ERIC WIBERG: Splashdown in the moonlight

By Eric Wiberg

ON the night of Tuesday, October 5, 1943, a pilot from the RAF named Hastie calmly pointed the sizeable B-25 Mitchell bomber towards the dark outline of South Eleuthera, just above Lighthouse Point. Despite losing an engine then the second one overheating, Hastie managed to calmly land his nearly 70ft, 35,000lb airplane a mere 100 feet from the beach gleaming white in the moonlight, without any of his men being killed. However, one of them was trapped unconscious in the back of the plane, which had already filled with water, and all hatches were blocked. Though they were already free from the plane and in inflatible rafts, two of the crewmen swam into the stricken plane which was settling in 10 to 15 feet of water, through the bomb doors, and pulled their unconcious shipmate through a narrow tunnel into the air and safety.

This is the extraordinary story of how a team of RAF pilots on the verge of being sent to Europe to fight Germans in the air found themselves being carried by stretchers organised by Constable Enoch McPhee of Bannerman Town, Eleuthera, taken by an American Jeep commandeered by Justice of the Peace HH Finley, and tended to by Dr Norman Kerr in Rock Sound Hospital. The crew were led by the pilot, Warrant Officer RN Hastie, Flight Sergeant VA McLennan, Sergeant TW Allen, and Wireless Operator SJ Trusson, all of them in the Royal Air Force.

Overall they were airborne less than four hours, crashed 70 miles from Oakes Field Nassau where they trained with the training unit OTU No 111, were driven 18 miles to the hospital, and then taken by boat another 64 miles to the Air Sea Rescue base at Motague Foreshore, Nassau. Their entire ordeal from liftoff in Nassau on Tuesday to being hospitalised at the RAF base in Nassau took nearly 20 hours. Members of the hamlet of Bannerman Town have confirmed to me that they played on the remnants of the aircraft, in the area which today is being developed by Disney cruises. Today, Bannerman Town is the southernmost inhabited enclave of Eleuthera, with a population shared with John Millar of just 65 persons. The most accurate account of events is provided by Search for missing aircraft, from the base record books. It reads: “B-25 FR384 CM was airborne at 5.36 pm upon anti-submarine patrol No 2f. At 5.40pm [four minutes after take-off] the the last W/T [Radio] contact was made with the aircraft. At 7.30pm, a signal was sent to [aircraft] CX requesting news of CM. The aircraft had no news to pass. Three aircraft were then detailed for air search... as far as Rum Cay. The aircraft were... airborne between 9.38pm and 9.42pm. A signal was sent to the RAF detachment at San Salvador, instructing the Widgeon aircraft to search... The Marine craft [ASR fleet], at Harbour Island and at Montague were ordered to stand by for air sea rescue, at 9.47pm.

When pilot officer Thompson, captain of [rescuing] CX, returned from flight, he reported seeing CM jettison its depth chahrges and head for land. At 10.28 pm a signal received from W/O Hastie, captain of CM, via Harbour Island that the aircraft had been ditched on Eleuthera’s East shore. All were safe, one man badly injured. It was requested that the Walrus [one-engine amphibious biplane] be dispatched. A signal was sent... to the effect that the missing aircraft had been found. The [searching] aircraft then returned to base [and] landed between 00.12am and 00.20am.”

The report then focused on what caused the crash: “The port engine of CM had failed to rectify the drag, and the captain had full boost to the starboard engbine. This engine then began to show signs of seizing up. It was then decided to make a forced landing. The depth charges were jettisoned and the aircraft was ditched on a rock, about 100 yards from the shore. The crew were able to leave the aircraft. The rear gunner was unconcious with head injuries, and was extracted from the aircraft by the other members of the crew. The dinghy was launched, and thew crew paddled ashore... The crew were taken to Rock Sound Hospital and there their injuries were attended to.

The Marine craft launch [HMS] P-89 at Harbour Island was instructed to proceed to the scene of the crash and to pick up the airmen. P-191 had proceeded [from Nassau] with a medical officer at Ship Channel Cay to render any assistance necessary. The HMS P-89 failed to locate the wrecked aircraft. A signal was received at 12.15am that all the crew were comfortable and in hospital at Rock Sound. P- 89 was signalled to proceed to Rock Sound to pick up the crew at 12.25pm. At 12.37pm, it was decided to send P-191 to Rock Sound and if insufficient petrol for the return was to await reloading. The Medical Officer arrived with P-191 and arrangements for the crew to be brought to Nassau were made. At 4.50pm, P-191 left Rock Sound Hospital, one member ingjured, and docked [in Nassau] at 10pm. The crew were taken to the [RAF] Station Hospital, and one member was detained.”

Residents amplify how the plane looked, saying it sat on a rock in just ten feet of water, 100ft from shore. The policeman and justice of the peace arranged use of the truck from a US Navy base in the Governor’s Harbor area, to drive to remote Bannerman town, load the stretcher case into it, and drive to the hospital in Rock Sound, which is a round-trip of some 100 miles.

Two months later the officer commanding OTU No 111 was effusive in his praise of the four men in the aircraft, submitting a report to his seniors which reads, in part: “On 5th October, 1943, RN Hastie was captain of Mitchell aircraft FR384 CM. Owing to loss of oil and the feathering mechanism of the propellor on one engine failed, and the consequent behaviour of the engine made it impossible to maintain height on the remaining engine. Hastie carried out his emergency procedure accurately and thoroughly, in spite of the difficulty in controlling the aircraft, and his crew were at their correct crash stations before the ditching was made. He showed good airmanship and a thorough understanding of the capabilities of his aircraft throughout and made a good touch down on the water.

The gunner, Sgt Allen was in the rear compartment of the aircraft. F/Sgt McLennan and Sgt Trusson, had already escaped, but, on discovering that Sgt Allen was still in the aircraft, they crawled back through the bomb bay tunnel and with great difficulty dragged him out. The task of pulling an unconscious man through this small tunnel required strength and determination. The read end of the aircraft was below water, so the hatches could not be used. McLennan and Trusson stood in grave danger of being trapped and drowned had the aircraft sunk before they had pulled Sgt Allen through the tunnel. Their prompt and gallant action prevented a very successful ditching from becoming a tragedy. The conduct and devition to duty of Hastie, McLennan and Trusson was highly commendable throughout.” Earlier the crew on this aircraft had gone to render search and rescue aid for other aircraft in distress in Castle Island, Acklins Island, and Andros Island.

Interviewed in early 2023, Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Eleanor Rolle and their neighbor Phillip McPhee fondly remember playing on the plane parts on the airplane, specifically the wings and fuselage. They said it was just off beach about 100 yards, in 15 or so feet of water on the Atlantic Side, less than two miles south of the end of public access to Light House Beach. Phillip McPhee, whose uncle was the assisting constable and Mrs. Rolle said that the men were stretcher cases, and that the vehicle found to move them that night was borrowed from Americans in Governor’s Harbour and was more like a Jeep than a truck. They added that lighter aluminum parts of the plane such as fuselage and wing parts were strewn along the beach and in the dunes on the way to Eleuthera Point.

In January of 2023 myself and colleagues in a scouting trip to find the plane swam on the shores and interviewed nearly a dozen persons in the communities of Bannerman Town, Weymss Bight, John Millar, Deep Creek, Cape Eleuthera, and Green Castle. These included Captain George Bullard, Clem Thompson, teacher Mrs Randa Davis in Rock Sound, Herbert Richards former staff to member of the Cotton Bay Club and owner of a restaurant, hotel, and bar at Green Castle, and Mrs Justine Brown, roughly 90 years old, who welcomed us into her home.

In Deep Creek Germain Pinder of owner of the restaurant and bar as well as a car rental, and Chad and Chris at Cape Eleuthera and Island School were also very helpful, as were the Pinders, owners of a car rental in Hatchet Bay. Altogether this was very much a team effort, with the actual remains of the aircraft yet to reveal themselves – it is the ocean side and in winter it was very rough and the water cloudy. As a footnote, London-born Dr Kerr’s daughter Marilyn rose to social prominence by marrying an Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to Sir Charles Dundas, governor of the colony up until the Duke of Windsor supplanted him in 1940. Marilyn became Lady Peek (later Quennell), wife of Sir Francis Henry Grenville Peek, fourth Baronet. She and her childrens’ portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London; Sir Francis was a first governor of the Lyford Cay Club on New Providence.


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