USAAF B-24 Consolidated Liberator 41-23762 Wreckage
- Aircraft wreck
Near Moonlight Creek, Escott Station, Burketown 4830
An amazing survival story began unfolding in the north Queensland Gulf country after a USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber named 'Little Eva' became lost while returning from a strike mission against Japanese forces on the north coast of New Guinea in December 1942. After being caught in a severe thunderstorm the aircraft lost compass bearings and went off course. It eventually ran out of fuel over the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria and crashed near Moonlight Creek west of Burketown. Of the crew of ten, six survived after bailing out. Two survivors were rescued two weeks later by a party from Escott station, starting a search for the other survivors which lasted almost five months before one airman was found alive on Seven Emu station in the Northern Territory. The other airmen perished in the remote Gulf country. Today the wreckage of the 'Little Eva' lies scattered over several hundred metres of scrub with the wings and tail section still recognisable.
'Little Eva', serial number 41-23762, was among six B-24 D7’s of the 90th Bombardment Group, 321st Squadron, which departed from Iron Range air base on Cape York Peninsula, on the afternoon of 1 December 1942. Their mission was to attack a Japanese task force north of Buna, New Guinea, which included four destroyers. The aircraft, flown by Lieutenant Norman Crossan, carried a crew of ten. The task force was sighted, but when 'Little Eva's' bombs would not release after three runs over the target the aircraft left the formation and headed for Lae which had been chosen as a secondary target. After successfully releasing the bombs over Lae airfield Lt Crossan began the return trip in darkness with severe storms and poor visibility which made it necessary to cross the New Guinea ranges on instruments. Unbeknown to Crossan a compass malfunction led him to believe they were flying south for Iron Range, when instead they were actually flying south-west towards Burketown on the Gulf.
Five hours later with fuel tanks almost empty and on only two engines, he ordered the crew to bail out. Anticipating that the aircraft would burn on impact and create a visible location, he told them to assemble at the crash site on landing. Most of the crew including Crossan went out through the open bomb bay. However, four were trapped in the rear of the aircraft after a prematurely opened parachute snagged on a hatch and all died on impact. Only Crossan and another crew member, Sgt Loy Wilson, returned to the wreckage. The following day they began walking east towards what they thought was the Pacific Ocean and Cairns. After about ten days of following the coast and struggling through mud flats and tidal estuaries with no food and very little fresh water they encountered several stockmen from Escott station who raised the alarm for search parties to be sent.
Searchers on horseback from the North Australia Observer Unit (or Nackeroos as they were known) found four sets of footprints and followed them west for over 130 kilometres through rivers and streams swollen by heavy rains, but lost them after Settlement Creek near the Northern Territory border. Believing the men had been lost to the harsh environment they decided to give up the search little knowing of the struggle to stay alive that was unfolding.
The other four survivors-Lt Arthur Speltz, Lt Dale Grimes, Lt John Dyer and Sgt Grady Gaston the ball turret gunner-had met up the morning after the crash and decided to try and find the coast. They began walking west towards the Northern Territory. On Christmas Eve they came across an abandoned paperbark hut on Seven Emu station. Speltz decided to remain here as his feet were in bad condition, while the others continued west. Several days later Grimes was swept out to sea and drowned while attempting to cross the Robinson River. Dyer and Gaston returned to the hut where they had left Speltz. Weak and starving, Dyer and Speltz died from malnutrition during February 1943. Gaston continued to survive on fish and berries and on 21 April was found by Aboriginal stockmen looking for stray cattle-almost five months after the crash of 'Little Eva'.
- Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
- Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.
- Michael Musumeci. Iron Range Airbase: Carved in the Cape York jungle 1942–1945. Michael Musumeci, Mareeba, 2008.