Rob Parer writes: This is a great story about the day after General McCarthur's invasion of Aitape-Tadji on 22 April 1944.The Allies took it in one day! Imagine the soggy mess the strip would have been. The RAAF were amazing landing on it and not losing the lot of them. The Americans pulled out in October 1944 and the Aussies took over and fought their way to Wewak, and were there for the Surrender in August 1945.
WE set off from Cape Gloster on the long hop to Tadji Airstrip knowing that there was, as yet, nowhere for us to land - no properly prepared strip, only an area that had previously been a small enemy air strip.
On the plus side there had been a previous softening up of the place by naval bombardment and air strikes, and we were reassured by the fact that our assault troops, ground support and strip building units had gone ashore and were rebuilding the strip.
Even as we took to the air, additional landing barges were at the beachhead unloading all the necessary supplies to set up a brand new functional operational base.
So – away we went with blind faith.
When we got to the point of no return on our westward flight -- not enough remaining fuel for us to safely get back to friendly territory – we contacted the landing party, and they informed us “Come on in, we will have the strip ready by the time you get here.”
On we went, to arrive over our destination where this rather rough looking area of what looked like a road under construction awaited our arrival.
Billie and I were ordered to maintain a patrol while the others landed, for there was still only a narrow perimeter around the strip in our hands.
But then, goodness, one of those landing suddenly flipped over onto his back without going far along the strip in his landing run.
What had happened was the strip was right on the coast and only a couple of feet above sea level, and bomb and navel shell craters from the previous softening up were deep enough to penetrate the water table and allow them to fill with water.
The strip builders of the RAAF’s Airfield Construction Unit could only fix these with loose tramped earth and sand and hope for the best.
Unfortunately wheels coming across one of these wet loose filled craters sank and bogged and over went the aeroplane.
Of course, with those of us still in the air running short on fuel, and the strip being only wide enough for one at a time, wreckages had to be unceremoniously bulldozed out of the way.
As Billie and I circled, covering the others as they landed, watching, and noting that those who did land right way up had to get some sort of help off the strip. We made plans as to how we would attempt to stay right way up, especially as an audience had gathered to watch the excitement.
By this time the strip looked like a muddy construction site, with deep wheel marks from those who had landed and from the tractors and bulldozers that had gone to their rescue.
I reckoned one of our standard turning approaches, tail high, ‘see a little of where you were going’ wheeler landings might be a bit risky so harked back to early training days and what were called precautionary landings.
The idea was to get the speed right back with everything hanging out -- lots of drag with full flap, gills, wheels, open canopy, low and slow in a nose high attitude, with a fair bit of power.
In that attitude and with power the prop is taking a bit of the aircraft’s weight, and giving extra airflow over the wing centre section and control surfaces and the aircraft is more or less in tail down landing angle anyhow, while on approach.
Felt uncomfortable, and I could not see a thing straight ahead with that bloody great nose up high in the air, but I could see some trees on either side, so kept going. I felt the wheels, all three of them make contact, and straightway poured lots of power into the poor old girl, with the stick hard back in my belly, to give elevator help in keeping the tail down.
My faithful bird sloshed along for a short distance, but the part buried wheels soon prevented us going any further. The tractors came to get us out of the way while Billie had his successful turn.
My good mate Jim Harvey was one of the unlucky ones to turn wrong side up, and a little of his blood was spilt when he bumped his head. Your head is pretty close to the ground in an upside down Kittyhawk.
But for his troubles he was entitled to an American award - a Purple Heart. This medal was awarded to any serviceman who spilt blood on the field of battle.
Mate Jim’s aircraft was one of them, and it was interesting when I was able to talk to the New Zealand people who recovered and started rebuilding his Kittyhawk and tell them that the missing piece hacked from the rear fuselage with 414 painted on it was at Jim’s widow’s home in Surfers Paradise.
Jim’s crew had cut the piece out of the upside down wreck and presented it to him as a memento, and one of the restoration team, Charles Darby recently called on Gladys’ where she passed the piece of aeroplane on to Pioneer Aero Restorations.
‘Parer's War’ screens on ABC 1 at 8.30PM Sunday 27 April. You can view a trailer here