It was a plane fas­ci­na­tion

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - NEWS LOOKING BACK -

A cane farmer for most of his life, John White found a hobby which turned out to be a 30 year quest, as he ex­plained to

John White and his wife Jo­ce­lyn have spent their adult life in and around Moss­man. They have contributed to the com­mu­nity in var­i­ous ways how­ever John’s love of air­craft added to this area’s rich his­tory.

John was born 82 years ago in southeast Queens­land. His fa­ther bought a property at Mt Mee, west of Ca­bool­ture, and at the age of 10 John was given a brush hook and axe for his birth­day, to help with clear­ing some of the 200 acres of land.

John’s fa­ther ended up us­ing the land for dairy cat­tle and John left school at 14 years of age to help out. How­ever while at school one day, there was a “hell of a roar”, and John looked out the win­dow to see two fighter planes, and it was then that John’s in­ter­est in planes was piqued.

After work­ing on his fam­ily’s dairy property for some years, John de­cided to head north “where there were no cows”, so he and a mate set off in his Austin A40 and ended up get­ting a job at the sawmill at Bai­leys Creek, now known as Cow Bay (there is an irony in this). This sawmill closed down in 1957.

John also was em­ployed by the lo­cal coun­cil as a ‘pow­der mon­key’.

“I got of­fered this job by Chris Senn who was the over­seer and he said he would train me,” John ex­plained, “but when I got there on the Mon­day morn­ing, Chris said ‘see that box, it’s gelig­nite and see that box, that’s det­o­na­tors – just keep them apart’ and that was my train­ing.”

John heard the Moss­man Mill was look­ing for truck driv­ers so he and Jo­ce­lyn moved to Kil­laloe where Jo­ce­lyn’s fa­ther, Richard ‘Old Dick’ Fran­cis, had re­cently pur­chased a property.

“I helped Dick clear this land and later we bought it from him,” John ex­plained, “but there is an­other fam­ily property on Syn­di­cate Road.

“I was still work­ing at the Mill and I would get about 20 acres cleared a year, and even­tu­ally put in cane.”

From 1965 to 1971 John and Jo­ce­lyn wel­comed five chil­dren into their fold – Carol, Phillip, Alison, Gary and Trevor.

It was in the early ’70s when an Ansett pi­lot, Percy Tre­size, fly­ing be­tween Cairns, Cook­town and Horn Is­land, saw two US fighter air­craft, Aira­co­bras, in the scrub. Percy got talk­ing to var­i­ous peo­ple about these planes and even­tu­ally John got to hear about them.

“I met up with one of the men in­volved, Nick Watling, who was an air am­bu­lance pi­lot, and be­came in­ter­ested in the plane’s re­cov­ery,” John said.

“An­other guy from Ma­reeba wanted to get one so we drew straws to de­cide who would get which one,” he said, “as one plane had landed fairly in­tact while the other had made a belly land­ing and had ended up go­ing through the bush back­wards. “We ended up with the lat­ter, but the one that was in­tact was badly dam­aged when they were re­mov­ing it from the bush, so we ac­tu­ally came out with the bet­ter plane.

“The plane was trans­ported back to Cairns and was shuf­fled around,” John said, “and I would get a part and bring it back home and re­store it.”

The plane ended up in John’s shed and when it was fully re­stored, which took four peo­ple about 30 years, it was sold to an en­gi­neer in Wan­garatta who dis­man­tled it and used the parts as pat­terns for his fully op­er­a­tional replica.

“The story about the planes is that they were built in the US, boxed up in pieces and six of them were to be sent to the Philip­pines but the Ja­panese were in­vad­ing, so they were di­verted to Bris­bane where the RAAF as­sem­bled them.

“Six US pi­lots were brought from Port Moresby to fly them back but, after re­fu­elling at Cook­town, they en­coun­tered very bad weather and couldn’t find the airstrip on Horn Is­land due to vis­i­bil­ity.

“They turned back but ran out of fuel and had to land – two in the bush just north of the Jar­dine River near Ba­m­aga which were the two we re­cov­ered in the 1970s, and four landed on the beach.

“The two pi­lots who landed in the bush sur­vived and walked for two days to the beach,” John said, “and ap­par­ently it was so cold, they had to bury them­selves in the sand to stay warm overnight.”

They were even­tu­ally picked up by boats as were three of the four pi­lots who landed on the beach. One pi­lot died as a re­sult of land­ing on the beach with his wheels down, which dug into the sand.

“It took Nick Watling three years to lo­cate the pi­lot of the Aira­co­bra that we re­stored,” John said, “and he came out to visit, sat in the cock­pit and said ‘it is ex­actly as I left it – with the fuel gauge on empty’.”

John, a mem­ber of the Dou­glas Shire His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, re­tired in 2003 and spends much of his time gar­den­ing and mow­ing around their Kil­laloe home with spectacular views of the Co­ral Sea.

He has no­ticed the changes in the sugar in­dus­try and says “What will hap­pen with the Moss­man Mill I don’t know” but seems happy to be out of the “climb­ing costs and sugar prices go­ing the other way”.

John has contributed in many ways to the Shire and has helped keep alive a fas­ci­nat­ing link of Dou­glas to WW2.

John and Jo­ce­lyn White to­day. In­set above: The Aira­co­bra in John’s shed. Right: Nick Watling, Ian Mullins, for­mer US Pi­lot Wal­ter Har­vey, and John White

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