World War II Air Crash Monument Finds Permanent Home at Fort Myer
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 12, 2009 – A granite monument dedicated to 40 U.S. servicemembers who perished in an air crash in Australia during World War II has found a permanent home at Fort Myer, Va.
Yesterday’s dedication ceremony for the Bakers Creek air crash memorial was attended by Army Secretary Pete Geren; David Stuart, deputy chief of mission for the Australian embassy; Australian Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley, head of the embassy’s defense staff; other senior officials; and a number of relatives and friends of the accident victims.
On June 14, 1943, an Army Air Corps B-17C Flying Fortress crashed at Bakers Creek, near Mackey in Queensland. The troops aboard the bomber were being flown back to New Guinea after enjoying some leave time in Australia. Forty servicemembers died; there was just one survivor.
The monument now is located near Fort Myer’s Selfridge Gate, which enters into Arlington National Cemetery. Since November 2006, the monument had stood outside the Australian embassy here, and before that it briefly had been displayed at the World War II memorial.
Geren directed that the monument be placed on Fort Myer. The memorial, he said at the ceremony, serves to honor the passing of “40 brave American soldiers” and also celebrates “the enduring friendship between the United States and Australia.”
Due to operational security concerns at that time, Geren said, the families of the deceased servicemembers weren’t told of details of the tragedy until years later.
“Today, with Arlington Cemetery as the backdrop, we pay a long and overdue tribute to 40 brave Americans,” Geren said. “And, as we do, we honor all soldiers — past and present, American and Australian – who answer the call to duty and offer their lives [and] offer their sacrifice for the cause of freedom.”
The monument’s placement at Selfridge Gate is a fitting location, Geren said, because the entryway is named after Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, an aviator who perished as a result of a crash during the military’s first aircraft test flight, which took place on Fort Myer on Sept. 9, 1908. American air pioneer Orville Wright, who was aboard the aircraft with Selfridge, was injured in the crash.
Selfridge gave his life for his country, “as did the 40 brave Americans we honor today,” Geren said.
Osley said his country’s embassy has enjoyed being the custodian of the Bakers Creek monument for the past two years, but that the monument’s new location “is perfect.” Another monument dedicated to the servicemembers who died during the Bakers Creek air crash is located in Mackay in Queensland.
“It’s very heartfelt for Australians to honor these people in their own way back in Mackay and to now honor them over here,” Osley said. “They’re all very much heroes to all of us in Australia.”
The Bakers Creek crash was the worst accident involving a transport plane in the southwest Pacific theater during World War II, said Robert S. Cutler, a retired George Washington University professor and executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association. Cutler’s late father, Samuel, was an Army Air Corps captain who supervised the passenger loading aboard the B-17 before its ill-fated flight.
At yesterday’s Fort Myer ceremony, Cutler said he was “elated” that the monument, which was constructed in 2003, is now permanently situated at Fort Myer. The monument’s pink granite base, he said, was donated by the Australian government.
The memorial “is something that a lot of patriotic veterans felt they needed to ‘make right,’” Cutler said.
Bob Finney, an 86-year-old military veteran from Erie, Pa., recalled at the ceremony that he was a U.S. sailor aboard a destroyer tender in the North Atlantic Ocean at the time of the death of his brother, Army Pvt. James E. Finney, in the Bakers Creek air crash.
“I think this is wonderful to have their names on that monument out there and knowing at least somebody has thought of them and finally recognized what they have done,” Finney said.
Left to right, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Wright; Australian Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley, head of the Australian embassy’s defense staff; U.S. Army Secretary Pete Geren; Harry McAlpine, president of the Returned and Services League’s Washington, D.C., sub-branch; U.S. Army Col. Laura J. Richardson, garrison commander of the Fort Myer Military Community; Robert S. Cutler, executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association; and David Stuart, deputy chief of mission at the Australian Embassy pose next to the Bakers Creek air crash monument during a dedication ceremony held at Fort Myer, Va., June 11, 2009. DoD photo by Gerry J. Gilmore