No survivors. Salvage… impossible: Alexander Morgan and the ‘Lady Ann’

Feature image caption: The B-24D Liberator was the largest warplane used in the South West Pacific. This picture of the rudder from the ‘Lady Ann’ was taken by the author in 1976.


Guest blog by Mark Clayton


**Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains an image of people who have passed away**


Thirty-three year-old Queensland dairy farmer Bernard O’Reilly became a national hero when in February 1937, while searching alone in the rugged McPherson Ranges of South East Queensland, he discovered the wreckage of a Stinson airliner that had disappeared during a storm a week earlier with seven passengers and crew aboard. Public interest in his achievement has scarcely diminished since then, his story having been recounted in film, on television, and in numerous books and articles.

Just seven years after O’Reilly’s remarkable find, on the precipitous slopes of Mount Straloch in North Queensland, a 45-year-old labourer discovered the wreckage of an American B-24 Liberator aircraft which had been missing for a year, having also disappeared during a storm with 12 crew and passengers aboard. Chances are though, no-one reading this will have ever heard of Aboriginal man Alexander Morgan, whose December 1943 discovery solved what was, then, one of Queensland’s deadliest aerial mysteries.

This view of Mount Straloch was taken 1 June 1956, 13 years after the Lady Ann was discovered by Morgan (QImagery QAP0625112).
This view of Mount Straloch was taken 1 June 1956, 13 years after the ‘Lady Ann’ was discovered by Morgan (QImagery QAP0625112).

Reporting his remarkable discovery to the local police should have earned Alex Morgan at least a ‘thank you’, if not some commendation. Instead, he was promptly charged with a criminal offence, convicted and fined for having stolen (i.e. ‘souvenired’) United States (US) Government property, his ordeal marking the beginning of lengthy police and US military investigations that would eventually enmesh many other families from the local Lucinda and Halifax communities, and continue until late the following decade.

Presenting at the Halifax Police Station the day after his discovery, Morgan, who claimed to have been gold prospecting at the time, recounted that …

‘at about 2 pm on Monday the 27th of December 1943 he and another Aboriginal named Ernie Williams, were climbing up Mt Straloch, Hinchinbrook Island, when they found the remains of a what appeared to be a large American aircraft which had apparently exploded after colliding with the side of the mountain.’

He also reported seeing part of a skeleton amongst the debris which was partly overgrown and weathered, indicating that it could have been there for some considerable time.

On duty that morning was 39-year-old Sergeant Francis West who, the following day, relayed news of Morgan’s discovery to his superiors in Townsville, adding that he intended to immediately proceed to the crash site.

By then of course the town’s population would have been abuzz with speculation about the Police Sergeant’s frantic activities, and the unexpected arrival of US military police. Although accustomed to the sight and sound of overflying military aircraft, the six hundred residents of this tiny sugar-growing community would have found incredible the notion that a massive bomber could have crashed nearby – unseen and unheard – and remain undiscovered for a year.

Although Mount Straloch was only 13 kilometres to the north, and clearly visible from Halifax, the ascent to the summit involved a gruelling half-day climb through mangroves and dense rainforest, much of that time spent scrambling over slippery granite boulders.

Sergeant West and seven volunteers (which included Morgan and two US military police from the nearby town of Ingham) arrived on the island at around 4.30pm on Tuesday, 28. Two hours into their ascent a violent storm forced them to stop and take shelter for the night. It was mid-morning the following day when they eventually reached the crash site at the head of a precipitous gorge, about 2,500 feet above sea level.

West spent the next three hours combing and describing the impact site in forensic detail, frequently transcribing serial and model numbers from shattered engines, carburetors, starter motors, transmitters, parachutes and dinghies. He also painstakingly transcribed the text of postcards and pay books, those at least that were still legible.

‘Inside the body of the craft amongst the debris was portion of the base and cranium of a human skull which was burnt to such an extent which would crumble and fall to pieces when touched. Numerous bones which appeared to be that of human beings, both large and small, badly broken up and burnt, were heaped up in the front of the left-hand side of the body of the craft. There were no traces of clothing or flesh adhering to any of these bones, and no trace of any identification discs, and it was not possible from that to estimate how many bodies were incinerated, nor from general observations to estimate how many persons were in the craft when it crashed. A search of all the debris inside the [plane] body was not possible without taking undue risk as the body of the craft [was] on the edge of a precipice with a drop of about 100 feet below, and was only being held there by a small steel cable about one quarter of an inch in thickness, which was caught on a stump and it was unsafe to dislodge it.’ [1]

Returning to Halifax shortly after midnight, West spent the rest of that day typing up his four-page, 2000-word report. This compelling document, written in the prescriptive constabulary idiom of the day, included several crucial details.

‘On the front portion of the craft was painted red in rough lettering the words “Lady Ann” with a heart symbol beside it. On the part of wing found on the lower ledge of rock was painted the number 123825, in yellow colour, the figures being about one foot high by 2 inches wide. The upper portion of the body and wings was painted a camouflage colour of brown and greenish grey.’ [2]

Within hours of receiving this information Captain Scully (US American Air Corps) called at the Halifax Police Station to confirm that Morgan and Williams had discovered a B-24 Liberator bomber that had disappeared more than a year ago, on 18 December 1942, while flying from Townsville to the remote Iron Range airfield on Cape York. It was thought to have been carrying nineteen US military personnel at the time, all of whom are presumed to have perished. [3] With trademark thoroughness, Sergeant West was also able to confirm, from rainfall records held at the town’s post office, that:

‘rain fell at Halifax on 15th, 16th 17th, 18th, 19th December, 1942, and that on 18th December 1942, 193 points of rain fell, and it is quite possible that the mountain was capped with cloud on that date, and there would be a very low ceiling for flying,… [suggesting] that the pilot was unable to see the mountain ahead of him.’ [4]

Allied aircraft crashes were commonplace throughout Queensland at that stage of the war. An American C-47 transport plane called Hoosier Traveler also crashed during a storm near Rockhampton the following day (19 December 1943), killing all 27 on board. Most plane crashes were located quickly, so it was highly unusual for US military aircraft to disappear altogether, especially along the heavily trafficked Queensland coastal route. [5]

Halifax Police Sergeant West reported, following his initial visit to the crash site in late December 1943, ‘30 ft below the body of the craft…a pair of gents white under shorts bearing the name KIPLE.’ 25-year-old Captain Peter E. Kiple of the US 36th Fighter Squadron was returning from leave in Brisbane when the Lady Ann crashed into Mount Straloch (Suffolk County News (Sayville NY) 5 March 1943, page 1).
Halifax Police Sergeant West reported, following his initial visit to the crash site in late December 1943, ‘30 ft below the body of the craft…a pair of gents white under shorts bearing the name KIPLE.’ 25-year-old Captain Peter E. Kiple of the US 36th Fighter Squadron was returning from leave in Brisbane when the Lady Ann crashed into Mount Straloch (Suffolk County News (Sayville NY) 5 March 1943, page 1).

Although transiting military aircraft would have been alerted at the time of the Lady Ann’s disappearance, the US Army Air Force (USAAF) was then so short of planes that it simply could not afford an extended search for this or indeed any of its other missing aircraft.

The factory-new Lady Ann had departed Hawaii for Australia 3 November 1942, and was being delivered to the American 90th Bombardment Group at Iron Range at the time it went missing. This was the fourth B-24 (and crew) that the 90th Bomb Group had lost in almost as many days. The Pacific Air War however had changed dramatically by the end of the following year when Morgan and Williams discovered the Lady Ann’s wreckage. By then the allied offensive had moved far offshore to the islands north-west of Australia, the 90th Bomb Group being in the vanguard of this island-hopping offensive.

Military aircrew often adorned their aircraft with multiple sobriquet, as seen below the cockpit (Maxwell House) and on the nose (Hear Ya Kno?????) of this B-24D Liberator. The discovery of a small panel bearing the diminutive name Texas Terror has led to the Mount Straloch B-24 being mis-identified ever since. The larger panel bearing the name Lady Ann, described in Sergeant West’s 1943 report, was souvenired after the war and last sighted by a Courier Mail journalist in May 2009 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Bert A Krawczyk collection, kr000460).
Military aircrew often adorned their aircraft with multiple sobriquet, as seen below the cockpit (Maxwell House) and on the nose (Hear Ya Kno?????) of this B-24D Liberator. The discovery of a small panel bearing the diminutive name ‘Texas Terror‘ has led to the Mount Straloch B-24 being mis-identified ever since. The larger panel bearing the name ‘Lady Ann’, described in Sergeant West’s 1943 report, was souvenired after the war and last sighted by a Courier Mail journalist in May 2009 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Bert A Krawczyk collection, kr000460).

In these rapidly changing circumstances the loss of the Lady Ann might have remained little more than a historical footnote had the US military not unexpectedly decided to make a second visit to the crash site. Although the recovery of human remains was just as important for the armed forces of the United States, the B-24 Liberator was also filled with state-of-the-art military technologies which the USAAF would have wanted either destroyed, or recovered. Returning from the crash site to Halifax on 7 January 1943, however, Colonel Tucker and Lieutenant Spry from the ‘Security Service’ reported finding that …

‘the wreckage had [already] been interfered with by unauthorised persons and that mail etc had been opened and interfered with. A number of wristlet watch bands had also been found that there were no watches or remains of watches in them.’

The implications of this tampering were obvious and unsettling, holding forth the possibility that sensitive military information (such as radio frequencies) and equipment (such as the still-secret Norden bombsight) might have also been removed.

The Halifax constabulary may or may not have been privy to these last concerns regarding military secrets. Regardless, hearing that the site had been tampered with gave them reason enough to be concerned on several domestic counts. Although the threat of enemy invasion had diminished, it was evident to Sergeant West that there may have been a serious breach here of the National Security Regulations, designed to restrict civilian movements (on land and water) and prevent civilians from interfering with military property.

Recently arrived from Brisbane, West would have understood the impossibility of keeping secret Morgan and Williams’ discovery. After all, this was probably the most exciting thing ever to have happened in Halifax, at least in living memory. For many locals the urge to see the plane crash, which everyone must have been talking about, would have been too great, regardless of wartime security regulations.

The Police Sergeant’s discreet enquiries quickly revealed the full extent of these breaches. Each person he interviewed was quick to implicate others in the Halifax district. The town’s residents, it emerged, had been visiting the crash site almost continuously since its discovery was first reported, the local police seemingly oblivious to the constant and illegal traffic. The Sergeant’s enquiries also revealed an extensive pattern of souveniring, as well as the more disturbing probabilities of theft and lying to police.

This unravelling was triggered by the local butcher, 61-year-old Gilbert Noble Carr, who reported to West that he and his son had seen a local resident named Carlo Buzio rowing a flat bottomed boat along Waterfall Creek, Hinchinbrook Island, on the morning of Wednesday 5 January 1944. [6] When interviewed by Ingham detectives a few days later, the 57-year-old Buzio – who had arrived in Halifax a month earlier – admitted having visited the crash site so as ‘to get a couple of souvenirs,’ conceding also that he didn’t have the permit that ‘Enemy Aliens’ like himself needed to obtain before boarding a marine vessel – a wartime requirement of the Aliens Restriction (Fishing Vessels and other Small Craft) Order. [7] [8]

The others were going to the crashed aircraft on the island and I thought I would go too. I know I should have the permit but I did not bother about it as I thought it would be alright to just go over to the island without it.

As a Prisoner of War on release from Brisbane’s Gaythorne Internment Camp, and no doubt alert to the seriousness of his predicament, Buzio cooperatively named the others who had accompanied him up the mountain. These included 19-year-old apprentice blacksmith Alick Clark, 37-year-old fisherman Domingo Murelaga (also a registered Enemy Alien), and Giuseppe Sganzerla, who had been released the previous year from the Gaythorne Internment Camp for Alien Labour Corps duties. [9]

When questioned, all four admitted souveniring from the crash site (viz. ammunition, a spoon, a camera lens, a piece of parachute harness, small pieces of aluminium, a control cable pulley and various nuts, screws and washers). Clark also conceded – like Buzio – that he was not in possession of the permit necessary ‘to be employed on or to be in a fishing or other small vessel’ (National Security (General) Regulations, Regulation 7C).

It was the luckless Clark’s testimony however that was to prove most damning, having seen Buzio…

with some American dollar bills. I am not sure what denominations the notes were, but I think one was a Ten Dollar Bill. I am certain this man had the Bills as he had them in his hand when he showed them to me. I do not know where he found [them], but I think he got them out of letters as there was a lot of letters lying about, also a lot of Christmas cards. This mail appeared to be tampered with before we visited the scene of the wreckage.’ [10]

Before long police were also interviewing 32-year-old labourer John Wildsoet who, ‘after consuming a considerable amount of liquor’ at the local pub, was said by several witnesses to have displayed two American Treasury notes which he claimed to have collected from the crash site. Wildsoet initially denied to police having souvenired anything other a few aluminium dixies (small dishes to cook and eat meals), but later confessed to taking American Treasury notes from letters found amongst the wreckage. His wife had thrown them into the kitchen stove ‘immediately the police car [had] pulled up outside his residence that morning.’

Wildsoet was part of another group that had made a bee-line for the crash site barely 48 hours after the initial visit by police and military personnel. He had crossed the Hinchinbrook Channel in a motor launch owned by local timber hauler Joseph Meaney, accompanied by First World War veteran Thomas Gibbs and 23-year-old Army deserter, Colin Twaddle. [11] Having survived the trenches of western France, 46-year-old Gibbs (Meaney’s deckhand) severely lacerated his ankle and wrist while clambering over the wreckage, and later had to be helped back down the mountain.

When initially interviewed, Gibbs and Meaney denied having interfered with any of the mail or having retrieved any souvenirs. However, when police were seen approaching his vessel on 8 January, he hurriedly tossed a hessian sugar bag full of Lady Ann souvenirs into the Herbert River. This bag, when later recovered by police, was found to contain a leather wallet.

‘Colin Twaddle was unable to be interviewed as he could not be located. I have been informed this person on the approach of the police slipped overboard from the boat into the water and swam underwater to the bank and secreted himself in overhanging trees and bushes, and that early on the morning of 9 January 1944 he left by bicycle for Tully.’ [12]

The full extent of Security Regulation breaches was gradually revealed as police investigations continued throughout January 1944. Others caught up in this ever-widening net included local farmer Herbert Edward Morley, his son Herbert Blake Morley and his visiting nephew, 17-year-old US Army employee Wilfred James Jolliff – all three having ascended the mountain on 3 January 1944.

Having discovered and reported the crash Alex Morgan had the greatest opportunity for looting the plane’s undisturbed mail contents, but he didn’t. Instead, he souvenired a rusted .45 calibre pistol which would almost certainly have been unserviceable after impacting the mountain at 347 km/h, being incinerated, then left exposed to the elements for a year. When police called at his house again on 10 February 1944 they also recovered:

One gold wedding ring with the initials M.C.N. and N.E.C. and the date 6-11-41 engraved on the inside. One signet ring. One gold watch case. One silver watch case. Two surgical scissors. Two Commonwealth £1.0.0 banknotes, Nos. P over 24 125990 and P over 37 5150 41, partly burnt. Two parts of Commonwealth £1.0.0 banknotes Nos. 0 over 84 66567 and 0 over 68 087460. Two American water canteens, with canvas covers. Two bush knives. Two mess kit knives. Two compasses. Two metal matchboxes. One gold spectacle rim. One 50 calibre projector [sic]. One ¼ dollar coin. Two dimes. One nickel. Two pennies. One Colonel’s badge of rank, (Eagle). One 2nd. Lieutenant’s nickel rank bar. One screwdriver. One pair of khaki shorts bearing the name “KIPLE”.

Morgan was adamant he had been given permission to keep these items, his claim later corroborated by the American military personnel who had accompanied him to the crash site. Morgan emerges as the most dignified of all the those caught up in this episode, the only one not to have either looted money, breached National Security Regulations, or lied to police.

rnie Williams (second from left) and Alex Morgan were never thanked, commended or credited with finding the missing Lady Ann. This picture was taken at the Cherbourg Mission in 1970 (SLQ Negative number: 34401).
Ernie Williams (second from left) and Alex Morgan were never thanked, commended or credited with finding the missing Lady Ann. This picture was taken at the Cherbourg Mission in 1970 (SLQ Negative number: 34401).

Although police recommended that Herbert Edward Morley, Herbert Blake Morley, Wilfred Jolliff, Gionanni Sganzerla, Domingo Murelaga, Carlo Buzio, John Henry Wildsoet and Joseph Henry Meaney all be charged with breaching the National Security (General) Regulations (Part VI, Regulation 69(1)(a)), these charges – it would seem – were never pursued.

Instead, Alex Morgan was the only person ever arrested and charged. At a Petty Sessions Court hearing before two local JPs on 28 January 1944, he was criminally convicted of ‘having stole[n] one .45 calibre pistol and seven rounds of ammunition, valued at £7.10.0, the property of the United States government.’

After six weeks of continual questioning by local police, visiting detectives and military personnel the town’s citizenry would have been hoping for an end to the matter. Only that wasn’t to be. Fifteen years later in 1959 a local spare parts dealer, Barry Atkinson, wrote to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to report that he’d visited the wreck and located ‘an object of personal importance inscribed “J.M.B.,”’ and another inscribed with the name ‘Dewey. G. Hooper.’ [13] Another local resident telephoned RAAF Townsville the following day to say that he had also recovered a human jawbone from the crash site. Within weeks a US Search and Recovery team had been dispatched from Hawaii, recovering further human remains and personal effects.

Before leaving Australia, however, the Americans asked, not unreasonably, if they could peruse and copy the correspondence file concerning the Queensland Police Department’s original 1944 investigations. On 16 October 1959 (the day before the US delegation’s scheduled departure) the Commissioner of Police formally denied the request on ‘departmental policy’ grounds, informing his officers – five days later – that he considered the matter concluded.

By insisting the book be closed on this episode the Commissioner has, however, simply guaranteed its enduring interest for the public. It paints an unflattering picture of this regional community, one that didn’t then – and still doesn’t – sit well with dominant home-front narratives. Australians back then weren’t all law-abiding citizens working tirelessly and cooperatively in support of the allied war effort. Revealed here, instead, are repeated instances of looting, lying and war grave desecration, motivated by self-interest. And nor was wartime Australia a just society, there being dark undertones of racism and social injustice evident throughout these investigations.

Unlike the still-celebrated Bernard O’Reilly, Alex Morgan – a survivor of the Stolen Generation – probably went to his grave wishing he had never discovered that missing plane.


About the author: Mark Clayton has held curatorial and conservation positions with the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the Powerhouse Museum, Queensland Museum and Museum Victoria. He has also been the Director of several regional art, social history and technology museums in New Zealand and Australia, including the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm Museum. A pilot with an abiding research interest in matters aeronautical, he was working as General Manager of Recreational Aviation Australia before joining the Queensland Museum’s Social History team in mid-2014.  In 2019 he commenced full-time doctoral studies (history), and continues to serve as as Expert Adviser for the National Cultural Heritage Committee (Australia) and the National Museum and Art Gallery (PNG).


Further Reading

Texas, no. Terror, yes., State Library of Queensland Blog, 23 September 2019.


Annotations

[1]           Sgt. F R West, 31 December 1943, Mt Straloch, Hinchinbrook Island – circa Dec 1942 – USA aeroplane 123825 (Queensland State Archives Series 16865 Item ID 2177886)

[2]           Ibid..41-23825 was the aircraft’s unique Army Air Force serial, identifying it as B-24D assigned to the 90th Bombardment Group’s, 400th Bombardment Squadron (United States Army Air Force).

[3]           It was later learned that there were twelve Americans on board, including a civilian representative of the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney.

[4]           The pilot of another B-24 bound for Iron Range the same day, Lieutenant Everett A Wood, also reported having narrowly avoided a mountain while flying blind at 3,000 feet, twenty minutes north of Townsville (quoted in Bob Livingstone’s Under The Southern Cross (1998), page 51.

[5]           Another B-24 (42-100292) Liberator crashed into the sea north of Hinchinbrook Island on 28 February 1944, killing all 14 passengers and crew.

[6]           Despite being in his early 60s, Gilbert Carr (Q217950) served with the Australian Army during the Second World War (NAA: B884, Q217950)

[7]              The term ‘Enemy Alien’ applied then to any non-British subject over the age of sixteen ‘possessing the nationality of a State at war with His Majesty.’

[8]           Although he had lived in Australia for twenty years, and was married to a British woman, Buzio was considered nonetheless to be an Enemy Alien (No. 36208). He was interned from Halifax on 5 March 1942 and later released from internment for work in the Alien Labour Corps (ALC) at Alice Springs. After working for some months he was discharged owing to physical unfitness. He reported at Halifax Police Station under the National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations on arrival from Alice Springs on the 5 of November 1943 and had resided in Halifax since that date.

[9]           From Ayr south of Townsville, Alick John Clark (Q217557), was visiting his uncle in Halifax when he was invited to accompany Murelga, Sganzerla and Buzio. Clark later enlisted in the Army (NAA: B884, Q217557). Sganzerla was a local cane farmer and a naturalised British subject of Italian origin.

[10]          Statement, 4 February 1944, Mt Straloch, Hinchinbrook Island – circa Dec 1942 – USA aeroplane 123825 (Queensland State Archives Series 16865 Item ID 2177886)

[11]          Gibbs joined the 33rd Field Artillery Battery in France in November 1916, returning to Australia three months later with an infected appendix (NAA: B2455, GIBBS O T)

[12]          A member of the 2/15th Infantry Battalion, Twaddle was eventually charged with desertion and court martialled on 27t June 1945 (NAA: A471, 70069). Quoted from a report by Constable Henry Ernest Moy (3576), 20 January 1944 (Queensland State Archives Series 16865 Item ID 2177886)

[13]          Hooper was the plane’s co-pilot, no-one else [known to be] on board having the initials ‘J.M.B..’ (Reported wreckage Liberator Hinchinbrook Island, NAA: J63, 33/29/AIR).


About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

6 Responses

  1. Mark has already been informed, but neither name (LADY JANE or TEXAS TERROR) is the name of the aircraft. Both of these are on small pieces of aluminium which came from the tail turret. This been definitively determined from the part numbers found on the metal. Texas Terror was probably the nickname the Texan gunner gave himself, and Lady Jane likely his girlfriend/wife. The aircraft was totally destroyed back to the rear bulkhead of the bomb bay. Aircraft names are on the nose, left or right side, sometimes both. I am the author of the book Under The Southern Cross which Mark referenced in this blog. I intend coming to Mark’s presentation.

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