The death of 12 Japanese nationals in a plane crash near Auckland on August 2, 1943, was a closely guarded secret. Details were not released until more than 60 years later.
The US Liberator bomber crashed into a mangrove swamp just after taking off from Whenuapai air base on the first leg of a secret people-swapping operation. On board the plane, bound for Papua New Guinea via Brisbane, were 22 Japanese nationals, including women and children, three Thais and five US crew. The Japanese and Thais had been living in New Zealand when the Pacific war started and had been interned for more than 20 months. The men were held on Somes/Matiu Island in Wellington Harbour; the women and children in a house near Pukekohe. In 1943 a deal was struck to exchange them for English and American families being held in Japan.
Such was the secrecy of the mission that co-pilot John Wisda didn’t know there were women and children on board. Wisda, who went on to fly Boeing 747 aircraft for United Airlines, died in 2004, but before his death spoke of the accident.
He and the rest of the crew had flown for 26 days straight, shuttling US pilots from Auckland to the frontline fighter airstrip on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. “We were exhausted,” he recalled. “We had just gone to bed and at 10 o’clock at night we got a phone call – ‘we have a special trip to go out at midnight’. I was not told what was happening, who was going to be on board or what the cargo was.”
The weather was miserable. “It was raining quite hard … and foggy, cold. It was not exactly a night you wanted to be flying aeroplanes,” said Wisda, “but they said this had to go, so off we went.”
The passengers embarked while he was in the cockpit doing flight checks. He didn’t know who they were or that there weren’t enough seats, forcing parents to hold children on their laps. The bad weather slowed departure, the plane finally taking off at 2.20am. Captain Herschel Laughlin was at the controls. Wisda, beside him, was adjusting the fuel supply and the flaps. At 400 feet Wisda sensed trouble.
“I said, ‘We are turning to the left and he [Laughlin] pointed to the horizon [the gyroscope] and the horizon showed we were climbing straight up [level],” Wisda recalled.
But he convinced the captain the plane was actually banking steeply to the left and was given permission to turn on the left engine turbo-charger. “We just got it straightened out … when we first hit.” The plane was travelling about 320km/h when it belly-landed. Wisda was thrown through the cockpit window “and I rolled end over end about the length of a football field. My body was being whipped by the mangroves.”
He came to next to a burning tyre. “I was holding myself near this tyre in order to keep warm, my right hand was on fire, my right shoulder was dislocated. I did not know what I was doing. It was very hazy and all …”
Wisda was found more than an hour after the crash, the last survivor located. His body was so lacerated that surgeons took 13 hours to clean mud from his wounds.
Although Wisda survived, Laughlin, two crew members and 12 Japanese died. The wounded Japanese were taken to the Whenuapai base hospital where a young airforce woman, Trevar McDonald, was being treated for a minor injury. She was woken and told to leave immediately but as she packed, the injured passengers arrived. “Two little children were put in my bed. They were covered in mud and blood and were crying. Their little hands were hanging onto me. I was getting as much mud and blood on me as they had.”
McDonald was later ordered by airforce officers to “forget everything”. The surviving women and children returned to Pukekohe; the men to Somes/Matiu Island. The dead were quickly disposed of. Waikumete Cemetery’s crematorium was fired up. George Shirtcliffe, a crematorium assistant, was called in before dawn to help. As his boss cremated the bodies, “I did the parts,” George recalled.
Although 15 people died, the crash went unreported in the newspapers.
Wisda says the cause of the crash was clear: pilot fatigue, leading to pilot error. These were the days before pilots did checklists together; Laughlin simply forgot to turn on the gyroscope.
“He thought he was flying level when actually the plane was banking steeply,” Wisda said. “He missed it [the gyroscope]. I was busy. I missed it. There were your causes.”
It was only when contacted 60 years later by a television director that he learnt his passengers included women and children. “I didn’t know that, I didn’t know about the children,” said a shaken Wisda. “That is terribly sad.”
The Japanese eventually left New Zealand by sea.
The Liberator bomber was not the only “secret” crash at Whenuapai during World War II. On June 12, 1942, 11 people died when a B17 bomber crashed shortly after a night-time takeoff. The plane, the first B17 to visit New Zealand, was on a secret mission carrying high-ranking US and French officers. It crashed on a farm west of the airfield, bouncing across a paddock before coming to rest near the farmer’s house, close to State Highway 16. The plane was carrying four 500lb bombs. Two broke free on impact and rolled harmlessly away; the other two remained in the burning fuselage.
The farmer initially thought the crash was the start of a Japanese invasion. When he saw men clambering out of the wreckage, he phoned for help. While he was on the phone, the bombs exploded, killing all on board. The explosion was so big it was heard 10km away in Pt Chevalier.
RNZAF pilot Jack Wills, who witnessed the crash, said the plane “burst into flames, one great ball of flame”. When he arrived, ammunition from the machine guns was going off, “and it wasn’t very healthy because we would hear the whistle of the bullets going over our heads”.
Next morning, top US officers arrived to search the wreckage for what they said was a “top-secret apparatus”. Although the Americans refused to tell Wills what they were looking for, he had already found it. He handed the “irritated Yanks” an almost undamaged suitcase. Inside was a newly developed Norden bomb sighter, a device that was to improve the accuracy of bombing.
In 1941 bombing accuracy was so bad that just one bomb in 20 landed within a mile of the intended target. The Norden bomb sighter and later developments meant by the end of the war Allied bombers were able to drop four out of every 10 bombs within 500 yards of their target.
The cause of the crash was put down to engine failure, although witnesses heard nothing. It is now thought the more likely cause was “sematic graphic illusion”, which occurs when pilots get disorientated. The B17 took off in the dark, with no outside references. Pilots in such circumstances can, with the acceleration of the plane at take-off and with only their own senses to rely on, believe they are climbing steeply. They then push their controls forward and fly themselves into the ground. This is especially so when taking off from an airfield surrounded by rising ground, as is the case at Whenuapai when taking off to the west. During World War II, 80% of all crashes were the result of human error rather than enemy action.