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History

Dakota crash premonition
Young nurse foresees own death in World War 2 tragedy

By Bob Piper Military Aviation Research Services
Volume 48, No. 5, April 6, 2006

Sister Verdun Sheah was popular with colleagues and patients alike.

Sister Verdun Sheah was popular with colleagues and patients alike.

A sketch from 1945 of Sister Sheah.
A sketch from 1945 of Sister Sheah.
A Douglas C-47 picks up passengers at Milne Bay, New Guinea, in World War II.

A Douglas C-47 picks up passengers at Milne Bay, New Guinea, in World War II.

Photos courtesy Bob Piper

An RAAF Douglas C-47 warms up for a pre-dawn take-off.

An RAAF Douglas C-47 warms up for a pre-dawn take-off.

Photos courtesy Bob Piper

 
Fast Facts
*

Sister Verdun Bernice Sheah was born at Narrandera NSW on March 3, 1916, and named by her mother after the then famous WWII Battle of Verdun.

She was the third of four girls and two brothers of a mixed Chinese-Australian family and completed her education at Narrandera High School.

Later she trained at Leeton District Hospital and continued further studies in obstetrics at Crown Street Hospital, Sydney.

Sister Sheah joined the RAAF from Leeton in August 1941.

Sister Sheah is interred at Rabual War Cemetery, Bita Paka, grave C.B.2. She is listed on the AWM’s Roll of Honour and also at Westminster Abbey, with other Commonwealth nurses who lost their lives on wartime duty.

In Narrandera, the local tennis club has the Sheah Trophy, while at Leeton Hospital there is the Sheah Award for second-year trainee nurses.

In the 1960s, Sister Sheah's sister Gabrielle, a prize-winning seamstress, donated handmade and embroidered religious items to the Protestant Chapel at RAAF Base Laverton, Victoria.


TWENTY-eight people lost their lives when a RAAF transport aircraft crashed into a 7598 foot (2315m) mountain peak during a short flight from Jacquinot Bay to Rabaul, New Guinea, in November 1945. Among the crew was Sister Verdun Sheah, whose life and premonition of the accident made the loss all the more tragic.

Considerable anguish was experienced back in Australia not only by the relatives of those on board, but by the RAAF and Australian government as this was the fourth Douglas transport aircraft lost in as many months and the other three were still missing.

During World War II the Air Force operated a number of squadrons flying the immortal Douglas Dakota DC-3. These plodding transports, some of which are still flying today, operated far and wide throughout Australia and the South-West Pacific.

To complement these flights, especially with wounded soldiers and ex-POWs on board, the RAAF had created their flying nurses. The trained sisters undertook a
specialised aviation course to gain their ‘wings’.

Based at Lae, on the northern side of New Guinea, in November 1945 was No. 33SQN.

Further inland by road at Nadzab was No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit and staff member Sister Verdun Bernice Sheah. The 29-year-old trained at Leeton Hospital before enlisting in the RAAF in 1941.

The flight for November 15, 1945, was a regular courier run, beginning at Lae, then to Jacquinot Bay and Rabaul on New Britain. Allocated was RAAF Dakota A65-54 with the civil registration VH-CUP.

It is said that Sister Sheah offered to stand in for another nurse who was rostered for the flight but reported in sick.

Pilot for the day was FLTLT Ron Hanrahan, a former Woolworths branch manager from Sydney. Hanrahan had some 1382 hours’ flying experience but only 138 on Dakotas.

Co-pilot was FLTLT Grahame Lobwein, from Toowoomba, Queensland, who had earlier been awarded an Air Force Cross for air-sea rescue work in the Darwin area.

Both men were relatively new to Dakotas. The radio operator was FSGT Douglas Bruderlin of Singleton, New South Wales.

There were two unusual aspects of the flight – 11 former Indian Army POWS, liberated from Wewak, were on the flight, as was a stowaway, LAC Norman Blake of Melbourne. Three Navy passengers, six Army passengers and four other RAAF members made the total of 28 and a full aircraft.

It had been an uneventful pre-dawn departure flight from Lae, up the coast to Finschaffen, then across the sea and along the southern coast of New Britain.

The aircraft covered the 300-odd miles in about two hours with two stops. At 9am the Dakota departed Jacquinot Bay for the flight to Rabaul.

Just to the right of the aircraft’s track lies an un-named mountain that on modern aviation maps is listed as 7,598 feet high.

Wartime maps list it, however, as 7,000 feet. It now appears that the two pilots may have thought they would clear it by a comfortable 500 feet.

But 20 minutes out and 30 miles from departure, the Dakota struck the top of the peak. The position was just six nautical miles inland from Wide Bay and a coastal area known as Milim.

For those on board it must have seemed to be happening in slow motion. In that same split second of time Sister Sheah probably knew that the deep premonitions she had recently been experiencing might be fulfilled.

Not a soul survived. The Dakota lay shattered and silent, a mere 100 feet from the mountain crest – so close and yet so far. A slight back pressure on the control column by one of the pilots during the flight would probably have brought the plane clear.

New Guinea is notorious for its rock-studded clouds. Many accidents were due to weather and others to pilots flying without oxygen and suffering from the heightened self-confidence of hypoxia. Last but not least were pilots trusting maps in a time when they were not accurate in mountain heights.

When the aircraft didn’t arrive at Rabaul a search was quickly organised. More than usual panic set in due to the preceding tragedies.

A RAF Dakota KN-344, with a RAAF crew, had failed to arrive at Milne Bay in July. In August another RAAF Dakota had disappeared with a nursing sister Marie Craig on board, during a flight from Morotai to Horn Island.

In September the RAAF Douglas VH-CIJ had disappeared within minutes of departure, also at Milne Bay. Now a fourth one was gone. It was a disaster of the worst magnitude.

A Catalina flying boat, some Beaufort bombers and another Dakotas were quickly despatched as part of the search. In addition crash boats were sent to scour the sea and coast near where the aircraft was thought to have flown.

First to find the missing plane the following day was SQNLDR Jim Maloney, No. 33SQN Commanding Officer. Maloney radioed back at 2pm that from the large area over which the wreckage was strewn it seemed impossible that anyone could have survived the crash.

It was apparent by the wreckage distribution that Hanrahan and Lobwein had tried desperately to pull the nose of the Dakota up and over the peak at the last moment, but the steepness of the terrain had beaten them.
A ground party, including a doctor and medicals assistants, was despatched by foot to the scene. The party quickly confirmed there were no survivors.

The next day another aircraft from No. 33SQN overflew the crash site and dipped its wings in salute to the 28 below. It dropped two wreaths – one for the crew from the men back at the Squadron and one for “Chic” (Sister Sheah). The latter, from the nursing sisters, was made of frangipanni and lilies.

Senior Sister EC Smith, who served with Sister Sheah, said she gained her nickname, “Chic”, thanks to her immaculate appearance under any circumstances, even when alighting after a long and difficult flight.

“She was loved by other members of the unit, and also by the patients and others with whom she worked,” Sister Smith said to newspapers at the time.

Sister Sheah had already experienced some of the dangers of flying before the fatal flight. In writing to her sister Lorraine back in Australia, she spoke of having her aircraft turn back because of poor weather and on another occasion because of an in-flight engine failure, making it necessary to limp to Jacquinot Bay on one engine.

In October 1945 an American bomb dump at Nadzab went up only 500 yards from Sister Sheah’s campsite with blasts and whistling pieces of shrapnel overhead all night. “Nobody had a wink of sleep and I expected pieces of shrapnel to land in my tent every minute,” Sister Sheah wrote in an October 22, 1945, letter.

Sister Sheah’s same last letter to her sister finishes up with the caring and encouraging words…“Cheer up, because there’s always a silver lining. Lots of love Verdun”.

In the month preceding the Dakota crash Sister Sheah began having deep premonitions of her death. Though normally a reserved person, the feelings so concerned her that she raised them with a good friend from her Leeton days, then WGCDR John Balfe. Balfe confirmed these premonitions with the writer in 1981, in a letter to Verdun’s sister in 1983, and later in a book he published on his wartime flying experiences.

This story is dedicated not only to Sister Verdun Sheah but to all Australian nurses of the Air Force, Army and Navy during World War II.

As to the other three RAAF Dakota aircraft that disappeared in 1945, KN-344 was found on a mountain top near Milne Bay in 1946. The remains of the crew of three, which included the RAF radio operator, were recovered.

Sister Marie Craig’s plane was discovered in 1975, high on a West Irian peak, by an American missionary in a helicopter. A recent recovery of those on board was carried out by a combined RAAF and Indonesian team.

However, VH-CIJ, the transport’s crew and passengers, as well as the 2000 pound payroll on board, are still missing somewhere in the Milne Bay waters or nearby mountains of New Guinea.

Acknowledgements: The author acknowledges the assistance and trust of Sister Lorraine Sheah (Sister Sheah’s younger sister), Matthew Thompson at the Australian War Memorial, SQNLDR Bob Kelly and the people of Narrandera.

 

 

 

 

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