This web page is dedicated to the memory of
those killed on Consairways 706 and the contribution to WWII made by a little known air transport service “Consairways” in the South Pacific.
The starboard vertical stabiliser of Consairways C-87-CF Liberator Express 41-11706 in the jungle mountain top crash site on the Florida Islands. This photo was probably taken July 28, 1944 when an American rescue/recovery team reached the site. [As published p.166 of Eagles of the Pacific].
Ewan M. Stevenson
Florida Islands, Solomon Islands
Site GPS recorded
Consairway Crew (all killed)
Hugh W Prince (Flight Captain, chief pilot)
Willard L Churchill (Flight Engineer)
Eddie B Hult (Navigator)
J "Arthur" Strumph (NMI) (Radio Operator)
Frederick F Gundrum Jr. (Co-Pilot)
Pfc William A Staley (Traffic Clerk) 13170733
Passengers on Consairway 706 (all 21 killed)
Air Commodore Isaac John Fitch, RAF, 22162
Lt. Col. John C Pearson, RAF
Maj. R R Barton-Tates, British Royal Army
Lt. Col. Paul H Berkowitz WD 0-19375
Lt. Col. Euliss L Duggan USAAF 0-363515
Col. Charles P Burnett Jr. ac 0-306508
1st Lt. Stephen J Maliszewski AGF 0-1294336
2nd Lt. William P Foil AC 0-521735
Capt. Herbert R Gore MC 0-510365
Capt. John S Ingraham USAAF 0-916676
Maj. Morton L Talley Jr. AGF 0-336771
During WWII, there was a large requirement to shift high priority personnel (such as aircrews) and material around the world. In addition to the Air Transport Command (ATC) and Naval Air Transportation Service (NATS), contracts were also let to civilian airlines and companies to service the air routes. United Airlines, American Airlines and Transcontinental & Western Airlines (T & WA) all operated the C-87 Liberator Express on such contracts. Another contract was let to Consolidated – Vultee Aircraft Corp. of San Diego, California. This company set up an Air Division using its own aircraft (Liberator LB-30s, B-24Ds and C-87s) called Consolidated Airways Corp., which then became known as “Consairways”. This Vought company service began on April 23, 1942 and at the height of the war operated 26 aircraft of the three types mentioned and eighty 5- man aircrews. Two of the Consairway C-87s known were 41-111706 and 41-24029. Once Guadalcanal and the lower South Pacific was safe enough from Japanese attack, Consairways maintained regular flight schedules to the South Pacific, calling at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, and eventually Australia.
Consairway routes across the Pacific during WWII. Some sources state the C-87 flight to Guadalcanal in late July 1944 originated from Tarawa, and others say Canton. From the above route map, it might be surmised that the more likely origin was Canton. For some passengers aboard 706, the final destination was Amberley Field at Brisbane, Australia. [As published p. 148, Eagles of the Pacific].
On July 26, 1944, at about 1100 hours, a Consairway flight departed Canton Island (other sources say flight departed Tarawa; the later may have been a transit stop en route?) with 21 high ranking passengers for Guadalcanal. It was scheduled to arrive about 2100 hours. The passengers were on vital war missions, and included a Royal Air Force Commodore destined for General MacArthur’s Headquarters in Australia.
The plane was Consolidated C-87-CF Liberator Express, 41-11706, piloted by Hugh Prince. The big transport aircraft was in contact with Guadalcanal radio as it neared Malaita Island and tracked by radar1 as it passed the same island.
Shortly thereafter, the plane was not heard from again and it never reached Henderson Field.
The next day, three Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boats (NZ 4014, NZ 4015, and NZ401?) of No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron, RNZAF2, stationed at Halavo Bay, Florida Islands, were dispatched from early morning to search for the missing plane. They covered hundreds of miles around San Cristobal, Santa Isabel and Malaita Islands but incredibly discovered the crash site just 8 miles from home base in freshly burned jungle on a mountain top in the Florida Islands. The crash site in one source3 was reported at 2000 feet altitude.
Approach chart to the Florida Islands, with Halavo Bay indicated, home base for Catalinas of RNZAF No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron. Three New Zealand PBY-5 Cats set out from the base on July 27 to locate Liberator Express 706 and flew around Santa Isabel, Malaita and San Cristobal Islands only to later discover the missing plane crashed on their own island just eight miles away. [Naval Air Pilot: Southwest Pacific, Solomon Islands (H.O. No. 275)].
On the following day (July 28, 1944), Catalina NZ4014 under the command of Flt. Lt. Butcher flew a search and rescue party to the site4. Dick Wood, the Consairway station manager at Henderson Field, and Ed Jones (Consairway Rep, who immediately flew out from Fairchild-Suisun in the States) was with the search party. Local islanders reported,
…hearing the plane making its approach, seen the bright landing lights, then heard the deafening crash5.
The local Melanesians had helpfully cleared a path through the jungle to the crash site. The rescuers experienced a tough day:
After a gruelling struggle they reached the crash site. Wreckage was strewn everywhere. It was apparent they had hit headon into the jungle – just 200 feet below the summit of the ridge. The worst task was finding the victims and trying to identify them. The overpowering heat of the jungle made the stench of dead bodies unbearable6.
No survivors were found. The search party recovered some human remains and gathered personal effects to return to next of kin.
RNZAF Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina NZ4014 (XX-P) with RNZAF aircrew at Halavo Bay, January 8, 1945. This plane flew the search and rescue team to near the crash site on July 28, 1944. [No. 6 Squadron Photograph Album, NZ National Archives AIR 118 40, Item 64, Part 3, Container C399 017].
Flt. Lt. John Roy Butcher, RNZAF, was flight captain of the Catalina which flew the rescue party to the scene. [Courtesy Jenny Scott].
The rescue party in the Florida Island’s Melanesian village near the crash site. Photograph probably taken July 28, 1944. Besides cutting a path through the jungle to the crash site, the islanders would also have assisted as guides and carriers.
TOP SECRET plans
Dick Wood also recovered a brief case marked “TOP SECRET” and turned it into headquarters on Guadalcanal. He was then twice interrogated intensely by different commands over the TOP SECRET case, the main theme being had he opened it and seen any contents? Replying to the negative, he was eventually released. Sometime later, it was learned that the case contained war plans detailing the upcoming major offensive in the Pacific, formulated by President Franklin Roosevelt and Pacific Command and was being delivered to General MacArthur.
Some brief notes on the deceased
Air Commodore Isaac John Fitch, 22162, RAF, was from Bedfordshire, Bedford District, England. He was married to Florence and aged 40 when he was killed in the crash. On August 13, 1944, Isaac Fitch and one other deceased (either Col. R. Pearson or Maj. Barton Tales) were buried in the New Zealand section of the Lunga cemetery on Guadalcanal7. Just after the war ended, the Lunga cemetery was completely disinterred, and Isaac Fitch’s grave is now at the New Zealand military cemetery at Bourail, New Caledonia in Plot/Row/Section 8, Grave 1.
The Consairway crew:
Hugh Prince was happily newlywed to his school sweet heart and was known as a skilled pilot who was rapidly promoted to flight captain. The flight engineer, Willard Churchill, was also a newlywed.
The Aircraft: Consolidated C-87 “Liberator Express”
Heavy wartime demand for long range transport aircraft led Consolidated to converting 278 B-24D Liberator bomber airframes to a transport version of the aircraft at the Fort Worth, Texas facility. The version was designated C-87 and named the Liberator Express. The modifications included fairing over the gun turret positions, replacing the Plexiglas nose with a solid sheet, hinged, nose door to facilitate loading cargo, installing turbo-supercharged R-1830-43 engines, and installing double cargo doors on the rear port side of the aircraft. Rows of rectangular windows were also added along the fuselage. A single 50-cal Browning machine gun was also carried by some C-87s to use in the tail for self defence8. Seating for twenty to twenty five passengers were installed or could be removed to carry up to 12, 000 pounds of freight. Maximum speed was 300 mph at 25, 000 feet. Cruising was at 215 mph at 10, 000 feet, with a range of 1400 miles.
Interestingly, a C-87A (41-24159), “VIP” version, became the first “Air Force One” aircraft for President Franklin Roosevelt and was named “Guess Where II”.
A Consolidated C-87-CF9 Liberator Express. Note open nose door. [As published p. 60, B-24 Liberator in Detail].
Interior view of a C-87.
Archaeological Site Survey
It is an objective of Archaehistoria to archaeologically survey all the WWII sites in the Florida Islands including Consairways 706 and share the results on this website. This historic site is, as yet, un-surveyed. Archaehistoria is seeking funding to accomplish this significant task. If you think you can help, please contact Archaehistoria. How about sponsoring this survey? A survey of the site would include video, GPS of various wreckage parts, sketch plan of the site, still images, and a record of items seen on site. Recorded interviews with local islanders about the crash would also be conducted. The author is also available to act as a guide to anyone wanting to visit the site.
This mountainous, jungle, site is very little known with few visitors. The site is expected to be large and highly spread out due to high impact speed. Parts of the plane will be partially buried. The plane also evidently burned after the crash, adding to the destruction of the aircraft. The largest intact piece reported was the tail with serial number evident. There will be four Pratt & Whitney 14-cylinder radial engines (model R-1830-43) on site with General Electric turbo superchargers. The propeller blades should indicate the engines were under power at the time of the crash.
A single Browning 50-calibre heavy machine gun may be found on site, along with belted 50-cal ammunition.
Due to the spread out nature of the site, it is likely human remains still remain on site. This site is at high risk of scrapping by locals. Personal effects are also expected to litter the site and also at high risk of souveniring by locals and visitors. For this principal reason, it is recommended personal artefacts found (with official approval) shall be deposited at the Solomon Islands National Museum in Honiara for security and long term preservation. At some time in the future, these artefacts may form an interesting museum display perhaps along with the tail.
It is Archaehistoria’s suggestion that this site is treated with utmost respect due to the heavy loss of life, with no souveniring and no disturbance of the site. This site deserves to be fully recorded by archaeological survey and the history about the site promoted and shared with all.
The great thing about Archaeology and illustrates the importance of it, is the process often turns up something unexpected. What will an archaeological-style survey discover on this site? Is there going to be anything remaining? Will an engine been found with propeller blades “feathered” indicating they had engine troubles?
This is one of a number of Consolidated aircraft lost in the Florida Islands area including another Liberator aircraft (B-24D model, see site FLOR6) and five Consolidated Catalina PBY-5 aircraft.
A Consairway LB-30 Liberator (RAF Serial AL-532) sits on the Marston matting of Henderson Field, c 1944-1945. This view looks to the South. The LB-30 was an early version of the Liberator built for a RAF contract, but after the Pearl Harbour attack were immediately re-acquired by the United States. This was one of 75 LB-30s. In the background is a Consairway “competitor” – a Douglas C-54 Skymaster, probably from the U.S. Navy’s NATS. [As published p. 100 Eagles of the Pacific].
Although the crash site is reported at 2000 feet altitude, a check of maps of the Florida Islands reveals the highest peak at 1300 feet. Several peaks are at about 1000 feet, and it is believed the Consairways C-87 hit one of these. If the crash site is 200 feet below the summit (as reported) then the plane altitude may have only been around the 800 feet mark when it crashed. This altitude seems very low for a plane approaching Henderson this far away. In a direct line from the crash site, Henderson Field was at least a further 27 miles away across Sealark Channel. Why was Liberator Express 41-111706 so low, yet so far from Henderson Field? Was the night weather bad and Hugh Prince trying to fly below the cloud base to operate under night VFR10? Had the plane already flown over the higher mountains of Malaita in the night sky prior to reaching the Floridas?.
Consairway 706 destination: the twin parallel landing fields of Henderson Field. The left field is covered in Marston Mat11, the right is coral surfaced. View looks to the Northeast. This was how Hugh Prince and flight crew of 706 would have seen Henderson in July 1944, albeit at night. According to “Base Facilities Summary”, Henderson Field’s night lighting included “Strip lights and one searchlight at western end of field. [ie. nearest end in above photo] Portable floodlight available”. Tragically, the crew and passengers of aircraft 706 would never see these lights. At the top left is the Florida Islands where the plane crashed. This approach chart is from H.O. Navy Pilot No. 275, first published by the U.S. Hydrographic Office in August 1943. It’s quite possible Hugh Prince had a copy of this with him in the cockpit of 706. Note the Upper Lunga River bridge in the foreground, built by the 61st Seabees in October 1943. This is no longer in existence but the abutments for it can still be seen.
The principal navigation responsibility lay with the navigator Arthur Strump. He and the flight crew would have known the approach and landing at Henderson would have been at night- what then was the flight plan? The high mountains of Florida, Malaita and Guadalcanal would have been well considered for sure. Was the plan to fly past the North end of Malaita, turn left and fly through Indispensible Strait to Guadalcanal? Did they have a faulty compass? Were they off course? What was the effect of the weather...?
This site is protected in law under the Protection of Wrecks and War Relics Act 1980. Paragraph 4.1.a states, “A person commits an offence if he tampers with, damages, or removes any part of a vessel or aircraft lying wrecked, any object formerly contained in such a vessel or aircraft, or any war relics”. Punishment includes up to six months imprisonment.
Seeking Further Information
Archaehistoria is interested in any historical or site information on 41-111706.
- Rare archaeological evidence of “Consairways”
- Probably the worst single air disaster in the Solomon Islands
- Single very heavy loss of life of very high ranking military officers in the Solomon Islands
- A rare aircraft type. Of 18,475 Liberators built, only 278 were converted to C-87s.
- One of very few C-87s in existence
- Rarely visited site, little disturbed
- Carried TOP SECRET war plans
- One of two Consolidated Liberator type aircraft in the Florida Islands (See site FLOR6).
- Archaehistoria survey required
- Educate local Melanesian landowners the value of such sites as a long term tourist attractions rather than short term scrap value
- With official sanction, the tail piece with archaeologically significant serial number is recovered and placed in SI National Museum, Honiara, for long term security and preservation. (The author has seen such archaeologically crucial identifying numbers cut out or scraped off aircraft remains in the Solomons by vandals).
- Educate locals on possible methods of managing the site as a heritage site
Another known South Pacific C-87 Liberator Express Loss12
Another known C-87 loss occurred in New Zealand. On August 2, 1943, a C-87 was taking off from RNZAF Whenuapai Air Base with Japanese prisoners of war aboard when it plunged into tidal mud flat at the edge of the sea not far from the airfield. There were some fatalities amongst the POWs. The plane was identified as “JD4”. A few small parts of the wreckage can still be found at this site.
- 1.The principle radar station that would have tracked the incoming Liberator was RNZAF Radar Unit 53 stationed at Cape Astrolabe at the Northern end of Malaita.
- 2.Royal New Zealand Air Force
- 3.Page 164 of Eagles of the Pacific.
- 4.It is not recorded but presumed that Flt. Lt. Butcher departed Halavo and then first flew over to Lunga to pick up the rescue party before dropping them at the nearest Florida coastal village to the crash site.
- 5.Page 164 of Eagles of the Pacific.
- 6.Page 165 of Eagles of the Pacific.
- 7.As per WPHC Secret File 4/9/1.
- 8.This 50-cal Browning was stored in the interior of the aircraft and may still remain on site. It is unclear whether Consairways Liberator Express planes carried this MG; it seems unlikely to this author. If found on site, this weapon should remain on site as an attraction and to maintain archaeological intactness of the site. These common weapons on American aircraft sites are also popular illegal souvenirs, so it may be appropriate to secure the item against theft by retrieving it, with official permission, to deposit in the SI National Museum. Disappointingly, in recent times, RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) personnel have also recovered such weapons from aircraft sites in the Solomons, thereby damaging the archaeological integrity of such sites. Such weapons suffering 70 years of severe corrosion offer no threat to society and therefore should be left on site in the custodianship of local landowners.
- 9.The last two letters of the designation, (in this case, “CF”), identify the factory were the plane was built. ie. CF = Fort Worth plant.
- 10.Visual Flight Rules
- 11.Also known as “PSP” or Pierced Steel Planking
- 12.See AIR 1, RNZAF Aircraft Accident File 25/2/1016 at the New Zealand National Archives.
- W.P.H.C (Western Pacific High Commission) S.F. (Secret File) 4/9/1. Fitch, Air Commodore – Loss of, in aircraft accident in B.S.I.P. “Secret”, 9pp. [Western Pacific Archive Records, MSS & Archives 2003/1, WPHC 11, SF 4/9/1, University of Auckland Library].
- No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force – Brief History by Fg. Off. G.A. Wrathall, December 1966, 14pp.
- Dumbo Diary: Royal New Zealand Air Force No. 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron 1943-1945 by Jenny Scott, 2012, 250+pp, lulu.com.
- Eagles of the Pacific by Edwin L. and Jeanne L. Spight. Temple City, CA: Historical Aviation Album, 1980, 224pp. “Consairways…memoirs of an Air Transport service during World War II”.
- Allied Aircraft Losses in the South Pacific during World War II by Ewan Stevenson, Auckland: Archaehistoria Publications, June 1999, 235pp, manuscript only.
- Protection of Wrecks and War Relics Act, 1980.
- Base Facilities Summary, Advance Bases, South Pacific Area, 30 June 1945. Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, 6 August 1945, Serial 003632, 84pp.
- Naval Air Pilot: Southwest Pacific, Solomon Islands Area. H.O. No. 275. Hydrographic Office, United States Navy Department, Washington D.C., 16 May 1946.
- B-24 Liberator in Detail, Vol. 64 by Bert Kinzey, Squadron/Signal Publications, 2000, 80pp.
- The Archaehistoria Bibliography of the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands WWII Campaigns by Ewan Stevenson, Archaehistoria Publications, 11 January 2010, 491pp. (manuscript only).
- Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) No. 15470, NARA Catalogue ID No. 305256, RG-92, NARA-II. Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
- Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) No. 16543, NARA Catalogue ID No. 305256, RG-92, NARA-II. Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Sgt. Gene Leslie, USMC (Ret.) of FL, USA.
Thank you so much Gene for your great assistance to Archaehistoria over many years in obtaining research materials from the USA.
Col. Edward Lavin, USAF (Ret.), of TX, USA.
The highly successful Archaehistoria November 2011 expedition to the Solomon Islands was largely sponsored through the generosity of this man. Thank you Ed for your kindness and a whole lot of fun in the Solomons!
Mr. Neil Yates of Dive Solomons tourist operation, Honiara, Solomon Islands.
Thanks Neil for your great logistics support during the November 2011 Archaehistoria expedition and getting me to the various sites.
Jenny Scott of Adelaide, Australia. Author of “Dumbo Diary”, an excellent work on RNZAF PBYs in the Pacific; can be purchased via www.lulu.com. Thank you Jenny for your research assistance and your expertise in RNZAF Catalina Operations.
Copyright by Ewan M. Stevenson, June 2012, www.archaehistoria.org.