In my post The First Casualty, I mentioned the little-known historical fact that the very first fatality of the campaign on mainland New Guinea during World War Two was a civilian air pilot, Kevin Parer. Parer was killed while sitting in the cockpit of his aircraft during a surprise Japanese air raid on Salamaua, on the 21st of January, 1942. Unknown to me at the time, was that just several hours later, to the east of nearby Lae, a Royal Australian Air Force Catalina flying boat was shot down by the same enemy aircraft that had attacked Salamaua, Lae and Bulolo. Eight of the nine crew members of the Cat were killed, including the pilot, a United States’ Navy airman, Lieutenant George L. Hutchinson. With his death, Hutchinson became the first American serviceman to be killed in combat in Papua and New Guinea, long before the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division was committed to the Papuan Campaign at Buna.
Born in 1910 in Colorado, the United States of America, George Leland Hutchinson graduated from the U.S. Naval College and became an aviator. Stationed with the American Legation (Embassy) in Canberra prior to the war in the Pacific, Hutchinson volunteered to fly with the R.A.A.F. and was assigned to No.11 Squadron which flew Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Another U.S. naval aviator, a Lieutenant S. Weller, also flew with No.11. Hutchinson had trained at the R.A.A.F.’s Seaplane Training Flight at Rathmines on the New South Wales coast, southwest of Newcastle, in October 1941.
On the 21st of January, 1942, Australian Army forces were based at Port Moresby in Papua, and Rabaul on New Britain in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. The latter garrison was on edge due to recent enemy air attacks and the expectation that a full-scale invasion was imminent. Small detachments of the territorial unit, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) were also at Lae, Salamaua, and the Bulolo Valley in New Guinea.
Piloting Catalina A24-9, Lt. Hutchinson and his crew of eight Australians departed Port Moresby for a routine air patrol from Samurai in the southeast of Papua through to Lae on the Huon Gulf of New Guinea. Another source claims they had radio equipment to deliver to Salamaua, at the southwest corner of the Huon Gulf, however it is unlikely that if they did set down upon the protected waters of Samoa Harbour, Salamaua, en-route, they stayed for long, as they would have arrived just after the first Japanese air raid on the township and airfield there – which took place just after noon – and would have been forewarned that enemy fighters were still in the region. In fact, Port Moresby had received an emergency signal from Salamaua that the small advanced refuelling base was being attacked, and Moresby was about to alert A24-9 when the Catalina sent their own signal.
At about 2 p.m. and roughly 64 kilometres east of Lae while flying back along their previous patrol route, Lt. Hutchinson and his crew were surprised by a flight of Japanese fighter aircraft flying parallel to them but in the opposite direction. The radio operator alerted Port Moresby of their predicament – “Being attacked by five fighters” – as Lt. Hutchinson attempted to gain altitude and hide in a cloud bank. They were not quick enough. A short time period later came another message “On fire.” Then nothing. The aircraft was not heard from again.
Of the nine crew aboard the flying boat: Lt. Hutchinson; the co-pilot, Pilot Officer T.N. Rowe; Sergeant D.C. Coote; Corporals J.R. Wyche and T.H. Keen; Leading Aircraftsmen J.E. Craigie, A.D. Meadow, and A. Downes; and A.C.1 K.L. Murphy, only Corporal Thomas Keen survived.
Keen was the starboard gunner and from his report of the combat after he returned to Port Moresby and recovered from his ordeal, we have the only details of the fate of the other seven crew.
Keen recalled that they were flying at a height of about 1,000 feet when they sighted a total of 12 enemy fighters. The cloud cover was at 7,000 feet, but while Hutchinson was climbing, “The Japanese passed them and then “came down astern in formation.” The second pilot, Australian Pilot Officer Rowe, climbed down into the ‘blister’ of the Catalina to supervise the work of the two side gunners and act as a third observer. The enemy aircraft had a longer gun range than the Cat and scored the first hits – on the blister glass itself, which “flew to pieces” – before Keen and the port gunner Craigie could respond. When one of the enemy came within Keen’s range and angle, he fired several bursts, with Rowe stating after the second, prolonged burst, “you’ve got him.” That one attacker dived out of the fray, but by this time – only a matter of seconds into the engagement – the damage to the Catalina from the enemy guns had started at least one fire, with smoke beginning to fill the main cabin of the aircraft. The port gunner Craigie fired at a target, but was badly wounded in either one or both shoulders within moments. “[T]hey seemed to be coming from all directions,” Keen recalled later, and either more fires had been started, or the original fire had spread. Keen heard Lt. Hutchinson announce “calling Control, I am going to jettison the bombs,” but then the telephone went dead and nothing more was heard from the pilot. Keens’ gun had jammed and he was unable to fix it, and the “flames were licking in through the glass onto [his] back.” Noticing the aircraft beginning to lose height, though still “in the climbing position,” which indicated that either the pilot was dead or incapacitated, or the controls of the aircraft had been lost, Keen left his gun and noticed his fellow blister gunner Craigie still at his own weapon, but motionless and “staring out astern.” Craigie was dead. Keen made no mention in his report of Pilot Officer Rowe, who had been in the blister with them.
After trying to get forward into the cabin to check for other survivors, unsuccessfully due to the smoke and flames, Corporal Keen exited the aircraft, noting that the bombs were still on board and afraid the heat would explode them. His harness and parachute pack were damaged and partly wrenched away from him in the slipstream – “The whole pack was above my head” – but he managed to regain control and pull the rip chord. As his parachute deployed, an enemy fighter fired at him, but he played dead and escaped further attention. He heard the aircraft smash into the ground and briefly saw it “blazing on a ridge about a mile away.” Keen became hung up in the tree canopy, but luckily only about 10 feet from the ground, and was able to release himself and tumble to the ground as Japanese fighters swept overhead. He had come down in the vicinity of a village named Yambo, and with the help of local natives and the German Lutheran Missionary at Hopoi, Father Lehner, Keen was eventually taken to safety at Lae, then still in Australian hands, and later Port Moresby. For the remainder of the crew, there had been no chance of surviving the impact, even if they had survived the attack in the air.
Three days later on the 24th of January, Mrs. Gertrude Helyn Hutchinson, who was then residing at the Chevron Hotel in St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, was informed by the Australian Air Board of the loss of her husband. “Regret to inform you,” the telegram began, “that your husband Lieutenant G.L. Hutchinson is reported to be missing but believed to have lost his life as the result of air operations on the 21st January 1942. Any further information received will be immediately conveyed to you.” The United States Naval Attache, which had an office at 357 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, was also informed.
The entire crew, the first to be killed in air combat over mainland New Guinea (not counting Rabaul on New Britain) were initially declared “Missing believed killed.” It was not until mid-to-late March ’42 that they were declared officially dead. In the interim, locals from Yambo had found the crash site and been able to identify and bury only three sets of remains which had been thrown free of the aircraft. That and the receipt of sole survivor Corporal Keen’s report, convinced the authorities to declare all eight men officially dead.
It was to be more than two years before the local graves of the three crew members whose remains had been found, could be disinterred and examined in an attempt to identify them. George Leland Hutchinson was identified by his dental records and was eventually returned home to the United States, interred at Golden Gate National Cemetery on the 1st of February, 1949, seven years after his death, the first American serviceman to die in combat in the Southwest Pacific Area. The first of many.
[References provided upon request*].
* I had written much of this post and researched the information from various other sources prior to stumbling upon the Pacific Wrecks website, which also stated that Hutchinson was the first American killed in the SWPA (or simply ‘New Guinea’). At the risk of looking as though I have simply cut and pasted from Pacific Wrecks, I’ve decided to go ahead and post what I had originally written – with minor additional detail from the aforementioned website – with the aim of further contributing to the memory of Lieutenant Hutchinson and the six Australians who died with him on that fateful day. None of you have been forgotten.