It was a plane fascination
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