Young nurse foresees
own death in World War 2 tragedy
Bob Piper Military Aviation Research Services
48, No. 5, April 6, 2006
Verdun Sheah was popular with colleagues and patients alike.
sketch from 1945 of Sister Sheah.
Douglas C-47 picks up passengers at Milne Bay, New Guinea,
in World War II.
courtesy Bob Piper
RAAF Douglas C-47 warms up for a pre-dawn take-off.
courtesy Bob Piper
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.
was the third of four girls and two brothers
of a mixed Chinese-Australian family and completed
her education at Narrandera High School.
she trained at Leeton District Hospital and
continued further studies in obstetrics at Crown
Street Hospital, Sydney.
Sheah joined the RAAF from Leeton in August
Sheah is interred at Rabual War Cemetery, Bita
Paka, grave C.B.2. She is listed on the AWMs
Roll of Honour and also at Westminster Abbey,
with other Commonwealth nurses who lost their
lives on wartime duty.
Narrandera, the local tennis club has the Sheah
Trophy, while at Leeton Hospital there is the
Sheah Award for second-year trainee nurses.
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.
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
Just to the right of the aircrafts track lies an un-named
mountain that on modern aviation maps is listed as 7,598 feet
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
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 didnt 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.
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
In October 1945 an American bomb dump at Nadzab went up only 500
yards from Sister Sheahs 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,
Sister Sheahs same last letter to her sister finishes up
with the caring and encouraging words
Cheer up, because
theres 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 Verduns
sister in 1983, and later in a book he published on his wartime
This story is dedicated not only to Sister Verdun Sheah but to
all Australian nurses of the Air Force, Army and Navy during World
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 Craigs 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 transports 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 Sheahs
younger sister), Matthew Thompson at the Australian War Memorial,
SQNLDR Bob Kelly and the people of Narrandera.