This is an edited extract from Courage In The Skies: The Untold Story Of Qantas, its brave men and women and their extraordinary role in WWII.
WHEN Corio lifted off the water of Darwin Harbour on the morning of Friday, January 30, 1942, for Surabaya via Koepang, Aub Koch knew there were dangerous skies ahead.
Recent days had seen his refuelling stop at Koepang the target of Japanese air raids and two Dutch civilian aircraft shot down. His first attempt to refuel there the previous day had also resulted in an ominous sign when repeated attempts to raise Koepang radio had received no response, in these tense days a sure indication that Japanese aircraft were about. By the time he had the Timor coast in sight and was still unable to raise Koepang he decided not to risk venturing any further and turned the big flying boat into a wide circle back towards Darwin.
Typical of those flying the Qantas flag, such caution was second nature to Tasmanian-born Aub Koch. Austere and modest to a fault, he’d been a boxer and King’s Cup rower in his younger days. He was also a strong swimmer, an attribute that would save not only his own life but those of others in the days ahead.
Once in the air, and to Koch’s relief, the half hourly reports he requested had been coming in regularly for the first stages of the flight, although the weather was poor, with low cloud forcing him to fly at around five hundred feet and ‘feel’ his way towards the coast. Koch considered such conditions as something of a mixed blessing, however, making it harder for the Japanese to see him.
Then suddenly the weather cleared and the cloud base lifted to around 5000 feet, and about the same time Patterson told Koch that Koepang had missed its last half hourly radio schedule. Koch, still flying at around 500 feet, was telling Patterson to keep calling when he heard a strange rattling sound in the fuselage behind him. First officer Vic Lyne for an instant thought it must be something wrong with an engine but that idea quickly disappeared as tracer bullets flashed across the top of the flying boat and ahead of him.
Although Koch could not see them behind him, attacking his flying boat were seven Japanese navy Zero fighters which had left the Netherlands East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) early that morning for an offensive sweep along the Timor coast. After strafing an RAAF Lockheed Hudson on the ground at Koepang’s Penfui military airfield they continued southeast along the coast for the fateful rendezvous with Koch’s Corio.
With more bullets crashing into the wings and fuselage, Koch slammed the control column forward and dived towards the ocean, already convinced that the only hope his unarmed machine had was to crash-land it close to the coastline, about 15 miles ahead.
By now the noise of the bullets hitting the metal hull was deafening, while a bullet had grazed Koch’s leg and both Lyne and Patterson had also been hit. With no other defence, Koch began to zigzag a few feet above the wave tops, immediately noticing that, with his first zigzag, the tracer bullets splashed into the water well over to one side. Realising that to force the Zero pilots to adjust their aim could be Corio’s only hope of survival, Koch flew straight again then swerved hard over towards the direction the bullets were hitting the water, and while he could still hear some hitting the aircraft, he experienced a few seconds of satisfaction as he watched most of them crash harmlessly into the sea.
Koch was now so low that Corio’s wingtip floats were at times touching the wave tops, but death had already arrived behind him. As bullets ripped into the cabin, RAN Lieutenant Bruce Westbrook saw the man in front and slightly to the left of him hit and one of the RAAF men die instantly as he reached for his lifebelt. A second RAAF man was also shot as he rose out of his seat, while several others probably saved their own lives by diving to the floor.
Up front, time was also running out for Koch. Two of Corio’s engines were burning, and as his speed began falling away he realised he would never make it any closer to the shore. The end came suddenly when he tried to lift the flying boat over a high wave but the mortally wounded Corio was no longer capable of any such manoeuvre. Its hull riddled with bullet holes, the aircraft smashed into the wave and practically tipped on its nose. As the nose plunged below the water both pilots were thrown out over the instrument panel and through an opening forced by the impact.
The entire attack had lasted less than three minutes. Koch broke the surface to see seven Zeros circling above them and, fearful they might open fire, slid under the wing now resting flat on the surface. He watched as they circled above for several minutes then, obviously satisfied the flying boat was sinking, flew away.
With the Zeros gone, Koch swam around the wing to discover that although the main fuselage was still afloat up to the cabin windows, its centre section had broken open, leaving the tail section jutting skyward. Just as Koch spotted Lyne, radio officer Pat Patterson, and three others swimming about, another passenger, navy man David McCulloch, pushed out a window and joined them. Although badly wounded in the chest and with a gash to the head, McCulloch had at least managed to get into a lifebelt. But there was no other sign of life in the burning cabin and, with the water around the whole area covered in petrol, some of it already alight, they started moving as far away as possible.
Lyne swam close to McCulloch who asked him to help take off his boots, but soon after that McCulloch disappeared.
Patterson had been badly wounded in the legs so Lyne grabbed hold of a wicker basket from the aircraft pantry as it floated past and propped it under him in the hope that it might help him to shore, but they were soon separated and the radio officer was not seen again.
Other bits and pieces were now drifting by, including a mailbag, a soldier’s kitbag and a wooden crate, which Koch, Westbrook and two civilian passengers from Sarawak, Fisher and Moore, thought might help them stay afloat.
Up to now few words had been exchanged, although Koch would later recall Fisher, who had suffered two broken ribs, breaking the silence when he suggested it was ‘jolly sporting of them not to shoot us up on the water’. Koch later suggested he would have probably put it more bluntly himself!
Courage In The Skies: The Untold Story Of Qantas, Its Brave Men And Women And Their Extraordinary Role In World War II by Jim Eames is published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99. Out now and available here....Read more