Monday, June 1, 2009

John Morgan Rex, Broome, Australia, One Day War

The encounter/battle that took the P. H. Rex family's son and brother, John Morgan Rex on March 3, 1942, is now known as Broome's One Day War. It was to Western Australia what Pearl Harbor was to America.

In 1998 at the P. H. Rex family reunion John Morgan's sister, Flora Rex Lamborn, reported on what she'd learned of her brother's death. She had been contacted by Mr. Arvon Stats of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma concerning the circumstances surrounding John Morgan Rex's death. Mr. Stats is a descendant of one of the other soldiers who lost his life at Broome, Australia. The lone survivor was Melvin O. Donoho. Mr. Arvon Stats and Mr. and Mrs. Bob Waterhouse of Broome, Australia sent her information and newspaper clippings. She received a booklet called Broome's One Day War; The story of the Japanese Raid on Broome, 3rd March 1942, by Mervyn W. Prime. And they shared information about the April 25, 2000 dedication of a new war memorial in Australia where John Morgan Rex is listed among the allied troops who lost their lives at Broome.

The Americans, Australians and Dutch were evacuating from the island of Java. Broome, Australia was one of the nearest airfields but the air strip was prepared to handle about one flight a month which brought supplies to the town which consisted of one grocery store, one gas station and a few homes, most of them at this time had been boarded up and the occupants had left to find a more secure place.

Broome was certainly the kind of target that the Japs could be trusted not to overlook indefinitely. A growing tension became manifest on the base. The men worked hard to get incoming planes refueled and out, but it was not always easy to keep them moving. Most of the crews and passengers on evacuation planes, no matter how tightly keyed by the circumstances of their own escape, suffered a letdown as soon as they landed at Broome. Australia was sanctuary. It was hard to persuade them of the need of moving on immediately.

That night of March 2 was an uneasy one for the men running the base. They were sweating out a B-24 that had gone back to Jogjakarta to bring out any men who might have been left behind. It returned at dawn; but long before it was due, about 2:00 a.m., an unidentified plane appeared over the town, flying very low. It was unquestionable Japanese.

Though all planes were warned to clear Broom before 10:00 that morning, there were still six planes loading at the airfield and 15 flying boats in the bay when, almost to the minute, the Japs struck. They used only nine Zeros; but 50 could hardly have been more effective, so defenseless was the town. There was no warning of their approach. Two flying boats had just come in from Java. Small boats with passengers for Fremantle were clustered around the other 13. A B-24 that had just taken off was swinging out over the bay.

This B-24 was one of the three Ferry Command planes of its type that had reached the Southwest Pacific. All three had been working overtime in evacuating refugees from Java and then in flying them on to the south. Of the other two, one was at Broome, waiting to take off; the other, had reached Melbourne. The one in the air was the same plane that had flown up to Jogjakarta. It had been serviced immediately after landing. Loaded with men and had barely climbed to 600 feet when three of the Zeros went after it.

None of the B-24s had self-sealing tanks. Almost at the first pass, the ship puffed into flame, dived sharply, and crashed in the bay. The impact broke it into two pieces, and two of the 17th Squadron men, Sergeants Melvin O. Donoho and William A. Beatty, were thrown clear. They could not see the shore, but a tower of smoke against the sky served as a landmark. They headed in its direction, not knowing what had caused it.

Meanwhile the six remaining Zeros were quickly rejoined by the three that had shot down the B-24, and all nine made one leisurely pass after another till every plane in Broome had been destroyed. There only opposition came from the side arms of a few frustrated men on the airfield and a single .30-caliber machine gun which a Dutch pilot had taken from his burning ship and fired from a slit trench, holding the gun in his hands till his palms were nearly burned through.

The two sergeants were still alive, however. Keeping together, they swam steadily all through the afternoon. Towards evening they were close inshore; but then the tide, which falls 29 feet at Broome, caught them and carried them to sea. They swam all night, with Beatty, who had begun to weaken badly, between Donoho’s legs. Beatty kept urging Donoho to strike out for himself, but the latter refused. By next morning they had once more painfully drawn in toward ashore. Near noon they saw a lighthouse. They were then within 200 yards of land. And now, no longer able to make headway while towing the other, Donoho at last agreed to leave Beatty and go ahead for help. But the tide had again set against him. For a while he was ready to quit. It was more reflex than any purpose that kept him going, and finally, after the tide had swept him five miles down the coast, he made shore—33 hours after the breaking plane had dumped him in the sea. He could not see Beatty, so he rested awhile before setting out for the light house. He found it deserted and stumbled on along the shore. Toward sunset, hours after he had crawled up on land, he made the airfield, stark naked, sunburned, and exhausted.

Next day they found Beatty, who had somehow managed to pull himself ashore. He was delirious and nearly gone. They rushed him to Perth on the next plane leaving; but, though he was still alive when he reached the hospital, he never regained consciousness.

They Fought With What They Had by Walter D. Edmonds.

Thanks to a kind cousin for referring me to this information on a B-24 Liberator

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