In November 1945 a RAAF transport aircraft crashed on a 7,000’ mountain peak during a short flight from Jacquinot Bay to Rabaul in New Guinea. All twenty eight on board lost their lives. Among the crew was Sister Verdun Sheah, whose remarkable life and premonition of the accident made the loss all the more tragic.
The loss of the aircraft at the time also created considerable anguish back in Australia for the RAAF, Australian government and relatives of those on board. This was the fourth Douglas transport lost in as many months and the other three were still missing.
First there was a series of thumps and heavy bumps as the plane began bouncing through the tops of the trees, followed by the screech of tearing metal as the aluminium fuselage sank further into the branches and began impacting with heavier branches and limbs.
For those on board it all seemed to be happening in slow motion. In that same split second of time Sister Verdun Sheah probably knew that the deep premonitions she had recently been experiencing might indeed be now correct.
Not a soul survived. The airforce Dakota lay shattered and silent, just a mere 100’ from the mountain crest. So close and yet so far. A slight back pressure on the control column by one of the pilots during the flight would probably have brought the plane clear.
During World War II the Australian air force operated a number of squadrons flying the immortal Douglas DC-3, Dakota or C-47. These plodding transports, some of which are still flying today, operated far and wide throughout Australia and the South West Pacific.
To complement these Dakota flights, especially with wounded soldiers and ex POWs on board, the RAAF had created their flying nurses. All trained sisters to begin with they undertook a further specialised aviation course to gain their “wings’.
Based at Lae, on the northern side of New Guinea, in November 1945 was No. 33 Squadron RAAF. Further inland by road at Nadzab was No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU) and staff member Sister Verdun Bernice Sheah.
The flight for 15 November 1945 was a regular courier run, beginning at Lae and on to Jacquinot Bay Airfield and Rabaul. Allocated for the flight was RAAF Dakota A65-54 with the civil registration VH-CUP.
It is said that Sister Verdun Sheah offered to stand in for another nurse, who was rostered for the flight and reported in sick. Verdun, who was 29, had been born at Narrandera and trained at Leeton Hospital before enlisting in the RAAF in 1941.
Pilot for the day was Flight Lieutenant Ron Hanrahan, a former Woolworth’s branch manager of Sydney. Hanrahan had some 1382 hours flying experience but only 138 on Douglas DC-3s. The co-pilot was Flight Lieutenant Grahame Lobwein, from Toowoomba in Queensland, who had earlier been awarded an Air Force Cross for air sea rescue work in the Darwin area. Both men, although with a good flying record and hours in other smaller aircraft, were relatively new to Dakotas and had only started flying them four months earlier.
The radio operator was Flight Sgt Douglas Bruderlin of Singleton, New South Wales. There were also two unusual aspects of the flight. Eleven former Indian Army POWS, liberated earlier from Wewak, were also on the flight as well as a stowaway, LAC Norman Blake of Melbourne. Three navy passengers, six army personnel and four other RAAF members made the total of 28 and a full aircraft.
It had been an uneventful pre dawn departure flight from Lae, up the coast to Finschaffen, then across the sea and along the southern coast of New Britain. The aircraft, VH-CUP, had covered the three hundred odd miles in about two hours with two stops. At 9 a.m. the Douglas transport departed Jacquinot Bay for the fifty minute flight to Rabaul, on the far end of New Britain. This was tiger country, compared to the earlier scenic trip, with thick jungle and volcanic mountain peaks to bar the way.
Sometime early in the flight it was noticed that there was an unlisted RAAF passenger on board. Twenty year old Norman Blake was apparently brought up front to the cockpit and allowed to send a radio message back to Jacquinot Bay, to report his absence. This in flight distraction to the crew, fifteen minutes into the journey, might have contributed to the looming fatal consequences.
The cool tropical clouds and soothing rumble of the aircraft’s twin radial engines were a welcome respite from New Guinea’s hot and humid coastal aerodromes. Passengers relaxed in the cooler air as the aircraft plodded for height. It was a steady cruise climb at the usual 325 feet a minute and 130 m.p.h.
No two pilots deliberately fly into a mountain top so it must be assumed that VH-CUP continued its cruise climb, possibly on auto pilot, into cloud or rain. Were they checking their maps, slightly off course or was the World War II map listing the mountains at the incorrect height. It seems a combination of all three.
Slightly to the right of the aircraft’s direct track lies an un-named mountain that on modern aviation maps is listed as 7,598 feet high. Wartime maps list it, however, as only 7,000 feet. It now appears that the two pilots thought they would clear it by a comfortable 500 feet. In fact they were 98 feet short and flew into the mountain tree tops a mere 100 feet from the peak.
New Guinea is notorious for its rock studded clouds. The country’s mountain peaks are cluttered with hundreds of aluminium skeletons of crashed aircraft that nearly just cleared them. Many accidents were due to weather and others to pilots flying without oxygen and suffering from the heightened self confidence of hypoxia. Last but not least were pilots trusting maps in a time when they were simply not accurate in mountain heights, some peaks being thousands of feet higher and even lower than actually marked.
Twenty minutes out and thirty miles from departure RAAF Dakota A65-54 with twenty eight souls on board, including Sister Sheah, struck the top of the unnamed New Britain mountain peak. The position was just six nautical miles inland from Wide Bay and a coastal area known as Milim.
When the RAAF courier aircraft failed to arrive at Rabaul a search was quickly organised. More than usual panic set in back at RAAF headquarters, the press and Australian government circles. In the preceding four months three other Douglas transports had disappeared and still not been found.
A Royal Air Force Dakota KN-344, with a RAAF crew, had failed to arrive at Milne Bay in July. In August another RAAF Douglas [C-47B A65-61] had disappeared with a nursing sister Marie Craig on board, during a flight from Morotai to Horn Island. In September the RAAF Douglas VH-CIJ [C-47A A65-56] had disappeared within minutes of departure, also at Milne Bay. Now a fourth one was gone. It was a disaster of the worst magnitude.
A Catalina flying boat, some Beaufort bombers and another Douglas transport were quickly despatched as part of the search. In addition crash boats were sent to scour the sea and coast near where the Douglas aircraft was thought to have flown.
First to quickly find the missing plane on the following day (16th), was Squadron Leader Jim Maloney, the commanding officer of 33 Squadron. Maloney radioed back at 1400 hours that from the large area over which the wreckage was strewn it seemed almost impossible that any of those on board could have survived the crash.
Portion of a wing was sighted hanging from a tree and the tops of other trees were sheared ten feet down, for a distance of 200 feet. Pieces of silver and green aircraft scattered around suggested the transport did not burn. The last one thousand feet of the mountain peak had a grade of one in two. It was apparent by the wreckage distribution that Hanrahan and Lobwein had tried to desperately pull the nose of the Dakota up and over the peak at the last moment, but the steepness of the terrain had beaten them.
A ground party, which included a doctor and medicals assistants, was quickly despatched by foot to the scene. The group carried Verey pistols to signal overhead aircraft as well as pigeons to send written messages back to base. As the searchers approached the accident site a Boomerang fighter dropped smoke bombs to guide them on the final stage.
The search party quickly confirmed there were no survivors. After identifying those on board, recovering mail and personal items the group headed back to Jacquinot Bay to make their report.
The following day another aircraft from 33 Squadron overflew the crash site and dipped its wings in salute to the 28 below. It dropped two wreaths, one for the crew from the men back at the squadron and one for “Chic” (Sister Sheah). The one from the nursing sisters was made of frangipanni and lilies.
Senior Sister E.C. Smith, who served with Verdun, said she gained her nickname by her immaculate appearance under any circumstances, even after alighting after a long and difficult flight. “She was loved by other members of the unit, and also by the patients and others with whom she worked” Sister Smith said to newspapers at the time.
Verdun had already experienced some of the dangers of flying before her last fatal flight. In writing to her sister Lorraine back in Australia she spoke of having her aircraft turn back because of poor weather and on another occasion of an in flight engine failure, making it necessary to limp to Jacquinot Bay on one engine.
In October 1945 an American bomb dump at Nadzab went up only 500 yards from Sister Sheah’s campsite with blasts and whistling pieces of shrapnel overhead all night. “Nobody had a wink of sleep and I expected pieces of shrapnel to land in my tent every minute” Verdun was to write in her 22 October 1945 letter.
Verdun’s same last letter to her sister finishes up with the caring and encouraging words…”Cheer up, because there’s always a silver lining. Lots of Love Verdun”.
Verdun had been born at Narrandera NSW on 3 March 1916 and named by her mother after the then famous Battle of Verdun in World War I. She was the third of four girls and two brothers of a mixed Chinese Australian family and completed her education at Narrandera High School. Later she trained at Leeton District Hospital and continued further studies in obstetrics at Crown Street, Hospital, in Sydney. Sister Sheah then joined the RAAF from Leeton in August 1941.
In the month preceding her death Verdun began having deep premonitions of her death. Though normally a reserved person the feelings so concerned her that she raised them with a good friend from her Leeton days, then Wing Commander John Balfe. Balfe confirmed these premonitions with the writer in 1981, in a letter to Verdun’s sister in 1983 and later in a book he published on his wartime flying experiences.
Sister Verdun Bernice Sheah is interred at Rabual War Cemetery, Bita Paka, at grave C.B. 2. She is listed at the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour and also at Westminster Abbey, London, with other Commonwealth nurses who gave their lives on wartime duty.
At Narrandera the local tennis club has the Sheah Trophy while at nearby Leeton Hospital there is the Sheah Award for second year trainee nurses. In the 1960s Verdun’s sister Gabrielle, a prize winning seamstress, donated hand made and specially embroidered religious items to the Protestant Chapel at RAAF Base Laverton.
This story is dedicated not only to Sister Verdun Sheah but to all Australian nurses of the RAAF, Army and Navy during World War II.
As to the other three RAAF Dakota aircraft that disappeared in 1945, KN-344 was found on a mountain top near Milne Bay in 1946. The remains of the crew of three, which included the RAF radio operator, were recovered.
Sister Marie Craig’s plane [C-47 Dakota A65-61] was discovered in 1975, high on a West Irian peak, by an American missionary in a helicopter. A recent recovery of those on board was carried out by a combined RAAF and Indonesian team. However, VH-CIJ, the transport’s crew and passengers as well as the two thousand pound payroll on board, are still missing somewhere in the Milne Bay waters or nearby mountains of New Guinea.
The author acknowledges the enthusiastic assistance and trust of Sister Lorraine Sheah (Verdun’s younger sister), Matthew Thompson at the Australian War Memorial, Richard Leahy for maps and additional research. Squadron Leader Bob Kelly of Buderim (Qld) and the people of Narrandera in the compilation of this story.