Swim for your life! A survivors tale…


Sergeant Melvin O’Donoho’s survival after being shot down at Broome. 
b24-321sqn-cocos-islandsOn March 3, 1942 at 09:15 at Broome Airfield, Australia, the pilot of an Air Transport Command B-24A (40-2370) was given a list of nineteen evacuees from Java to be flown  to Perth. Among the passengers was Captain Charles Stafford (7th Bombardment Group medical officer) with wounded under his care, and seven ground crew from the 17th Pursuit Squadron, including sergeants Melvin O’Donoho and William A, Beatty.
Piloted by Major Edson E. Kester and Lt. William E. Ragsdale, the B-24 took off from Broome Airfield at 09:23, just prior to the Japanese air raid. The overloaded B-24 struggled to climb away when, at 600 feet altitude, it was attacked by a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero piloted by Warrant Officer Osamu Kudo who had just strafed the airfield.

O’Donoho recalls: “I was in the bomb bay. The plane had been converted into a transport for the emergency evacuation, and there were about 25 or 30 of us in it—army officers, medical personnel and some sick men…”

“I saw the incendiaries tearing into the plane; [(they] hit the gas tank and set the ship afire. Flames were seeping [into] the bomb bay and I got as low as I could. The plane was so full there wasn’t anywhere to move to…

The bomber crashed into Roebuck Bay roughly 10 miles from shore and 7 miles off Cable Beach. On impact, the fuselage broken into two pieces, the wings separated and the pieces sank within three minutes. Beatty and O’Donoho were thrown clear. They glimpsed Doctor Stafford trying to get his wounded out of the front section, just before men and plane disappeared. For a while there was yelling and screaming but soon they were alone in the water, struggling against the waves and a very strong current. They could not see the coast but the tower of smoke from the burning amphibians served as a landmark.


Broome, Roebuck Bay, after the Japanese strike om March 3, 1942. Photo by a Japanese reconnaissance plane

They swam steadily all afternoon and towards evening they were close inshore. Then the tide turned. It falls 29 feet at Broome and swept them out to sea again. They swam all night. When Beatty weakened, Donoho took him between his legs an kept swimming for the coast. By morning they were about 200 yards from the shore. But the tide started to turn again and Donoho could make no headway while towing Beatty. He had to leave him and go for help alone. The tide swept him five miles down the coast and he almost gave up. Finally, 33 hours after the crash he waded ashore. He scanned the sea but there was no sign of Beatty. There was a lighthouse in the distance but it turned out to be deserted. Forcing himself to stumble along the shore, he made his way back to Broome and reached the airfield at sunset, stark naked, badly sunburnt and totally exhausted…


Newspaper article about Melvin O’Donoho’s miraculous survival – Source: “Ancestral Ties”

Rescuers found Beatty the next day – he also had managed to get ashore. But he was delirious when they found him and they rushed him to the Perth hospital on the next plane but though he reached the hospital still alive he never regained consciousness and died…

Melvin O’Donoho fully recovered and was sent to serve as an armourer in New Guinea for (in his own words) “…15 hellish months, ducking into ditches when Japs bombed and running for [his] life when they strafed…”

He was the sole survivor. The rest of the crew were officially declared dead on March 3, 1942. Beatty and Bunardzya were officially declared dead on July 3, 1942.

Crw and passengers on board were:
Pilot Major Edson Eugene Kester, O-22354 (MIA / KIA) FL
Co-Pilot Captain William “Bill” Ragsdale, Jr., O-022514 (MIA / KIA) TX
Passenger Sgt Melvin O. Donoho, 18003946, 17th PS, armorer (survived) Covington, OK
Passenger Sgt Willard J. Beatty, 6256686 24th PG, 17th PS (MIA / KIA) CO
Passenger Captain Charles A. Stafford, 022686 Medical Corps (MIA / KIA) WY
Passenger Keats Poad, O-421213 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger 2nd Lt. Richard L. Taylor, O-427045 (MIA / KIA) NY
Passenger SSgt Howard C. Cliff, 7021697 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger SSgt John M. Rex, 6581412 (MIA / KIA) UT
Passenger SSgt Elvin P. Westcott, 6386186 (MIA / KIA) MS
Passenger Sgt Samuel F. Foster, 6252463 (MIA / KIA) AR
Passenger Cpl Jack T. Taylor, 18034892 (MIA / KIA) TX
Passenger Pvt Richard G. Sheetz, 13000321 (MIA / KIA) VA
Passenger 2nd Lt. Howard K Petschel, O-412158 7th BG, HQ (MIA / KIA) MN
Passenger Captain Charles A. Stafford, O-022686 Medical Corps (MIA / KIA) WY
Passenger Captain Harry W Markey, O-021663 (MIA / KIA) WA
Passenger Pvt Joseph N. Gordon, 34044808 52nd Signal Battalion (MIA / KIA) TN
Passenger Pfc Nicholas D. Bunardzya, 6999625 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger Pvt Clarence B. Johnson, 20911984 43d Material Sq, 32d ABG (MIA / KIA) CA
Passenger SSgt Leo D. Steinmetz, 6914316 (MIA / KIA) KS
Passenger Cpl Hubert McDonald, 14029544 (MIA / KIA) GA
All are memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery.

Based on the newspaper account in ‘” Ancestral Ties” – Clarence O’Donoho’s family website, Bob Livingstone’s “Under the Southern Cross – the B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific and information from the Air Transport Safety Database.

About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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