WWII Soldiers Who Were Killed in 1943 Crash Now Have U.S. Memorial

In memory of his fallen brother, Charles Williams, Bob Williams places a flower in front of a memorial dedicated to the Army Air Corps members.
In memory of his fallen brother, Charles Williams, Bob Williams places a flower in front of a memorial dedicated to the Army Air Corps members. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

The journey from Mackay, Australia, to Fort Myer in Arlington began almost exactly 66 years ago, on June 14, 1943, when 35 American soldiers and six crew members boarded an Army Air Corps plane that was supposed to return them to the battlefields of New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific.

Yesterday, after years of official secrecy and a struggle against Army red tape, a memorial to the men who perished on that flight was given a new home on U.S. government property. Relatives of the victims and World War II Army Air Corps veterans gathered with representatives of the U.S. and Australian governments for an afternoon ceremony at the Army post bordering Arlington National Cemetery.

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, speaking at Fort Myer, called the ceremony the "closing of one of the Second World War's final open chapters."

"It's 'mission accomplished' for a lot of us," said Robert Cutler, executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association, which has worked for nearly a decade to honor the victims.

The 1943 crash of an Army Air Corps plane at Bakers Creek, Australia, was one of the worst air disasters of World War II and remains the deadliest aviation accident in Australian history, but the accident was classified owing to wartime restrictions on reporting the movement of troops.

After learning the truth in recent years, relatives of the victims and other interested parties raised money for a memorial stone, which was completed in 2006. But when they tried to donate it to the Army for Arlington National Cemetery, the Army turned it down, citing space restrictions, and recommended the Air Force take it.

The association refused on the grounds that an Army plane carrying Army soldiers had crashed. Instead, the memorial was given sanctuary by the government of Australia and has resided since 2007 at the Embassy of Australia near Scott Circle in Northwest Washington.

The plane was a B-17C bomber that had been pressed into service as a daily shuttle flying soldiers on rest-and-recreation breaks back and forth from Port Moresby, New Guinea, where they were fighting the Japanese in Papua, to the seaside town of Mackay on the Coral Sea coast.

Before dawn on June 14, 1943, Army Air Corps Capt. Samuel Cutler, who ran the recreation facility at Mackay, supervised the loading of the men onto the aircraft for the morning flight to Port Moresby. The creaky plane had no seats for the passengers, who settled onto the floor. Cutler called the roll and closed the door.

After takeoff, the aircraft struggled to gain altitude in a fog, then turned around in an apparent attempt to make it back to Mackay. Instead the plane crashed at Bakers Creek, five miles short of the airfield.

All but one of the men aboard died. Family members were told little more than their loved ones had been killed in an air crash. Information about the accident was declassified in 1958, but no notice was made to family members.

Nearly half a century after the crash, while helping to move his father into a nursing home in 1989, Robert Cutler, then a professor at George Washington University, came across the diary his father, Samuel, had kept of his time in Australia.

"I put the men on the ship," an entry read, "and so had a direct part in sealing their fate. Also, I was at the scene of the crash and saw the mangled bodies, killed while flying at 200 miles per hour. Terrible."

Intrigued, Cutler asked his father about the entry and began researching the crash. Eventually, the quest took him to Australia, where residents of Mackay dedicated a permanent memorial to the victims at Bakers Creek in 1992. In 2000, Cutler and others formed the Bakers Creek Memorial Association to establish a similar marker in the United States.

But the Army informed the association in November 2007 that, without congressional authorization, commemorative monuments could not be placed in Arlington because the space is needed for burials. Geren received letters from members of Congress urging him to consider Fort Myer, where Orville Wright demonstrated his flier to the Army in 1908, and which is considered the birthplace of military aviation.

But the memorial hit another roadblock: Army lawyers raised objections, citing a then-pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court that would determine whether a municipality that accepted a donated memorial would have to accept any other memorials offered.

In February, the Court unanimously ruled municipalities would not have to accept other donated monuments, and Geren sent a letter to the association in May formally accepting the memorial honoring the victims.

Last week, the memorial was lifted by crane and taken to its new location at Fort Myer near the Selfridge Gate entrance to Arlington Cemetery. The gate is named for Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who died from injuries he received when the plane piloted by Wright crashed at Fort Myer and was the first fatality of powered aviation.

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