ERIC WIBERG: Stranded US aviators rescued by Bahamian fishermen and a dream


Chart showing Great Inagua, left, and Little Inagua, centre, and Mayaguana, where their plane may have gone down.

INAGUA has many aviation mysteries to parse; the East coast of this 650-square-mile-island has no roads or airstrip and is very rarely visited. Three American aviators who were without food for 17 days were rescued by fishermen in Little and taken to Great Inagua. Then there was a tragic engine fire and crash from which a US Mail pouch washed up, but not a plane or bodies. Then a mystery plane with parachute and body was found by park warden Henry Nixon. Remains of the plane still there, and were found over a decade ago by a Bahamian sleuth in a seaplane.

U-boats and Allied military ships often transited the many channels around Great Inagua and reported on sighting it. On 10 August, 1942, U-598 under Gottfried Holtorf wrote in his U-boat log of a “Warning for SW of Inagua: American warning to all ships: Danger area established.... Ships should cross this area only under control of the USA Naval Authority.” Twelve days later he logged that “SW of Inagua 2nd time small yacht in sight. Suspect stationed as a patrol.” His colleague Hans Senkel in U-658 recorded a “Glimmer of light from the lighthouse on Inagua Island. The beacons are not dimmed.” On 29 August, 1942, U-600 under Bernard Zurmühlen wrote “Great Inagua” in sight, and U-108 was under Klaus Scholtz on 9 May 1942 when he logged “Inagua lighthouse in sight, and sailing vessel in sight.”

On 13 May, 1942, U-594 under Dietrich Hoffmann wrote that “Glow of the “Matthew Town” Lighthouse in sight.” And the next day: “Caicos Passage just E of NE corner of Great Inagua: A shadow in sight. I see a small vessel.” On 11 May 1942 Werner Winter in U-103 wrote “continued west of Inagua” to the Windward Passage. Beacons on Inagua burn as in peacetime. [Then] avoided a dimmed vessel. Not distinguished, if fisherman or patrol vessel. Hans-Ludwig Witt in U-129 wrote on the 14 of June, 1942 logged “Little Inagua Island in sight.” On 22 August, 1942 Klaus-Peter Carlsen in U-732 recorded that “I head for Little Inagua Island, to download [torpedoes] there under the protection of land. ...Boat is 1 nautical mile west of Little Inagua in the wind-shadow [lee] of the island. Downloaded 1 from bow and 1 torpedo from stern....” Just a mile from shore would men have been tempted to step ashore? Then on 5 March, 1944 the commander of U-154, Gerth Gemeiner logged “Iguna [Inagua] Island abeam. Nothing seen. Surfaced to charge and ventilate. Patrol vessel, two high thin rod masts, small diesel smokestack. Small cannon on the forecastle.....”

The islands sheltered friend as well as foe; Little Inagua was used for wind shelter at the same spot men in lifeboats from SS Potlatch. Between 27 and 30 July, 1942 the 48 survivors of the torpedoed American steamer SS Potlatch under Captain John Lapoint and Lieutenant Dorsey Lybrand landed on the northeast corner of Great Inagua. They stayed for two nights after following jackasses to water, then sailed the metal lifeboat to Little Inagua, found almost no sustenance and left for Acklins Island. Days later, they were rescued and taken to Nassau by Joe Carstairs in her yacht Vergemere IV.

On March 21, 1943, USS Hambleton attempted to rescue Allied survivors in the vicinity of Inagua, however this was carried out instead by USS Moffett, which “reported picking up two survivors, but a thorough search of all floating objects in this vicinity revealed no further signs of life.” That was “northeastward toward Inagua” from Guantanamo. Later, Inagua had the misfortune to be where a member of Miami’s 36th Street Army Air Field lost one of its own, Private DE Goldbeck, “who was overboard from Army Vessel H-121 on 16 February.” All stations were instructed to keep an extra-vigilant look out. Then on 17 May, 1943 a US Navy airship was mistakenly reported as sunk off Great Inagua when “the commissioner at Great Inagua reported a blimp down in the sea 6 or 8 miles offshore,” however it later landed in Cuba. In fact the US and British military sent out airplanes to reconnoiter Inagua, in part due to its strategic location near the Windward Passage, Hispaniola, Cuba, Guantanamo, the Turks & Caicos and open Atlantic.

On May 8, 1943 a C-46 cargo plane piloted by William B Inman lost use of its left engine due to a fire. Other aircraft heard the Maydays in quick succession and some saw smoke trails. The last known position was just to the west of Provo, Turks and Caicos East of Great Inagua. The other men in the airplane lost with Capt Inman were Joseph W. Mitchell, Jr, a civilian aviator, FL Deitz, and Harold D Carter, 2nd Lieutenant, a pilot-student. The pilot’s final radio message read: “We got bad engine. Wait, it’s getting... SOS, [call sign], bad engine. We going down now... is burning, on fire.” At the same time a plane going the opposite direction observed the left wing of Inman’s aircraft was afire. No further word was receieved. Nothing was found of the men or the plane, until “on 21 May 1943 two [locals] on the island of Great Inagua picked up a pouch of US Mail, which was later identified to have been on the missing aircraft.... nothing except the mail pouch had been seen”.



On May 2, 1943, a Douglas A-20B Havoc bomber, also of the USAAF was lost off 100 miles north of Haiti. On July 20, 1996 an open letter to the editor of The Nassau Tribune signed by Jo Watts in New York reads in part: “I would very much like to contact Mr. Emmanuel Matthews or any of his descendants.” Her father, John H Bunch enlisted in Oklahoma in the US Army Cavalry in 1940. His mother said that as a child, he pretended to be a soldier, carrying a tree branch on his shoulder. She described how an officer told his mother he was dead, but she refused to believe them. Instead, here is the family’s account of what actually happened to John Bunch in the Bahamas:

After just a few hours, the plane did go down with only minor injuries to the crew of three. They floated on a life raft for 2.5 days before sighting a small island... surrounded by reefs of razor-sharp coral. The surf and a strong undertow capsized their raft, and they lost everything: boots they had removed because of swollen feet, food, tools, weapons, and precious water. ...their bare feet were cut to ribbons on the coral as they waded ashore. During the night the men were attacked by flies and other insects that were attracted to their bloody feet, which soon became infested with maggots. They knew there had to be water on the island, because they had spotted some wild burros. Walking on their infected feet caused unimaginable pain, but they desperately needed water, so they searched. It was torture for them in the summer heat. There were no birds, turtles, fish; only flies. Sgt. Bunch, the pilot and navigator ate the fruit of prickly pear cactus. They used the sharp coral to scrape the spines off the leaves, so they could suck the moisture from them. It was their only sustenance for 15 days.

Meanwhile at sea, Hanfred Cartwright, a Bahamian fisherman owned fifty per cent of his boat and used that influence to convince his two partners to divert to Little Inagua after several days fishing... finally they agreed to go. Cartwright told them that he had had a dream the night before: Three American servicemen needed help. As in the dream, they found the three on the beach, waving their hands and shouting. Once on the boat, the grateful men were so hungry that they made themselves sick eating turtle eggs, barracuda and cornmeal stew.

Then on Great Inagua the people welcomed them with much fanfare and celebration. The Bahamian in authority even flew an American flag! Dad says they feasted for three days until the US Coast Guard could come for them. John Bunch and his friends were treated for minor injuries and exposure. They had been without shelter for more than two weeks; 17 days to be exact. Dehydration and sunburn were serious. He survived to return to Homestead Air Force Base, then to duty in North Africa weeks later. He became a POW in Italy, escaped and was re-captured at least twice.”

On May 20, the RAF noted that the “crew of Missing A-20 Found; ...the British Security Officer has received reports from Matthew Town that three survivors from American plane which crashed between Haiti and Puerto Rico, have been found at Little Inagua. The survivors, Lt RL Clark and gunners Bunch and Murray, are in the hospital at Matthew Town, suffering from shock and exposure. RAF requested the US Navy in Guantanamo to send a plane to remove the survivors to a military hospital for proper treatement.” Bunch’s daughter says they “will all be forever grateful to Hanfred Cartwright and we pray that God has blessed him and his children as we have been blessed. She located Hanfred Cartwright in 1995 while he was nearly 80 years old and in good health. He and his wife have raised ten children, the youngest graduated from college. Mr Cartwright and John Bunch, became correspondents, exchanging letters and small gifts. After 22 years in the Air Force, including US, Africa, Korea and Europe, John Bunch died in 1998.


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