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In May 1992, the Bakers Creek Memorial was erected by local citizens in Queensland, Australia, to honor the 40 U.S. servicemembers.

In May 1992, the Bakers Creek Memorial was erected by local citizens in Queensland, Australia, to honor the 40 U.S. servicemembers. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

In May 1992, the Bakers Creek Memorial was erected by local citizens in Queensland, Australia, to honor the 40 U.S. servicemembers.

In May 1992, the Bakers Creek Memorial was erected by local citizens in Queensland, Australia, to honor the 40 U.S. servicemembers. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Brig. Gen. Bradley Baker, vice commander of the 5th Air Force, addresses the crowd at the Bakers Creek Memorial in Mackay, Queensland, Australia.

Brig. Gen. Bradley Baker, vice commander of the 5th Air Force, addresses the crowd at the Bakers Creek Memorial in Mackay, Queensland, Australia. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Brig. Gen. Bradley Baker returned this week from a four-day visit to Queensland, Australia, where he took part in a ceremony marking the anniversary of a B-17 crash that killed 40 U.S. servicemembers during World War II.

The 5th Air Force vice commander was guest speaker Sunday at the Bakers Creek Memorial in Mackay. Australian officials and the relatives of two men who perished in the June 14, 1943, air disaster also were among the 50 people taking part in the annual service, which featured a parade, World War II-era jeeps, Australian air force cadets and flags of each victim’s home state.

Baker, making his first trip to the continent, said it’s considered the worst plane crash in the history of Australia and the 5th Air Force. “It was an extreme honor for me to participate” in the commemoration, he said Thursday. “It’s a small ceremony, but extremely significant. …

“It’s amazing that this small community continues to honor our war dead, and it’s all out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Mackay, on Australia’s east coast, was a popular World War II rest-and-recreation spot for U.S. troops fighting in New Guinea. The men aboard the aircraft were returning to combat zones after a stay at the city’s American Red Cross Center.

The crash, in a mango grove five miles south of Mackay, was not reported in the United States because of wartime news restrictions and security concerns. It remained classified until 1958.

The community built a monument and began holding a memorial service to honor the men in 1992. In 2000, local residents began inviting the 5th Air Force, which has sent a representative every year since.

“Had it not been for the grass-roots effort in Queensland, the entire event and fate of those U.S. servicemen would’ve been lost to history,” Baker said.

The B-17 belonged to the 5th Air Force’s 46th Troop Carrier Squadron. Of the 41 men on the plane, only one survived the crash: Cpl. Foye Kenneth Roberts of Wichita Falls, Texas. He died in 2004, Baker said.

Mackay Mayor Julie Boyd, Australian Parliament Sen. Santo Santoro, who represents Queensland, and Keith Payne, a former Australian army warrant officer who fought beside U.S. forces in Vietnam, attended Sunday’s ceremony.

The son and nephew of two men who died in the B-17 crash also made the trip. Frank Smith III’s father was Cpl. Franklin F. Smith; Jack Ogren’s uncle, 2nd Lt. Jack A. Ogren, was the plane’s navigator.

Smith, 13 at the time of the incident, said family members were told his father had been killed in a flight returning to the United States, according to Baker.

“Another was told their loved one had been killed walking into a propeller,” Baker said. “There was a lot of disinformation out there. I’m sure it was well-meaning. But they’ve been able to contact all but four of the families now. It’s brought closure to them.”

Australian officials recently found the navigator’s aluminum seat, he added. For decades, it had been used as a plant holder in a local woman’s garden. Last weekend, the item was returned to Ogren.


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