The finding of ‘Beautiful Betsy’

Lieutenant William Emmett McDaniel, USAAF.

By John Telfer

From time to time many stories of World War 2 missing aircraft came to light but none more mysterious than that of the missing B-24D Liberator bomber of the 380th Bomber group of the United States Army Air Force, based in Darwin in 1945.

Other missing aircraft were found in the jungles of New Guinea and the South Pacific, such as the B17E Liberator on its first mission, called the “Swamp Ghost” which was found in the Agaiambo swamp in 1965, a C47 Dakota aircraft known as the “Swamp Rat” found in 1989 and co-piloted by Flying Officer Francis Milne of the RAAF, and the RAAF Beaufort Bomber carrying former Scots College student Byron Maclean, shot down in 1943, and found 57 years later.

However, the story of “Beautiful Betsy” has an aura of mystery, and here is why.

The “Beautiful Betsy” was classified as a “Work Horse” of the unit that had been retired from combat duties after 25 missions and around 1,300 flying hours, after its first combat mission over the enemy-held Timor Island in June 1943. The plane had been stripped of its armaments and officially pensioned off to be used for transport duties for personnel going on leave to the cities, and for carrying catering provisions that enabled the unit an escape from the monotonous diet in Darwin. The name “Beautiful Betsy” was given to the aircraft by its original pilot who named it after his wife Betsy Roth.

On February 26th 1945, the Liberator was scheduled to fly the estimated nine hours flight and over 3,000 kilometres, to Eagle Farm airport in Brisbane. The plane was captained by Lieutenant William McDaniel with co-pilot Lieutenant Eugene Kilcheski, plus a crew of 4. They departed from Darwin at 10 pm. Two Royal Air Force pilots, Flight Lieutenant Cook and Flying Officer Cannon, were the only passengers apart from the crew, as Cannon was to be married to a girl in Brisbane with Cook his best man, and were hitching a ride to Brisbane. Sadly, the aircraft took off and was never heard or seen again, and thus created a mystery as to its fate.

There was no radio contact or sighting of the plane which compounded the mystery, when it failed to arrive at Brisbane in the early hours of the next day. Reports differed as to where the plane was when it was heard flying over Claraville Station, near Croydon, Queensland, at about 3 am, and so a search of the area began for the lost aircraft. Major H. C. Williams of the USAAF was put in charge of a search party to follow the route taken to Brisbane the following day, with orders for two Liberator aircraft to follow the route taken by ‘Betsy’ and flying 25 – 30 metres apart, looking for any debris, as they now realised that there was little hope of finding survivors.

Despite the intense search operations over a broad expanse of the aircraft’s flight path and radio and media appeals, no trace could be found of the missing Liberator. There were conflicting reports that it had been heard flying over Cowan Downs, 25 kilometres south of Donora Hill, but this was discounted later after investigation.

In 1967, hopes of locating the missing “Beautiful Betsy” rose when parts of a missing Liberator were found at Elsey Station in the Roper River area, south-east of Darwin.

At this point hopes were high that the missing plane had been found at last and a new search party was formed under the command of Group Captain Keith Rundle, a retired RAAF officer, assisted by another retired RAAF officer in Wing Commander Ed Plenty of Darwin. However, after visiting the site and talking to Aboriginal stockmen, they concluded that the scattered parts of American servicemen’s equipment found in a dried waterhole were possibly ditched there by a passing American plane and that it was possible that U.S. ground troops had once been camped in the area.

Other leads were followed up after three Aborigines reported in 1982 that they had seen the missing aircraft and had sighted human remains at the site, but after another investigation, the search was abandoned and the mystery remained that perhaps Betsy had drifted off course and had crashed somewhere in the sea. The disappearance of “Beautiful Betsy” seemed to become one of those wartime mysteries that were never solved until much later. However, after remaining a mystery for 49 years, the missing aircraft was found at last in thick bushland on 2nd August, 1994.

Mark Roe was carrying out a back–burning operation in the Kroombit Tops National Park, about 80 kilometres from Gladstone in Central Queensland, when, from a high point, he saw a glint of silver and went to investigate. He came upon the wreck of the missing Betsy. He was the first person to lay eyes on the Liberator since 1945. He walked through the scattered remains which were spread over a wide area of the forest.

Reporting his find to authorities, a special recovery team from the United States Army found the skeletal remains of the crewmen and the two RAF officers. The only identifiable parts of the aircraft were the wings and tail section. They found Identity tags and personal effects while scouring through the wreckage and so the U.S. crew were buried in the American War Cemetery in Manilla, Philippines, and the two 548 Squadron RAF officers were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, America. The crash site has a monument placed there now but is only accessible to hikers and bush walkers in the National Park.

There had been many aircraft crashes in Australia during the war years of 1940 – 1945, but the most tragic was that of the United States B-17C Liberator that crashed near Baker’s Creek, Mackay, two years earlier than “Beautiful Betsy’s” last flight, with the loss of 40 American servicemen. So, the loss of life for many soldiers, sailors and airmen was not just confined to combat.

Although we revere our Anzacs and the sacrifice’s they made in their heroic defence of Australia in World War 2, we should never forget the members of our allied forces that also gave their lives, hundreds of kilometres away from their families and friends.