Extended version of Phanzine vol.23:2 article: Elise Caddigan, ‘The “Texas Tornado”’.

Did you enjoy Elise’s article in the August issue of Phanzine? Due to space constraints, the original article was shortened. Here’s the unabridged version.

 

The “Texas Tornado”

The fate of the last flight of an American Second World War plane recently featured on the news[1] as a newly excavated archaeological site in Whenuapai, a suburb to the northwest of Auckland’s CBD. This plane crash site was identified by Auckland Council’s Heritage Unit during their input in to the Whenuapai Structure Plan.

The “Texas Tornado” was a USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that was scheduled to fly from Whenuapai to Melbourne, Australia on 9 June 1942. Shortly after take-off from Whenuapai at approximately 12.30am, the plane stalled and crashed on farmland in a massive explosion. The aircraft was carrying 11 people, four 500lb bombs and nearly 3000 gallons of fuel. The plane caught fire upon impact, closely followed by the detonation of at least one of the bombs.

The explosion caused extensive damage to the surrounding farm house and buildings, owned and occupied by George Sinton. The crash was reportedly heard as far away as Auckland city. The blast of the bomb created a large crater that was infilled in the days following the crash. At the time of the crash it was New Zealand’s worst aircraft disaster by death toll.

The Sinton family

A review of the preliminary historic heritage assessment produced by contractors for the Whenuapai Structure Plan revealed some exciting prospects for further detailed research and heritage evaluations by Council. For built heritage, a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century dwellings were identified as potential places of historic heritage for assessment. Of particular interest was the farm and buildings of the Sinton family, Scottish immigrants who settled in Hobsonville in the 1860s. Following the death of family patriarch William Sinton in 1880, Janet Sinton relocated her family to Brighams Creek, a small locality to the west of Whenuapai where she took over the store of her son-in-law and built a very successful farm, store, butchery and accommodation enterprise.

Extensive research was undertaken to establish the family history of the Sintons and to reveal the relationship between the various remaining residences and ancillary buildings found over the former Sinton farm site. Primary records were scarce for early building activity in west Auckland so contemporary newspaper articles were utilised in dating many of the structures. A published family history[2] was useful for cross-referencing anecdotal and oral histories.

The family history publication included a chapter on the many aircraft crashes that had occurred in the vicinity of the Whenuapai Air Base. Of interest to the evaluation process was the mention of a George Sinton, whose property was the site of an extensive and fatal crash in June 1942. The story was told that the impact blew the Sinton home off its piles, exploded the glass in the windows and barely left the frame of the house standing. If this was one of the Sinton houses at Brighams Creek, then this was of great interest to the evaluation document.

One of the farmhouses exhibited circa 1940s windows that indicated it may have undergone alterations at a similar time to the crash. The West Auckland Research Centre (WARC) held a number of photographs and documents which enabled a partial record of alterations and additions to the main dwellings to be ascertained. Navigating the records available for multiple George Sintons proved difficult; however eventually a disjointed picture emerged of the many George Sintons located in west Auckland, and family relationships could be established. First World War records provided information such as next of kin and addresses where this was not available from the Department of Internal Affairs Births, Death and Marriages. The WARC also provided the contact details for a Sinton descendent that provided additional photographs.

The crash site

Photographs of the crash site were requested and received from the National Archives to better understand the land form and features of the site.[3] An analysis of the historic military images, historic and current aerial photographs, the topography of the farm and an extensive desktop search of military websites and blogs refined the search area. The crash was not acknowledged at the time it occurred, which impeded the ability to utilise sources such as newspapers and radio transcripts. Heritage Unit staff were able to pinpoint topographical and landscape features which established that the crash site was south of Brighams Creek, and therefore did not affect the two properties on the former Sinton farm being evaluated for historic heritage. The George Sinton affected by the crash was a relative of the George Sinton’s of Brighams Creek.

Excavation

The Heritage Unit archaeologists continued to research the crash and arranged for its full excavation. Little remained of the aircraft and excavation uncovered some twisted plane parts that were bulldozed during the clean-up. Other interesting items found included gun cartridges, domestic crockery, a sidearm holster, Lieutenant’s bar and a boot. The remains of the men on-board the plane were interred at Waikumete cemetery and repatriated after the war.

  • Elise Caddigan

[1] TV One News, “We’re very conscious of any human remains”, 29 April 2017. Last accessed 24 July 2017, https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/were-very-conscious-any-human-remains-archaeologists-search-hidden-site-new-zealand-aircraft-disaster?auto=5415994981001

[2] Meryl Morris, Horses and Flying Fortresses (Tauranga: 1995).

[3] The author is particularly grateful to staff at the National Library who assisted us during what was a difficult period for them after the November earthquake