by Charles Page

One of the most tragic aspects of WWII was the loss of service men and women just before or just after the war ended. Flight Sergeant Edgar Bruce Edwards was one of those who survived the war, but not the peace.

Edwards was a wireless air gunner killed in a Catalina crash two months after the Japanese surrender. He was born in Wagin, Western Australia on 29 May 1925, and schooled by correspondence at the family property Toomanning. He later attended Piesseville State School, and Narrogin School of Agriculture.

With his preference for the RAAF, Edgar enrolled in 80 Squadron Air Training Corps on 3 April 1943. After enlisting in the RAAF on 3 July 1943 he was posted to 5 Initial Training School, Clontarf, Perth. From there he proceeded to 1 Wireless Air Gunners School, Ballarat, where he trained on the Anson and Wackett. Further training, on Fairey Battles took place at Air Gunnery School, West Sale, and Edgar qualified as wireless operator air gunner on 9 June 1944.
After a short stint at 2 Air Observers School, Mount Gambier, Edgar joined 35 Squadron, which operated a mixed fleet of transport aircraft, including the Douglas C-47 Dakota. Then on 8 January 1945 he was posted to 3 Operational Training Unit, Rathmines, where he converted onto the Catalina.

The RAAF received 168 Consolidated Catalinas, and formed Nos 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons, plus Communication Units, and Air Sea Rescue Flights. The Catalina was also used by QANTAS on the Perth-Ceylon ‘Double Sunrise’ flights, and by US Navy Patrol Wing 10, based in Crawley, Perth. RAAF Catalinas played a crucial role locating and shadowing the Japanese task force in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The ‘Black Cats’ also bombed Japanese shipping, and mined harbours throughout the South-West Pacific and South China Sea, even up to Hong Kong, and Wenchow, China.

On 21 April 1945, Edgar Edwards joined 11 Squadron at Rathmines, flying Catalinas on sea patrols and mine laying in Manila Bay. He also flew on operations from Darwin, and ferry flights from Lake Boga. Edgar’s CO assessed him as a good crewman and a good operator.

On 30 August 1945, Edgar joined 42 Squadron, based at Melville Bay, operating Catalinas. The squadron had been mostly involved in mine laying operations, but with the war over, it now carried out reconnaissance flights over Japanese occupied areas and evacuation flights for released POWs and other personnel. Edgar flew the first of his three operational sorties on 18 September, and flew a total of 78 hours with the squadron, before his fatal flight.
Edgar’s final trip was a non operational flight from Melville Bay to Manila to bring POWs home. On 10 October 1945, at 1702 hrs he departed in Catalina A24-365, along with two other Catalinas. Edgar’s aircraft was a Boeing built Catalina PB2B-2, with a high tail, and radome. It was captained by Flt Lt Ronald Carter, who was a highly experienced pilot, with 1560 hours, including1000 hours on Catalinas.

The flight was delayed by 27 minutes due to a slight mechanical defect, and contact was lost with the other two Catalinas. Regular position reports were sent out, and after about ten hours the Catalina was nearing the Philippine islands. The aircraft was flying at 1300 feet, just below the cloud base of 1500 feet, with moderate turbulence and rain showers, and still three hours until daylight.

At this point the navigator required a drift check and the captain left the cockpit to assist on the radar. Co-pilot William Williams was now flying the Catalina from the right seat. Williams was an experienced flying instructor, with 2147 hours, and had been assessed as above average. He had converted onto the Catalina at 3 OTU, and flown on several operations with 11 Squadron and 42 Squadron.

Over the intercom, the captain requested a turn to starboard, so that the drift could be checked. However, during the turn, the aircraft lost speed. A normal cruising speed would have been around 108 knots, with a stall speed of 65 knots, but the stall speed would be increased in a turn, thus decreasing the margin. This combined with the gusty conditions, to place the Catalina in a vulnerable situation.

The Captain called over the intercom, ‘Watch your airspeed, Bill’. The aircraft needed a burst of power from the two Pratt and Whitney engines, but it was too late. Suddenly, the aircraft gave a shudder and rapidly nosed down towards the sea. The navigator then felt a slight ‘G’ force indicating the aircraft was pulling out, but the Catalina crashed into the sea, breaking off the wing and rolling over upside down.

Wireless Operator John White had been asleep in the bunk, until rudely awakened by the crash. Water immediately filled the bunk compartment, but White found an opening, and pushed himself through the gushing water and into the choppy sea. Meanwhile, fitter Torrens Hawkes had escaped on his third attempt by swimming down and away from the obstructions and surfaced near the tail, where he met White. The two then released the dinghy from the broken, partly submerged, port blister.

Navigator Ronald Condie escaped through an open hatch and slid along the keel to the port blister, where he met White and Hawkes who had by now inflated the dinghy.

In the meantime, flight engineer Stewart Evans had been knocked unconscious in the crash and went down with some of the wreckage, but miraculously bobbed up after three or four minutes, gasping for breath and calling for help. White and Hawkes heard his gurgled call for help and pulled him into the dinghy, where he was violently ill, having ingested salt water, oil and petrol.

The four surviving crew members could hear the wreckage crunching in the swell, and searched for the three missing crew. At first light they continued the search for over three hours, but found nothing but small wreckage, and the wing, supported by the floats. The Catalina had come down east of the Philippine island of Mindanao, approximately 8 degrees North 127 degrees East.

After their unsuccessful search, the four survivors began paddling the dinghy westward to the mountainous island of Mindanao, which was visible some 30 to 40 miles away. Approximately six hours later, Hawkes sighted a ship’s mast, and after 15 minutes, fired a distress flare. This was seen, and two US Navy submarine chaser ships soon pulled up alongside the dinghy. ‘Subchasers’ were small wooden hulled ships of around 100 tons, armed with AA guns and depth charges. One of the ships offered to search for the missing crew members, but it was decided there was no hope, and it was presumed that the three missing crew had gone down with the wreckage.

The survivors were taken aboard subchaser SC 722 and given first aid for abrasions, lacerations, and bruises, and Evans for concussion. The ship headed for Davao, Mindanao, but the next day, a US Navy Martin Mariner flying boat landed alongside the ship and flew the four men to Jinamoc Island seaplane base in San Pedro Bay, Leyte Gulf. Following treatment at the US Naval Hospital, the same aircraft flew them to Morotai on 15 October, and after overnighting, a RAAF Catalina flew them to Darwin.

The three missing crew: Flt Lt Ronald Rose Carter, Flt Lt William Havilah Williams, and Flt Sgt Edgar Bruce Edwards were listed as missing believed killed on 11 October 1945. As per National Security (War Deaths) Regulations, they were considered casualties of war, and granted War Death Certificates in 1947. All three airmen are commemorated at the Australian War Memorial, and the Labuan Memorial, Panel 32. Edgar Edwards is also commemorated on the Honour Board and Book of Remembrance at RAAF Pearce. Early in 1946, the four Catalina squadrons were disbanded, but their service and the deeds of the crews are ever remembered.
Sources:
NAA – A705, A9301, Edwards, Edgar Bruce
AWM
Commonwealth War Graves
Aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force, Big Sky Publishing.