It all started on the 8th of November 1943, when Crew 5 of No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron was taken off patrol section search operations to fly a skeleton crew down to the Ile Nous Naval Air Station, Noumea, New Caledonia. The purpose of the flight was to pick up a PBY5 Catalina flying boat, No. 4017 XXT which had undergone extensive repairs over the last month under the supervision of Flight Sergeant Jack Bartlett. Squadron Leader McGill with skeleton crew was to fly her back to Espritu Santo (a welcome break from flying operations).
Crew 5 members were as follows:
Captain: John Macgrane of Auckland (Flying Officer).
2nd Pilot: Sgt. Harry Farmiloe of Auckland.
1st Wireless Operator: Flight Sgt. Abb Ormesby of Auckland.
2nd Wireless Operator: Flight Sgt. Larry Heath of Waimate.
Navigator: Pilot Officer Ross Laurenson of Wellington.
Chief Air Gunner: Sgt. Walter Leadley of Wellington.
Chief Flight Engineer: Sgt. Ralph Rigger of Hamilton.
2nd Flight Engineer: Sgt. Noel Melvill of Timaru.
3rd Flight Engineer: Sgt. Jack Wakeford of Wellington.
0755 hours - 8th November
Given the green light from the sea plane tender, the U.S.S. Wright. Within minutes we were airborne from seagone [sic] channel Espiritu Santo and heading south. Landing XXR in the harbour of Noumea at 1255 hours, we buoyed up at Ile Nous Naval Air Station. At 1400 hours we boarded a Nats Barge which transported us to Noumea for a look at the town. We had just begun to enjoy ourselves in this very French town with its very public toilets and quaint little wine shops, when a couple of jeeps pulled up by us, manned by American M.P.s. Their only comment was "Nu Zealand Airmen? Get in" !! We didn't argue as they were armed. Back on the docks into a Nats barge and whisked back to the island of Ile Nous, marched straight into the American Navy briefing room, where we were informed XXT was fueled up and armed with four 250lb depth charge plus ammo and food.
We were to proceed once airborne to a position off the coast of New Caledonia where we would rendezvous with a convoy of 14 ships and conduct a square search around and ahead of her. A torpedo attack had been made on this convoy by a Japanese sub only four hours before.
Airborne again with a difference in the crew - Squadron Leader McGill had taken over as Second Pilot, Sgt. Jack Bartlett as Chief Engineer, Sgt. Ron Snodgrass of Nelson, a Chief Flight Engineer assisting. Sgt. Rigger and Harry Farmiloe stayed with XXR and held her in a state of readiness.
Rendezvous with convoy around 2000 hours and proceeded with square search. Flying at 6000 feet we took turns at radar watch. Chief Engineer Sgt. Bartlett reports malfunction of temperature gauge starboard motor. The square search started at the convoy, built up to the longest leg of a square (being a square of 100 miles long), then we reversed the procedure till we were back with the convoy, then away we would go again.
It was a bright moonlight night with a little cloud around, the sea was rough and a high wind was blowing. The crew was getting pretty tired and the roar of the twin 1250 h.p. Pratt and Whitney engines had a tendency to mesmerise or woo one to sleep. We were back on the 100 mile leg, only this time the Skipper was using George (the Automatic Pilot). Suddenly the starboard motor lost power and while the pilots were busy getting George disengaged the aircraft went into a flat spin. Sitting in the blister compartment I was suddenly pushed hard up against the bulkhead. Looking down I could see the sea springing up towards me at an alarming pace and I thought of my parachute in its rack only six feet away, but the force of gravity (or in this case centrifugal force) kept me forced into the corner. Somehow I managed to get my Mae West out from under the seat I was on, then I set to, to get the blister open. I broke just about every fingernail opening, and at 1800 feet it came open. The aircraft shuddered violently, gradually stopped spinning and at 500 feet Flying Officer McGrane had control again. I wasted no time putting on my parachute harness and placing my chute under my seat; likewise other members of the crew were doing the same. I had barely sat down when power faded again, only this time Johnny McGrane was ready for it. The flying boat went into a large yaw and then held course again - down in the tail end it was like being on the end of a large pendulum and 5 minutes later it happened again. I slipped forward to just below the tower. I grabbed Sgt. Bartlett's leg, he took his earphones off and bent down. "What gives?" I yelled. His reply "Number one plug is loose, possibly out". I returned to the blister compartment, plugged in my intercom and waited. The reassuring voice of Squadron Leader McGill came through, "I say chaps, nothing to worry about, just a little water in the carburettor, but just in case put your chutes on" !!! After a couple of hours and several dozen yaws I came to the conclusion two things were radically wrong. 1. My stomach wasn't as strong as I thought it was, and 2. If I didn't move forward smartly I would leave my supper all over the ceiling.
I made my way forward to the front gun turret and slowly regained my equilibrium. We stayed with the convoy until daylight, then returned to Noumea, landing at 0610 hours. (Note: No further attack was made on the convoy).
Footnote. Shortly after the starboard motor lost power, Flight Sgt. W.A.G. Ormesby made contact with Ile Nous Air Station, informing of them of our situation. Their advice was to return to Noumea, point the nose out to sea and bale out. We could not land as a high wind was blowing. the flare path would not hold and there was too much shipping in the harbour. (Had we bailed out with that high wind God only knows where we would have finished up). Now straight to the ablution block, a shower and then some breakfast, afterwards to commune with Morpheus for a long, long time. But it was not to be. The 500 hours check was due on XXR.
We had been awake since 0530 hours the day before, and had flown 16 hours 10 minutes. Airborne again at 0805 hours, this time with our original crew on board. At least Sgt. Farmiloe and Jack Rigger had had a night's sleep.
We landed at Lauthala Bay, Fiji, 7 hours 5 minutes later, on 9th November. After debriefing most of the crew hit the sack and slept until late afternoon, on the 10th. On the morning of the 11th of November, Crew 5 boarded XXR, gave her a good clean up and individually did all the checks, made sure all personal effects were packed up and left her for her 500 hours check by the team of expert ground crews.
On that afternoon we went into Suva and let off steam, but fortunately most of us were back at base by 10.00 p.m. Little did we realise that the events of the next 36 hours would affect us all for some time to come.
On the morning of the 12th November we were on standby to fly 4021 back to Espiritu Santo as soon as she had been test flown; however a malfunction on the run-up meant delay. I reported to sick bay as I found I was partially deaf in one ear. The flight Sgt. took a look - "yes, I can fix that". Out comes a syringe full of water and after several squirts, "Thanks Flight, that's great, I can hear again - what came out?" "Two frogs and a ton of wax", was Flight Sgt.'s reply, "Where were you last night?". At 11.45 I walked into Sergeants' Mess and at 12.10 the Orderly Sergeant arrived. "Crew 5 at readiness? Quad waiting to take you to briefing in 3 minutes". "Hold on Sergeant, is this the test flight?". "No way", replied the Sergeant, "it's on ops".
I ran to my quarters, grabbed my flying kit, plus gas mask, water bottle and Luger pistol. On the way down to briefing, somebody volunteered the information that a troop ship had been torpedoed 100 miles south of Tonga. At briefing we learned that the San Juan, carrying some 1,429 service personnel was torpedoed at 0900 hours. One torpedo in her engine room and one in her No. 1 hold.
F/O Stan Kirk of Auckland replaced our Navigator, P/O Ross Laurenson of Seatoun, Wellington - a welcome break for Ross as he was really tired. We were airborne by 1250 hours and arrived in the area at 16.20 hours, it being covered by a tropical rain storm. There was only one approach and that was a low level run at 70 feet. We levelled out and even then visibility was poor, but any lower was dangerous as we could have run into the stricken ship.
We had covered about four miles when suddenly there was a clear patch in the weather. What a slight unfolded before us! Hundreds of men in the sea below us and many, many more crammed onto bits of timber, life rafts, Carley floats, duck boards and pitifully few life boats. Off to the left, and right, on the edge of the rain, was a liberty ship [JS Note: 1561 SS Edwin T. Meredith] with landing nets or cargo nets over the side. The captain of the ship was steaming very slowly through the survivors. Many were able to climb up the nets to safety; however, he did not stop for fear of being torpedoed himself. When he cleared the rain squall - full steam for Noumea, we spotted a few seconds later the Martin Mariner, a Pan American Airways flying boat, but were unable to make radio contact with her. We estimated a 16 foot swell was running. It had picked up some forty-plus men and was not happy about taking off as he had damaged his starboard float. We continued flying around in a tight sweep, flying very low; some survivors waved to us and others I sadly noted were floating face down in their life jackets. Harry Farmiloe's came through the intercom system. "Stand by, the PBM is going to attempt to take off". We all offered a prayer for any wounded and the passengers in that aircraft as we knew full well what they would go through in the next 2 to 3 minutes.
The Mariner turned into the wind, looking like a massive bird with her gull wing and twin tail, and then I became alarmed that she was riding too low in the water. I racked my brains on aircraft recce - yes, she had a carrying capacity of only about three tons, with 40-plus men on, at least an extra 1 1/2 tons!!
She was now riding the swell and gaining speed into the wind, leaving a white trail of foam behind her. Suddenly she altered course to port, thus giving a little more lift to the damaged float on the starboard wing.
At this point she started to go through the tops of the swells, the tips of her propellors striking the sea, sending up great clouds of spray. The revs of the motor would drop rapidly, then as she went into the trough she would build up to full revs again, repeating the performance again and again, until sufficient speed and wind built up under the wings to give her lift, then she started hitting the tops of the swell with a mighty thump, leaving a trail of evenly-spaced white patches of foam behind her. Suddenly they ceased and, thank God, she was airborne.
Navigator, a new course for American flying boat base Tonga, and we were on our way climbing to 2000 feet; still lots of cloud, and poor visibility and we did not make a visual sighting of the stricken ship.
Landed at flying boat base Tonga, secured aircraft to buoy and awaited arrival of double ender boat. "You guys want supin?" came from two American sailors. "Yes please, fuel and depth charges". "Well, hell, the officer is away on leave. Anyway you want it, you've got it - might take a while though".
The barge finally arrived and we topped up the fuel tanks. Then while we were waiting for the depth charges we managed to get some tea which consisted mainly of spam and dehydrated this or that. The four depth charges duly arrived sitting in their cradles in the bottom of a Nats barge and at the same time the wind and the rising sea.
Flight Engineer Sgt. Rigger and Wakeford, the two Americans and myself managed two depth charges under the port wing. When we started on the starboard side the fun really began. The rising sea now a 2-foot chop rose to a 6-foot chop. The wind made the Nats barge do everything but stand still, unscrewing the protecting plate; fixing and lowering the hoist wasn't so bad, but when we took up the slack and started raising the 250lb depth charge a wave would pass under the boat, which slammed the boat up against the depth charge with considerable force, smashing the ply flooring.
The second and third wave made a shambles of more flooring as the barge had shifted position on each wave. Two things went through my mind: 1. How sensitive was the explosive?, 2. There was every likelihood of the depth charge going through the bottom of the barge.
After a very hairy performance we finally got the last one into position. By the time circuits were locked up it was dark, so another long wait while the flare path was laid out. Example - a number of 3-foot clingy type boats with an electric light on the top of a 5-foot pole powered by battery. These boats were anchored about a chain apart in a straight line directly into the wind.
Airborne at last, all feeling a little seasick. Within half an hour we sighted the torpedoed ship, about 20 miles away and burning brightly. Throughout the night we would use her as a bearing. Our job was to conduct a radar search and keep that sub down or sink her.
The night dragged on and the twin Pratt and Whitney engines droned on. Relentlessly, again and again we returned to the burning ship and started yet another square search. Sgt. Harry Farmiloe had decoded a message notifying us to expect a destroyer [JS Note: USS McCalla] and two sub-chasers in the area by daylight. We were to direct them to the survivors and that was another two hours away.
It was in the first light of dawn that we first spotted them. Just a voice on the intercom said "On the starboard quarters". I strained my eyes in that direction but all I could see were the black spots that I had seen on occasions for the last three hours, but wait, we were losing height and those spots were turning into blotches as we got closer, then the blotches turned into men standing on rafts, some waist deep in water. We climbed away from them and set course for the blimp on the radar screen some fifty miles away. About twenty minutes later we spotted the destroyer and sub-chasers. An enemy sub would have been bad news for the survivors at this stage of the flight. Flight Sgt. Heath came into the blister compartment, plugged in the aldis lamp and signalled the destroyer's given course and distance to reach survivors. The destroyer responded immediately and off we went to case the area of sea where the survivors were.
We came over them at 3000 feet and discovered that during the night they had spread out over an area of approximately five square miles. We flew right around the perimeter, then turned into the centre where there was a great number of life rafts. It was at this point that Sgt. Melville pointed out to the skipper the presence of sharks. The first pack appeared below and to the right, some 25 to 30 sharks moving inwards just below the surface; we were down to 500 feet and closing in, the first rafts very close now.
The second pack of sharks loomed up, only this time they were right on the surface, the centre of the pack thrashing the water and then, to my horror, I saw the two grey life jackets in the middle of the white water. Down to 100 feet we passed over the first of the rafts. Twenty to twenty-five men were standing in a tight bunch shoulder to shoulder up to their waists in the sea and the outline of rafts could be seen below them, the sheer weight having submerged it. Floating around the rafts were from four to nine men, some face down, then an astounding thing happened. After being in that exhausting position for twenty-one hours they each raised an arm very carefully not to upset the next fellow on the raft and waved to us. In the next few minutes we had passed some twenty rafts in a similar situation and they all waved. I believe it was their way of saying "thank you" for staying with us all night.
The intercom crackled. "Air Gunner stand by with the 05s will you, we'll give the sharks something else to occupy them". Quickly I locked the bulkhead doors, opened both blisters and switched on the reflector sights. Sgt. Farmiloe's voice came on the intercom, "Portside coming up, Bill". Unclipping the port browning machine gun I swung the barrel over the side, pulled the breech block back and let it fly forward taking the first half-inch armour piercing bullet into the breech, then I braced my legs as we went into a vertical bank. Suddenly the sharks were plum in the middle of the reflector sight, no lead was necessary as we were now doing a tight turn around them. I pressed the firing mechanism, putting three bursts of 25 rounds into the pack. One or two of the wounded sharks leapt right out of the water and when they fell back in the other sharks just tore them to pieces, the water coloured and turned pink, the carnage I had caused below was completed. We moved on quickly shooting up some ten packs of sharks. Some packs were swimming too deep, these we passed by. It was while we were moving onto the next pack that I spotted the duckboard. It was on the extreme out perimeter of the survivors with one man clinging to it, his legs in the water but his torso was on the board. He raised one arm and waved to us and a few minutes later we passed over a long beam with five men sitting on it and seven in the sea holding onto it and not far away three more floating face down.
At last the Destroyer and sub-chaser had arrived. We circled her while she made the first pick-up, landing nets over the side and three tiers of three sailors starting at water line to assist these exhausted men up to the deck. The destroyer stopped, then she rolled, the first two tiers of sailors disappeared under water and a minute later she rolled the opposite way, up came the sailors and each one was hanging onto a man. She rolled again and 15 to 20 men were on the nets, eager hands helping them over the rail to safety, where their clothes were stripped off them and they were taken below for a shower as most were covered in oil or diesel fuel.
The picking up of these men was being made difficult by the high swell that was still running; not only that, but when the destroyer headed for the next raft she only saw it when it was on the crest of a swell, what she did not see were six or seven survivors in between and directly in her path. When she did it was too late to dodge or stop. I watched them slide down the side of the ship, only one managing the net, and then to my horror they disappeared under the stern no the ship.
It was Sgt. Farmiloe's quick thinking that saved the day. He suggested that we use our nav smoke flare to not only mark a clear passage, but to indicate those who desperately needed to be picked up.
Flight Sgt. Ormesby got busy on the aldis lamp again, the destroyer Captain welcomed the idea and so away we went, laying a smoke flare every ten minutes, also using the aldis lamp when necessary. After an hour of this we broke away and did another sweep aroun the rafts and bits of wood, shooting up the odd packs of sharks which were still around and in large numbers. Then I spotted him, the man on the duckboard. He did not wave, he just lay there. I called up the skipper, pointing out the fact that he was all alone and obviously exhausted and would not last much longer. "Could I drop a smoke flare by him?" "How many smoke flares left Bill?" "Five" I replied. "Sorry" said the skipper, "He's only one, there are others worse off than him". I was about to reply that he had no-one to help him, no-one to keep his spirit up especially now that help was so near, then the skipper's voice came over the intercom - "Bring her round Harry, a raft has capsized over there, Larry contact the sub-chaser, get her over right away".
Half an hour later we were back near the duck board and I heaved a sigh of relief, he was still on and the sub-chaser wasn't far away. The men on the long beam got the next smoke flare and I secretly cheered as the sub-chaser headed over, but then she had moved away from the man on the duck board.
At last the survivors were few in the water and both the sub-chasers had left. Out round the perimeter again and eagerly I looked for the guy on the duck board for by now I was sharing his ordeal and then I spotted it. It took a full minute for me to accept that the duck board was empty - only another ten minutes and he would have been picked up.
My eyes searched the sea around that duck board, but no trace of him who had fought alone for thirty hours. A final low run around the wreckage in the sea and suddenly we all got a shock, for there below were three men in a rubber raft pulling the fourth one in. The rubber raft had been dropped the previous day by RNZAF Hudson bomber of No. 2 Squadron. The destroyer was 20 miles away and heading home. We soon turned her back and what a sight when he gave her full speed ahead. In no time the men were picked up and on their way home. I had a strange feeling that the sea had given back those four men.
The PBY4021 touched down at 12.25 on the 16th November 1943 at Lauthala Bay, Fiji, after 24 hours ops done on a test flight and flying 19 hours of the past 24 hours. Of the so-called few days off operational flying we had flown 44 hours 30 minutes on the 8th, 9th and 12th November 1943. Of the San Juan we heard much later - of the 1,429 Service personnel on board, apprximately 300 were lost.