GEORGE FIRMAN ~ Stolen medals of missing Dakota DC3 passenger are reunited with Dunedin family.

NZ4312786 ~ GEORGE FIRMAN ~ RNZAF    

NZ 3526 – one of the few remaining pictures of the 40 Squadron DC3 that vanished without trace.

On 24 September 1945 a Royal New Zealand Air Force C47-B Douglas Dakota (DC3) Serial No. NZ 3526 left Espirito Santo, the largest island in the New Hebrides archipelago, with 20 air force personnel aboard bound for RNZAF Station Whenuapai.  After routine radio communication between the aircraft and Santo had been maintained for the first few hours of the flight, contact was established with the Norfolk Station, and then …. — nothing further was heard from the 40 Squadron Dakota.  

The following account of the disappearance appeared in the local newspaper:

Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 227 — 25th September, 1945

Since 10.8 a.m. yesterday morning (New Zealand time) there has been no word of a Douglas Dakota aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Transport Command, which was due at Whenuapai airfield at 3.40 p.m.  Carrying 20 members of the R.N.Z.A.F., the plane left Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, about 6 a.m., and is thought to have been in the vicinity of New Caledonia when last heard of.  The plane communicated with Norfolk Island by radio during the morning and called for a direction-finding bearing at 10.8 a.m.  At that time she was reported 330 miles east of Norfolk.  Nothing has been heard from her since.  The normal procedure is for planes to give their position every half-hour.

A 40 Sqn. Dakota DC3 takes off from Espirito Santo – c1943

Aircraft from Norfolk Island and New Caledonia were dispatched for the search, and extensive searches were carried out from New Zealand, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia and New Hebrides.  Sixteen planes were engaged in the search.  (the crew and passengers were listed with home towns and next of kin) 

Dakota NZ 3526 – Manifest

Crew:

F/O Jack Arthur Hoffeins – Captain, 40 Sqn – 24 years
F/O Kenneth Mc Arthur – Navigator, 40 Sqn – 28 years
P/O Clifton Charles Kennedy – Wireless Operator, 40 Sqn – 25 years
Cpl John Douglas Jacobs** – Flight Engineer [Acting], Guadalcanal – 26 years

Passengers:

F/Lt Wilfred Francis Coulston – Signals Officer, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 38 years
F/O Douglas Farr – Armament Officer, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 25 years
F/O Allan Allister MacPherson – Intelligence Officer, 17 Fighter Sqn – 28 years
F/S Reginald Bernard Russell – Disciplinarian, ZEAIRTAF – 41 years
Cpl Edmund Eaton Gossling – Firecrew, 31SU, Bougainville – 34 years
Cpl Marshall Harry Wilson – Intelligence Clerk, 17 Fighter Sqn – 21 years
Cpl Fran Graham Haldane – Copper Smith/Metal Worker, FMU, Bougainville – 35 years
LAC Oswald Ferguson Bath – Flight Mechanic, 2SU, Bougainville – 32 years
LAC Harry Faine – Driver [Petrol], 1 Islands Works Sqn – 25 years
LAC George Firman – Armourer, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 22 years
LAC John Barnard Grenfell – Armourer, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 23 years
LAC Frederick John Kearney – Aircraft Hand, 1 Islands Works Sqn – 22 years
LAC David John Reid – Mechanic, MT, ZEAIRTAF – 26 years
LAC Ralph Gordon Savage – Carpenter, FMU, Bougainville – 36 years
LAC Raymond Jonathan Taylor – Patrolman, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 22 years
LAC Douglas Stanley Thomas – Wireless Mechanic, 3SU, Jacquinot Bay – 20 years
>> 13 of the 20 were from the South Island

** Cpl. John Douglas Jacobs, acting Flight Engineer, replaced the regular Flight Engr., W/O Caldwell
who was taken ill on arrival at Guadalcanal from Whenuapai.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

MRNZ – can you help please ?

The above account of this aircraft’s disappearance came into my ‘radar field’ as a result of an unusual request I received a few weeks ago from Marilyn E. of Dunedin, who wrote: 

Hi – I was wondering if you could help me.
 
I am the niece of the late George Firman New Zealand LAC 4312786.  For many years we couldn’t understand why two of his medals sent to his parents were missing.  Today I have been informed by email from a person searching on Trade Me that George’s original medals are being auctioned on Trade Me, the auction No. is xxxxxxxx under Antiques and Collectables, Militaria, Medals.  The person selling them is unknown to the family.
 
Could you please advise me if there is a way of claiming these medals back.  We have George’s other two medals in our possession.
 
Marilyn E.

The medals Marilyn spoke of were a WW2 Memorial Cross impressed with the name of:  NZ4312786 LAC. G. FIRMAN. R.N.Z.A.F. in its original case of issue, and a Pacific Star, unmounted as issued.  Marilyn advised me another member of her family had George Firman’s other two medals, the War Medal 1939-45 and NZ War Service Medal.  The Memorial Cross had been especially precious since it had been personalised by George’s mother, Marilyn’s grandmother, who had replaced the usual purple neck ribbon with an embossed silver brooch pin in the style of a ribbon bow.  The medal(s) and Memorial Cross had been sent to George’s parents in 1948 by the New Zealand Defence Department to acknowledge 22 year old George Firman’s loss and death. 

LAC George Firman and the missing medals – Pacific Star and Memorial Cross

My first thought was, “Bid for them” however after contacting Marilyn and posing her some questions, she revealed that she had sent the Seller (“Redtred”) a message earlier that morning.  That can be a fatal mistake if the the auction is for “hot” goods; if the right questions are not asked you can very likely scare the seller off and say goodbye to your goods.  Marilyn had not asked the right questions, but ….

Marilyn had also rung the NZ Police to see if they could help.  They suggested she ask the person to hand them in to his local police station, quoting their (the NZ Police) reference number and that they would notify her if that happened. 

Marilyn contacted the seller through the Trade-Me question facility and  asked ‘how he came by the medals?’  The seller said he had found them at a dump near Oamaru and if Marilyn forwarded him her contact details he would send them to her for nothing!  Yeah, right – wrong answer from him!  Marilyn suggested the Police option of handing them in to a Police Station.

Memorial Cross – reverse

In the meantime, I checked out the Auction details on Trade-Me, copied the photographs and posted the medals as “STOLEN” on this website and the MRNZ Facebook page, in the hope they would be seen either by a buyer (if there was one) or at some later date after the furore had died down.

I am sure you can see what is coming ….. of course nothing happened other than the price on Trade-Me was immediately jacked up  by an extra $1000 for the following 24 hours, and then the Auction disappeared, as did the medals and all trace of “Redtred”.  A predictable reaction from a dishonest seller trying to maximise a sale price of illegally obtained (“hot”) goods! 

Marilyn emailed me a couple of days later …

Hi Ian,
 
Just thought I would update you to let you know that sadly the fellow hasn’t lived up to his promise and dropped the medals into the Christchurch Police Station.   The police have flagged the file and will follow it up (sometime). ….  

There is a Lesson here – should this happen to you, never make contact with the Seller unless you intend to “Bid”; if you have questions say nothing and contact either someone you can trust who can help you or, MRNZ.  Leave the details of questions and recovering medals to those who have had experience managing such circumstances. 

NZ4312786 LAC George Firman, Armourer – RNZAF

NZ4312786 LAC George Firman – 1944, age 20 years

Leading Aircraftman George Firman was the youngest son of an English father and mother, George Firman (snr) from Hartlepool, Durham and Louisa MITCHELL from Whitby in Yorkshire.  George was the second youngest child of 13 and by the time he emigrated to NZ in 1908, was a 31 year old qualified engineer.  George met Louisa Mitchell prior to travelling to Invercargill, and within a week of arriving there, they married.   

George Firman’s namesake, George (jnr), was born in Dunedin on 9 June 1923, the youngest of five which included Louisa Margaret (1913-1997), James (1912-1988), Edith (1918-1992) and Mary  (1920-2007) Firman. 

Waipori Falls

George Firman Snr.

The genesis of the Waipori Hydro Electric Power Scheme was in the early 1900s when the gas and coal fired electricity had given way to the future of hydro generated electricity.   After a problem ridden path to get started, the final concept was agreed and included the flooding of many still active gold claims.  That was never going to happen and as a result construction was delayed until 1923 when a 60 foot high concrete dam on the Waipori River was started that would create a water storage area of 123 sq miles.  As an engineer George Firman’s skills were in demand and he was engaged to work on the project for its entire life.  George (snr) and the family relocated to township of Waipori Falls, a village perched on the side of a hill approximately 60km from Dunedin.    

The first of four power stations was ready for operation in 1930 once the Waipori Flat had filled with water.  The net result was the formation of Lake Mahinarangi that had flooded the whole of Waipori Flat, and then some.  George and Louisa Firman remained living at Waipori Falls until 1944, he having only one break away for the installation of machinery at Lake Coleridge. 

George (Junior)

Those Firman children still of school age when they moved to Waipori, including George junior, went to the local Waipori Falls School.  George (jnr) was the only Firman who was raised entirely in Waipori Falls.  According to comments on his school reports, George was “a bit of a lad”.  A family member also recalled that whenever he was in trouble George would take himself off to the dog kennel and sit in it beside the dog so no one could get at him.  His two loves in his teenage years were fishing and his Rudge motorbike.  One day when George fell off his motorbike, in his fury he threw the broken bits of the crank case over a bank.  His father took him in the car to get all the bits so he could make him a new one.

Engineering was in the Firman blood.  All of George Firman (snr’s) brothers back in the UK were involved with the Railways and  engineering in some form or other.  James Firman, George (jnr’s) older brother, also became a Fitter & Turner and worked on most of the power generation plants around the South Island during his working life.  

Waipori No 2 Power Station

Waipori Village & Power Station in foreground, c1939

 

 

 

 

 

 

On leaving school George (jnr) started a Fitter and Turner apprenticeship at New Zealand Railway’s Hillside Workshops in Dunedin.   However before he could complete the apprenticeship, World War II intervened.  He, like most young men, wanted to fight for his country and tried to join the Army but was sent packing when his true age (17) was uncovered.  In 1944 he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force at Taieri as an Aircraft Mechanic U/T (under training).  Later during the war he saw service in the Pacific serving with No. 3 Servicing Unit as an Armourer (fixing aircraft weapons, loading bullets and bombs) at Jarquinot Bay, Bougainville.

When the war ended LAC George Firman was returning home from his first active service Tour of Duty in the Pacific when the plane in which he was a passenger disappeared.   

One of our planes is missing ? 

New Zealand War Memorial at Bourail – 3rd Panel from the left.

Dakota DC3 NZ 3526 had left Bougainville in the northern Solomon Islands group on 23 Sep 1945 en-route to New Zealand but was required to overnight at Espirito Santo to undergo its pre-planned 30 hour servicing checks before proceeding to NZ.  The service was completed overnight with no faults detected. 

On the morning of the 24 Sep the Dakota took off at 0530 hrs local time with four crew and 16 passengers (all airmen) destined for RNZAF Station Wheuapai.  The skies were clear although the weather report indicated an advancing front to the East of Norfolk Island.  At 0903 hrs NZ 3526 changed its communication station from Santo to the Norfolk Island Station which was normal; Norfolk had no problem receiving their morse code calls.  After NZ 3526 changed stations, Norfolk was then asked for a bearing at 1008 hrs.  This process was normally repeated every half hour of the flight.

When asked for a “Dash” (a radio signal) to assist Norfolk getting its bearing on NZ 3526, Norfolk were informed that they (NZ 3526) were being interfered with by another station and to please wait.  A few minutes later NZ 3526 called Norfolk and Tontouta Stations simultaneously requesting bearings.  Both shore stations acknowledged this call and requested a “Dash”.  NZ 3526  replied, “Standby, Standby” which Norfolk acknowledged.  Norfolk then called NZ 3526 a few minutes later but there was no reply – nothing further was heard from the aircraft.

The fate of Dakota NZ 3526

On receiving the “Standby” signal from NZ 3526 the Direction Finder operator at Norfolk Island suspected there may have been  some difficulty because the transmission from the aircraft was sent more hurriedly than the previous transmission.  On the first occasion, the more usual “AS” signal was sent (meaning: a request for the receiving station to wait and it would be called soon).  The operator reported his suspicions to his superior officer in Northern Flying Control.  He was informed at 1115 hrs NZ time and a SAR (search & rescue) Hudson with lifeboat attached, departed Norfolk at 1301 hrs to commence the search.  

Despite a large-scale search undertaken over several days, nothing further was ever heard or seen of the transport aircraft or the 20 personnel on board. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris Rudge, a former Flight Engineer, wrote an account of the disaster in “Missing without trace”, and in it made the following observations:

The Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the possible cause(s) of the aircraft’s loss could find no evidence pointing to any definite cause, but considered mechanical or structural failure, the later caused by turbulence, or explosion following a fire.  A possibly cause was the ignition of petrol fumes, from sources such as a static discharge, short circuits, illegal smoking or ignition of inflammatory articles in baggage.

Crew member Cpl. John Jacobs was an Aircraft Fitter on Guadalcanal, and the Acting flight Engineer on the ill-fated flight.  He had been chosen for his experience in servicing Dakotas.  His experience as a Flight Engineer amounted to at least one long-range flight while under instruction.  He was also chosen because, after 11 months service on Guadalcanal he was due for posting back to NZ. 

Cpl. Jacobs pre-flight training would probably have included instruction on how to change the fuel flow from internal to external fuel tanks, whilst in flight.  Years later while acting as Flight Engineer on a 42 Squadron Dakota, NZ 3553, that was fitted with long-range internal tanks, when dipping the internal tanks to determine the fuel quantity remaining, I found that it is very possible to hit the overhead light with the brass dipstick.  I was lucky the spark ran around the neck of the dipstick hole; if it had jumped across the hole we could have disappeared as well!  I don’t know if NZ 3526 was also fitted with internal tanks, but considering the range flown, with a 4 man crew and 16 passengers, it was probable.  When this incident was reported to Douglas they were very interested as it could possibly have explained some of the mysterious disappearances that had been reported over the years.

 

Court of Inquiry

The Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the circumstances and determine likely cause of the aircraft’s loss, had received evidence from an aircraft that took off 25 minutes after NZ 3526.  The Pilot reported that he had encountered very turbulent air conditions and had to climb to avoid it.  On balance of the evidence available the Court concluded it most likely that NZ 3526 had suffered a catastrophic structural failure on encountering similar turbulent weather.**  

The most unfortunate part of this aircraft’s disappearance was that with the war being over, in most cases those aboard were returning home prior to being discharged from the RNZAF and their war service obligation.  A number of them no doubt had stories to tell of narrow escapes from death or injury during their time in the Pacific but to die under these circumstances was indeed a cruel stroke, and particularly so for George Firman.  It is believed that George was never meant to have been on this particular flight, that he had given up his seat on a flight two days earlier to enable a friend to fly home earlier to be with his wife and family. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

LAC George Firman and the remainder of the air force personnel who perished on NZ 3526 are commemorated at the Bourail Memorial in New Caledonia, and at the Wigram Airforce Museum, Christchurch.  George Firman was also commemorated on a memorial stone erected in memory of four former pupils at the Waipori Falls School in November 1961.  The Memorial stone has been moved in recent years and now sits at the entrance to Waipori’s No. 2 Power Station. 

Bourail Memorial, New Caledonia ~ New Zealand War Memorial Panels ~ the RNZAF Panel is No. 3 (3rd from left)

Two weeks ago I received a call from the Canterbury RSA District Vice President, Mr Stan Hansen, said the medals reported stolen  on the MRNZ Facebook page had been recovered by the NZ Police, complete with case, and passed them on to him.  Stan sent the medals to MRNZ for verification and checking for completeness and condition.  It was a pleasing call I made to Marilyn with the good news.

The medals were couriered back to Marilyn two days ago, the 25th of September which coincidentally was also the 73rd Anniversary of the disappearance of NZ 3526 with LAC George Firman and his 19 air force colleagues on board.  

Thankfully, the same can no longer be said of Marilyn’s treasured family medals.

Note:  ** When George’s plane was declared lost, his father swore he would never fly.  The only time he did relent was to meet his first great grand-daughter in 1958.  Ironically, George (snr) flew to Wellington in a Dakota DC3!   Louisa Firman pre-deceased her husband at Dunedin in June 1962 – George (88) died in January 1965.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

27 Sep – I received the following from Marilyn just prior to releasing this story, “My cousin Bill Lowe (82, Australia) has asked me to sincerely thank you for all you have done to get the cross and medal back where they belong.  His emails have been very emotional as he was a 9 year old and spent a lot of time with George.   Sincere thanks also goes to you from the rest of our family for the wonderful work you have done, and do, and wish you every success in the future in hopefully finding your family medals.  Thanks to the NZ Police and to Mr. Stan Hanson for their part in the return of these medals.”  

As always, a pleasure to have been of service.

The reunited medal tally is now 233.

Footnote

No service of remembrance was ever held for the 20 servicemen who lost their lives on NZ 3526 until one was arranged by a descendant, Ms Yolande Hamilton, on behalf of all descendants families.  A Memorial Service was held in Christchurch at the Wigram Airforce Museum War Memorial on 24 September 2005, the Honourable Jim Anderton MP delivered the tribute.  Immediate family and numerous descendants from around the country and Australia gathered at Wigram to acknowledge their men and honour their sacrifice.  The following is a document containing the form of service, a list of family and direct descendants attending together with their personal words of tribute delivered at the service – Memorial Service, September 2005

 

Waipori Falls School stone Memorial to four former pupils who died in WW II was unveiled in 1961.