Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Commander Col. David Bowling hosted the annual Bakers Creek memorial observance Monday to honor 40 Army Air Corps Soldiers who died in an airplane crash June 14, 1943, near the town of Bakers Creek in Queensland, Australia, during World War II.
The ceremony was the 13th held at the joint base on the anniversary of the crash since the Bakers Creek memorial, a gift from Australia dedicated to the lives lost, was placed at Fort Myer in 2009. Monday’s observance also marked the 78th anniversary of the air crash, the worst single airplane crash in the Southwest Pacific during World War II.
As opposed to the all-virtual ceremony held last year due to the pandemic, this year’s observance was held in person and was livestreamed for simultaneous viewing by the families and friends of the victims across the United States and by partners in Australia.
Special guests included the ambassador from the Embassy of Australia in Washington D.C., the Honorable Arthur Sinodinos, and the Embassy’s Air and Space Attaché, Air Commodore John Haly.
Sinodinos and Haly laid a wreath from the Embassy of Australia, and Bowling and JBM-HH Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Majeski laid a wreath from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall to honor the victims.
The Soldiers, members of the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, had just finished some days of rest and recreation when they took off from the Mackay Airfield in Queensland in their U.S. Army Boeing B-17C at about 6 a.m. in foggy conditions headed for Port Moresby, New Guinea. There were six crewmembers and 35 passengers onboard. The flying fortress made a low altitude turn and a few minutes later — for reasons still unknown today — crashed just outside the small town of Bakers Creek, 5 miles south of Mackay. All were killed except for one survivor. The Bakers Creek monument is a tribute to the 40 lives lost.
Joint Base Deputy Chaplain (Maj.) Scott Kennaugh provided the invocation at the memorial. Of the 40 victims he said, “We honor their service not because of how they died, but because they swore an oath and were willing go where their country called them to duty. We take up the torch they passed to us; we hold it high to keep faith — with them and with one another — united in defense of freedom.”
Mackay was a rest and recreation center for around 40,000 American service personnel during World War II.
In his remarks, Bowling shared personal sentiments as his way to remember the 40 victims of Bakers Creek.
“I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between their generation and our generation … specifically Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, and compare that against 9/11 — both very similar in nature — a rallying call for the nation to pick up arms … for the common good,” Bowling said. “I think we saw that clearly with our generation during World War II and we see that with our team today.
“I also remember what it was like to pack up my equipment and to kiss my wife and children ‘goodbye’ and head off to war. I remember what it was like to get on the ground, to wage combat in some faraway place. I remember after having done that for months on end, how tired you get, how worn down you can become, because the mission never ends … the fight is in front of you … and you must do what you have to do to get the job done. So I know when these 40 men took off for their rest and recreation, I know how excited they were when they boarded the aircraft and went to Australia. I can imagine what they did while they were on the ground — whether it was smoking a cigar or having a good beer or glass of bourbon. I know what it’s like; I can feel it because I have lived it. I also know the feeling as those days went on down … and their minds started to shift back to when they had to get back on that plane to go back to New Guinea. I know what that feels like. I have been on the plane.”
During his remarks, Sinodinos spoke of the victims as well.
“Like the colonel, I reflected on these young men who were a long way from home fighting a very tough battle in New Guinea, stopping an enemy that was primed to take Australia — if the U.S. had not been there,” he said.
Sinodinos spoke of the alliance between Australia and the United States that was based on values shared by both countries through every conflict since World War I.
“We fought for these decent human values through time,” he said. “So these young men who put on the uniform … they knew they could be potentially giving up their lives for standing up for what they believed in, and they were prepared to fight for that. So thank you to all of you who wear the uniform for your service.”
Details of the Bakers Creek crash remained shrouded in mystery for many years until the Bakers Creek Memorial Association, led by executive director Robert Cutler, worked to raise awareness of the crash, to find family members of the victims and to find a final home for the memorial. Cutler’s personal attachment to the crash was that his father, Capt. Sam Cutler, was the Soldier who scheduled the flight of the Boeing B-17C and saw the men off before the crash.
At the memorial, Cutler brought greetings and thanks on behalf of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association and the families and friends of the crash victims from 23 states across the United States.
“Today we honor their memory by recommitting to the ideals for which they fought,” said Cutler.
Cutler then read the names of the fallen, after which he placed a bouquet of flowers at the base of the Bakers Creek monument that was followed by a moment of silence.
As part of the annual tradition of the Bakers Creek observance at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, the ceremony has closed with the reading of “The Ode of Remembrance,” an Australian tradition where the verse is read at commemoration services held to honor the fallen and wartime experiences of service men and women.
This year, “The Ode” was recited by Ross Crunkhorn, the president of the Washington D.C., Sub-Branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia.
“The Ode” ends with the line, “Lest we forget,” which was repeated by those in the audience.