HONOURING THE RAAF WW2 B-24 LIBERATOR LEGACY
Phil Buckley reports on the “living” B-24 Liberator bomber memorial underway in a south west suburb of Melbourne, Victoria.
HISTORY OF THE RAAF WW2 B-24 OPERATIONS
Most aviation enthusiasts are aware of the role of the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator in USAAF service during WW2. Many however may not be aware that the RAAF also flew 7 squadrons of the B-24 Liberator in long range strikes against Japanese military targets in South East Asia. RAAF B-24s flew north, from bases in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and later on in the war from bases at Morotai and the Philippines, on missions to strike high value and static targets. These targets included airbases, bridges, military installations and also anti-ship strikes conducted at low level.
Carrying a large bomb load and protected by a set of defensive crewed gun positions, the RAAF B-24s routinely flew into Japanese controlled airspace and as a result were subjected to strong attacks during these missions and suffered some losses. Selected RAAF crews also performed special operations missions. During WW2, the RAAF operated a mixed fleet of 287 B-24D/J/L and M models, of which 33 were lost in action with, sadly, more than 200 aircrew lost.
AUSTRALIAN B-24 MEMORIAL HISTORY
Beginning in 1988, Eric Clark, a former RAAF B-24 Liberator wireless radar operator and waist gunner, suggested to his former boss, pilot Bob Butler, the bold idea of creating a national memorial to the B-24. This vision led to a meeting which was arranged by the B-24 Squadrons of Australia at RAAF Wagga Wagga to expand on the initial idea. This meeting saw representatives from the RAAF, AWM and other associations join B-24 veterans to help form the basis of the newly named “B-24 Liberator Memorial Fund” which would seek to acquire a suitable B-24 for public display. The committee met in early1989 and started to organise how to go about acquiring the necessary airframe for the project.
By late 1989 the Fund became incorporated and a few years later the title changed to “B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund” to reflect what was being achieved. During the discussions it was agreed that efforts would be focused on trying to find a B-24M model. The RAAF had chosen the B-24M as it had late war weight-saving features such as an improved tail turret; the waist gunner positions were left open, however there was a perspex window that could be slotted in around the gun mount for flights where no enemy action was expected; and the proven retractable Sperry ventral ball turret was reintroduced. Interestingly, the B-24M series became the last B-24 production model built. The search for a displayable B-24 bomber was eventually successful.
B-24M A72-176 HISTORY
The Fund is the owner of a B-24 Liberator s/n 44-41956, which was built for the RAAF as a B-24M. It was assigned the RAAF serial “A72-176” and then flown to Australia. This particular aircraft was modified with a search radar in the lower fuselage to help locate and track targets and was then redesignated as a B-24R model. The RAAF took A72-176 on charge in late 1944 and this saw it issued to 7 OTU (Operational Training Unit) based at Tocumwal, south west NSW. The training saw bomber crews learn how to fly the bomber, operate as a team and work with fighters. Towards the end of the war there were up to 50 aircraft located at Tocumwal along with 5,000 personnel. A72-176 was noted as flown on training missions by various aircrew, and one person was G/Cpt Kingwell, who was later to become quite involved with its restoration project in the 1990s. The bomber was flown up until March 1946 in other roles such as transport and was then retired from service. It was noted that it was to be eventually fitted out for an Antarctic mission but this was never approved. Sitting quietly, it was finally disposed of at East Sale Airfield in March 1948, with the fuselage being sold to George Toye. Sadly, by the time George bought it, the RAAF had scrapped both the tail and wings. Still George accepted the fuselage as it was and used it as temporary accommodation while he built his new house. After the house was completed, the bomber sat on his property between the 1950s and the early 1990s; during this time the fuselage was exposed to the elements.
In 1989 the B-24 Fund became aware of the B-24’s fuselage which was located at Moe, Victoria. The Fund members negotiated to purchase it on condition that they could find a wing and tail. With one part of the project under negotiation, the hunt was then on for the wing and tail which was found in 1991. The wing was acquired from a crash site of USAAF B-24D Liberator 42-41091, which had crashed in Papua New Guinea during WW2. The Royal Australian Air Force, Australian Army, Qantas, Shell and many other companies helped in recovering the wing, which saw it imported into Australia in 1992 and eventually moved to Werribee. The B-24 Fund then went back to George who wanted to alter the original arrangement, so meanwhile members worked on the wing while arrangements were made for the delivery of the fuselage. It wasn't till 1995 that agreement was reached, which finally saw the fuselage moved to Werribee. After 50 years of exposure, the fuselage was looking quite battered and it was clear that it would need a lot of restoration work. During 1996 a clean-up of the fuselage internally and externally was started to remove all the accumulated grime. In 2000, the volunteers then worked to 'mate' the fuselage and wing. On 15 August 2000 the mostly intact bomber was dedicated before an audience of 1,100 made up of WW2 veterans, special visitors and members.
B-24 RESTORATION HANGAR
Located south west of Melbourne are a few remaining hangars of what was once the Werribee airfield. Werribee was built in 1940 to serve as a training field, storage/repair base and operational location for various RAAF units. Located inside one of the few remaining hangars, is the current home of the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund organisation.
The Fund is the owner one of the only remaining B-24 bomber in the southern hemisphere and only 1 of 8 remaining B-24 airframes still existing in the world, out of the original nearly 19,000 built. After nearly 25 years since the bold vision was started, the ambitious project is getting closer to reaching the goal of preserving a B-24 Liberator to honour the contribution of one of the RAAF’s main bombers of the WW2 era.
RESTORATION OVERVIEW - VOLUNTEERS MAKING PROGRESS
Every time the hangar is open, volunteers are working there. The museum is a “working” site, so visitors are always able to see and talk to the passionate volunteer workers. Visitors can expect to see many volunteers focused on their work of restoring the bomber. The high skill level of work of the volunteers is readily apparent when people visit and see the workmanship that has being put into various areas such as the cockpit, bomb bay, engines and wing sections. Some volunteers have been involved for years helping to restore the aircraft, including some of the WW2 RAAF B-24 veterans at times helping out despite being in their 90s. The project has so far acquired more than 90% of the airframe and 70% of its furniture and fittings. The airframe is currently undergoing an extensive fit out covering the nose, cockpit, bomb bay, waist gunners and tail gunner sections.
The project has five engines that are now operational, but none are yet fitted to the wing; the tailplane is complete but not fitted; the wing is still undergoing a long term clean-up and restoration; and the wing tips are made but not fitted due to space limitations. The B-24 can stand on its own undercarriage and wheels but for the moment is held off the ground by jacks to preserve the wheels and struts. The volunteers are currently fitting out the internal crew stations, installing the internal wiring in the fuselage and wings along with other operational / life support systems. Components are sourced locally, nationally and globally to rebuild the bomber, and some parts have been made on site using the metal and handcraft skills of volunteers. Some parts have been duplicated at the workshop and on sold/traded to help other B-24 projects around the world.
MEMORIAL GOAL – A LIVING B-24 LIBERATOR
The core aspect of the project is now focused on making the B-24 a “living bomber”. It will not be flown but instead restored to a high quality as seen with other “living” warbird aircraft overseas such as the Just Jane Lancaster in the UK, which is now being upgraded to fly. The aim is for the B-24 at Werribee to be shown to the public with all elements "operational". It is hoped that the bomber will eventually be taxi-able. To enable the B-24 to “live”, four working examples (and one spare backup) of the Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp 1830 engines are to be used. These powerful and compact engines produce 1,200hp output via a two-row, 14-cylinder, air-cooled radial design. Some of the engines were donated, with one coming from an anonymous person, while two of the engines were purchased from Peter Starr of Dakota National Air. Visitors to the museum can see these engines up close and listen to the sounds via monthly engine running sessions. The hangar is also home to working displays which allow visitors to see how the aircraft systems worked.
Visitors can examine up close and watch how the defensive protection of the B-24 worked. The protective fire came from many of its M2 0.5inch /12.7mm machine guns located around the airframe such as in the nose, the upper fuselage, the lower fuselage, the waist of the fuselage and the tail position. The volunteers are rebuilding all of these turrets with inert machine guns, to fit into the airframe and have some turrets already working as ground based displays to enable visitors to look closely at how the turrets operated with a crew member in them. The B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund is a great example of what can be achieved by a team of passionate, dedicated and organised volunteers. The project funding and ongoing work has mainly relied on the goodwill of volunteers, visitors and public donations to advance from where it was in the 1990s to the present day.
MUSEUM EXPANSION PLANS
The B-24 Fund has developed a strategic and detailed future plan for the ongoing preservation of its collection. It is hoping to keep and upgrade the current hangar, which will also see on display a replica WW2 era Tiger Moth, Oxford aircraft and an Anson trainer.
These aircraft types were mainly made from fabric/wood/steel, so they will require extensive work. A CAC Boomerang fighter project could also be donated by its owner to the museum for public display in the future.
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