&R.
The sole survivor, Sgt Robert Foye of Witchita Falls, TX, had flipped a coin with Sgt Del Sparrow, of Sonoma, CA to be a crew member on this flight.
The verbal account of the crash, and eyewitnesses statements were recorded in the diary of Captain Cutler, the Red Cross commander in Mackay who keep a manifest of the aircraft and the accident. His son, Robert Cutler has his father's diary and wrote the book "Mackay's Flying Fortress: Remembering Australia's Worst Aviation Disaster in World War Two".
At the time of the accident wartime security in Australia meant that everything about the accident was classified. The seriousness of the accident and bad publicity that might result if disclosed saw that nothing was released about the crash.
The Australian police report was declassified and accessed by the Mackay RSL during the early 1990 but the USAAF/USAF classified report has never been located.
Locating the names and burials of the forty killed were researched by Colin Benson, RSL historian who pursued the history of this aircraft for eight years, plus Teddy Hanks in the US searching and digging for a number of years to get all the names. Still, we are actively seeking all the US Army documents related to this crash.
A memorial to the crew was built near the crash site outside Mackay, due to the efforts of the Mackay RSL and Robert Cutler. The memorial flies the American and Australian flag over the site. On special occasions, twenty state flags that represent the states of those who died are also flown.