“Death was close for Starving Airman”

Guest Post by Beverley O’Hara, daughter of Phil Schaffert, Manager of Gregory Downs from 1931 to 1944.

My father, Phil Schaffert, Manager of Gregory Downs Station, related this story of a U.S. Liberator that crashed near Moonlight Creek at approx 3.00 a.m. on 2 Dec 1942.

Fred Walden of Escott Station near Burketown, was mustering horses with a couple of his Aboriginal stockmen. They were working a saltpan when they sighted two strangers on foot. Fred thought they must have been Japanese because it was during the dark days of WWII.
Fred started to gallop away but a stockman rode up alongside him and said ‘I think that fella talk same way as us, he say come back, come back’. So Fred pulled up and went back. The fellows across the other side of the saltpan called out to him that they were Americans. He found them all tattered and torn and they said they had been walking for 10 days. Their feet were badly swollen. Fred quickly put them on horseback and returned to Escott. Later they were taken to Burketown Hospital.

That was when the news broke about the American Liberator ‘Little Eva’ crashing near Moonlight Creek. It was attached to the 321st Squadron of the 90th Bomb Group at Iron Range. The squadron was returning from a bombing mission in New Guinea. ‘Little Eva’ became separated encountering a severe storm. The bomber eventually ran out of fuel and the pilot, Lieutenant Crosson, gave the order to bail out.
Of the crew, 6 parachuted and 4 others remained on the aircraft when it crashed, one had attempted to parachute but his chute became entangled in the fuselage resulting in his death.

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USAF B-24 Liberator, “Little Eva” (Photo courtesy Michael Musumeci, Aircraft Crashes of Northern Queensland and the Pacific during WW2)

The six who parachuted safely, having absolutely no knowledge of their whereabouts, were undecided in which direction to travel. Two crew decided to travel in an easterly direction and the other four chose to travel westwards. The two travelling towards the east were those encountered by Fred Walden. They were able to give a fairly accurate description of two waterholes, one with a dead bullock at one end but otherwise they knew little of the surrounding country. It was established that one of these waterholes was called Turriechelpa Hole.

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“Little Eva” wreckage near Moonlight Creek
“Little Eva” wreckage near Moonlight Creek

As a result, several Army personnel from the Northern Observer Unit and the Voluntary Defence Corps (VDC) were instructed to search for the missing aircraft and crew. Rob McIntyre of Yarrum Station, Burketown was the OIC of the local VDC organised his search team. It was necessary to remove some instrument from the crashed aircraft which the authorities did not wish to fall into enemy hands, and to search for other survivors.
Wray Finlay, my head stockman, an Aboriginal stockman and I put together our riding gear and food rations and headed for Burketown. Enroute, we called at Planet Downs where Ted Carrington had arranged for his son Johnny and an employee, Maurice Aplin, to join us. Further along we collected Geoff Collis of Almora and finally met up with the other VDC members of the Burketown district. We were sixteen in all.
Frank Walden, a brother of Fred, was the only member of the party who had any knowledge of the area in which we would be searching. Most of it was heavily scrubbed and unoccupied. Very few people moved about not even the Aborigines. There were no roads and it was a featureless area. We had pack horses and were allotted two riding horses each.

We reached a place called Moonlight Creek where we made our main camp. It was rough country and after searching for about ten days, we were getting nowhere. It commenced raining and it appeared the monsoon season was setting in. We eventually found six parachutes which boosted our morale somewhat. We spread the parachutes over large antbeds which were 6 to 7 feet high and about 20 feet around making a landmark. At camp that night, we were full of hope for the search next day. We thought we must surely find the plane as we had also found a jacket, goggles, a compass, some bullets, compressed dried fruit and fishing lines apparently discarded by the airmen.

One of our searchers rode a grey horse so he was placed in the centre with a bell around the neck of the horse. In that way, we were able to search a straight mile without being separated from each other. We continued the search in this pattern. It then began to rain heavily. In addition, mosquitos and flies were creating havoc for both horses and men. We had a conference and the majority decided that if the monsoon was setting in, we would all finish up having to walk back to Burketown as our horses were tiring.
One of the Army personnel had a portable radio so I called my wife (Alice) at 6pm one night asking that she contact the Flying Doctor Service (on the pedal radio) requesting them to send out a plane to give us assistance. The plane came out the next day. We could see it circling and Frank Comans, the CO of the Northern Observer Unit fired his Very pistol, the pilot spotted us on horseback and dropped a note tied to a spanner which said ‘Liberator located so many degrees North West’.

We continued the search for another couple of days without luck and because of the continual rain, shortage of rations and tiring horses we had to abandon the search. With weary horses and disappointed riders, we returned to Burketown and our homes.

On our way home near the Brook Bridge, we met Bob Hagarty, the Police Sergeant then based at the Gregory Downs Police Station. He was on his way to continue the search. We gave him a sketch of the area we had searched, marking Turriechelpa waterhole. He badly wanted to find that Liberator.

Bob, Roy Marsh, the Sergeant of Police from Burketown and their two Aboriginal trackers, Willie and Norman, eventually found the crashed aircraft, buried the remaining four airman and retrieved the piece of equipment which appears to have been of so much concern. They continued to search for the four airmen who had headed west and whose faint tracks they had found occasionally. Unfortunately, the search was cancelled by authorities when his party had reached Wollogorang Station just over the Northern Territory border. Bob’s story of their hazardous search has also been recorded. (See Link below)


As the months passed by, we had almost forgotten the incident. Sometime the following year the remains of an airman were found washed high on a beach west of the Robinson River in the Northern Territory. In (June ?), 1943 the owner of Seven Emus Station, Jack Keighran, with three Aboriginal stockmen set out for a bark hut on the coast where he camped when mustering his bullocks. The story, as he later told it to me, was that when two miles from the hut, he decided to go down to inspect a spring water supply. He instructed the stockmen to continue on to the hut, unpack, boil the billy and put on some corned beef to cook.

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Location of Moonlight Creek and crash site

On returning, it was apparent that no unpacking had been done and the boys were in a huddle! On questioning, he was informed that ‘Mr Jack, big mob of Japanese up here – you can see them tracks’. I considered Jack Keighran to be one of the best Australian bushmen about. He was a first class horseman and cattleman and a crackerjack revolver shot. He had intimate knowledge of the bush.
He told one of the stockmen to come with him. The others were to remain with the packhorses. He rode to within about a mile of the hut and told the boy with him to wait. If he did not return, the boys were to head for home (about 100 miles) and raise the alarm about the Japanese.
Jack dismounted his horse, took out his revolver and set off for the hut. I remember Jack told me it was a fairly cool sort of day but the perspiration was dripping from his eyebrows and running down his arms. When within 150 yards of the hut, he started to crawl on his hands and knees. As he approached the hut, he saw nearby two feet protruding from under some bushes. There was a peculiar smell and it was obvious the feet belonged to a body. He could see also that the foot-prints described by his stockmen were all similar.

Jack went to the front of the hut where he saw a large sea shell and on it he saw written the day’s date and a message ‘If anybody should come, please do not leave. Just about on my last. Been hunting for food’. He realised that the writer was one of those missing American airmen. He returned to where the Aboriginal boy was waiting and sent him back to the two others to start searching.

The American was soon found and he was a pitiful sight being just skin and bone as he had not eaten a square meal for about five months. He had not the means or knowledge to light a fire of any kind. He told Jack all he had to eat was anything he could find off a tree or anything that crawled or hopped on the ground. He even ate dead fish floating downstream – the maggots apparently having eaten from the head down, he ate from the tail up!

Grady Gaston

The American, whose name was Grady Gaston, was taken slowly back to Seven Emus Station on horseback where Jack’s wife made a custard from eggs and goats’ milk. Jack said it was evident through the night that Grady understood to eat only sparingly as he could be heard scraping small amounts from the plate of custard.

He was one of the four who had elected to travel West from the crash site. One was swept away in a strong current when crossing a saltarm and this was the body found washed up on the beach earlier in the year. Three reached the bark hut. Of these three, one died from dysentery, the second died from malnutrition but this last man struggled along in his great loneliness and distress but determined to survive.

The United States Air Force despatched an aircraft to Borroloola in the Northern Territory with a jeep on board. The jeep was used to transfer Gaston from Seven Emus Station back to Borroloola from where he was flown out. He later spoke from the Flying Doctor Base at Cloncurry to thank all those people involved in the search. He said one of his first actions was to send a telegram to his mother advising he was safe and well! This was one of the tragedies of war but his courage, endurance and fortitude aroused the admiration and respect of all involved. All searchers suffered a similar regret that the monsoon and tired horses concluded the original search. Bob Hagarty and Roy Marsh regretted being recalled by officialdom and Jack Keighran felt keenly that he had no reason to visit the bark hut earlier.

Phil Schaffert, 1937

My father passed away in Cairns on 12 May, 1983 and since then several items of information have been recorded, some accurate and some less so. I am sure he would have been interested to read Grady Gaston’s own version of the events leading to his finding, over five months after the crash. Gaston visited Australia several times over the years and apparently tried to keep in contact with his finders. Gaston passed away in the USA on 8 January, 1998. The Aboriginal people of Borroloola have created The Aeroplane Dance depicting a re-enactment of the plane crash.

People have commented on why Gaston did not try more “bush food”. He had no knowledge of how to find it and nor would many Australians who do not live in remote parts of this country. That part of Australia is very harsh indeed and to this day is still almost trackless. His fight for survival under such tough conditions must be commended.
Kindly contributed by Beverley O’Hara, daughter of the late Phil Schaffert.

No photo description available.
Memorial Plaque at Doomadgee

Further Information at Oz at War web site, Link below:-


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