By Lew Toulmin, Ph.D., F.R.G.S.
“I was about 12 in 1943 or 1944 when the plane came screaming down out of the sky,” said Chief Charly Bani of north Ambae, Vanuatu, when I interviewed him in 2001. “Our village of Nanako was preparing for a wedding, and the plane just missed killing all 100 people in the wedding party! It hit a breadfruit tree, crashed into the ground, and broke into five pieces with a big fire and explosion. We all ran away, thinking we were under Japanese attack. But then we saw a parachute off to the west, near Ndui-Ndui. The pilot landed safely in a coconut tree, climbed down, and turned out to be a good-looking American. He was picked up the next day by a flying boat, and went back to his base on Espiritu Santo.”
The Chief pointed to the ground. There, next to his thatch house, was the massive engine and half a propeller from the plane that had almost killed him.
I met Chief Charly on an expedition to Ambae, when I was trying to find traces of World War II on Ambae, also known as Aoba, the Lepers’ Isle, or “Bali-ha’i” from South Pacific. (See Island Life, February/March 2013). His fascinating account left many questions: What kind of plane was it? Who was the pilot? Why did he crash? Was he really American? What happened to him? Neither the Chief nor anyone else in the village knew. I resolved that someday I would answer those questions.
Fast forward to 2012. I was offered a great job in the Vanuatu Prime Minister’s Office, under the Chief Information Officer. I knew the time had come for some serious research. Before I left my home in the Washington, DC area, I contacted the National Archives, the US Air Force and US Navy, Library of Congress, and numerous other sources. But it wasn’t until I found a huge on-line private resource called Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research (www.aviationarchaeology.com), that I hit pay dirt.
This compilation of World War II “unit war diaries” had two short references to an Aoba crash that looked promising. One said: “17 May 1944, F4U-1, engine failure, pilot uninjured, off Aoba island, picked up by crash crew” and the other for the same day said, “2nd Lt. John E. Date, VMF-211 (US Marines Fighting Squadron 211), jumped, forced to bail out near Aoba Island when his plane developed engine trouble and finally failed. Plane (serial number 56076) not recovered.”
Once said that he “put a plane down near an island.”
I had enough information to launch another on-the-ground effort.
I turned to famous Explorers Club of New York City for endorsement. The Club, of which I am a member, kindly allowed me to carry Flag 101, which had an illustrious history dating back to 1940, including scientific expeditions to Liberia, the Arctic, Irian Jaya, Ethiopia, Greenland, Mt. Everest, and in the search for Amelia Earhart. No Club Flags had ever before been granted for expeditions to Vanuatu. I determined to document numerous aspects of Ambae, including its dangerous volcano, poor emergency evacuation plan, pig-killing cult and stone-moving ceremonies. But I knew that trying to solve the mystery of the plane wreck would be the most challenging part of the expedition.
I visited Ambae several times in 2012 and 2013, studying the five parts of the rusted wreck, interviewing villagers, and trying to match their eye-witness or second hand accounts with the information in the unit war diaries. I was able to assemble 19 separate proofs that indeed the plane in Nanako was the plane of Lt. Date. I never found the plane’s serial number, which was only located on two places on the plane, and must have been destroyed or disappeared over the years. But I found part numbers which matched the part numbers on an F4U-1 Corsair, found the letters “USN” in tiny letters on plane parts (the Marines flew US Navy planes), and matched the number of cylinders and propeller size to the right type of plane. The clincher was finding an eyewitness, August Matthew Aru, who said the wreck was so terrifying and fascinating to him as a 10-year-old that he always remembered that crucial date – May 17 – and thought about it each year on that day for the rest of his life.
With the help of Aru and other witnesses and documents, I was able to develop a better account of the incident.
The plane was an F4U-1B Corsair, one of the most famous and successful fighters of the war. It was flown by Lt. Date of the US Marine Corps Reserves. He was returning from a patrol of the Solomon Islands and came in from the northeast, his Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engine sputtering and sounding “no gut.” The plane went over Nanako, then Lt. Date carefully swung it around 180 degrees, so he could bail out and put the plane into the water , thus letting the north wind carry him ashore while the plane hit the sea and couldn’t hurt anyone. He called his base on the radio, saying he was ditching “off Aoba.” Then he bailed out. But the plane turned back again, probably affected by the wind, and came crashing into the village.
Once he climbed down from his coconut tree, Lt. Date folded his parachute and started walking. He was approached by two villagers, James Viratafuti and George Wilbur. Date was alarmed and pulled out his Colt .45 pistol demanding they keep away, and asking if there were Japanese around. Viratafuti said, “Sori, no gat!” He reassured Date that they were friendly, and took Date to the local Church of Christ mission, where he called his base by radio and stayed the night. Date was picked up the next day and survived the war, after bombing Japanese positions in New Britain and serving in the Philippines.
While in Nanako, I learned that other researchers, from an air museum, had investigated the wreck several years before, and had even bought part of the wreck to take to Australia. No one knew who they were. So I started calling all the air museums in Australia, and eventually found the Classic Jets Fighter Museum, outside of Adelaide, with the delightful owners Bob and Margaret Jarrett. They and 25 volunteers were half way through an impressive six year project to build an F4U-1 Corsair, using parts from the Nanako wreck and from six other wrecks from around the South Pacific, as templates. They did not know the background of the Nanako wreck and were very pleased to learn about the pilot.
I tracked down the later history of Lt. Date. After the war he lived near Pittsburgh, working as an engineer, became a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves, and died on 7 September 1973, aged 52. He left a wife and five children.
I located his family in Arizona, and learned that Date never talked much about the war, but once said that he “put a plane down near an island.” His family was fascinated by the details of the wreck and generously gave me copies of Lt. Date’s war letters, in which he stated that he was “aching to get a crack at the Zeros.”
The Jarretts in Adelaide kindly agreed to donate some original parts from the Nanako plane to the Date family, as a fitting tribute to Lt. John E. Date’s war service.
The mystery of the Nanako wreck was well and truly solved.
Lew Toulmin is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, co-founder of the Missing Aircraft Search Team, has worked in 30 developing countries on e-government and telecommunications projects, and traveled to 141 countries. His 228 page report on his expedition to Ambae and the Nanako wreck is on file at the Vanuatu Cultural Center. His other aviation investigations and manual on finding lost aircraft can be found at www.themosttraveled.com/new/adventures.html.