Four airmen bailed out over the Simpson Desert and survived
Name: Laurie Coleman
Unit: 2 Squadron RAAF
Location: Simpson Desert, Northern Territory
When four airmen had to bail out of their aircraft over the Simpson Desert in the middle of the night during World War II, you wouldn't have given much for their chances of survival.
But survive they did thanks to the tenacity of Laurie Coleman, a bomber pilot who was a passenger in the Beaufighter aircraft.
When he realised they would have to bail out after the aircraft became lost and ran out of fuel, Laurie told the others to head for the crashed plane when they landed on the ground so they would all be heading in the same direction.
Laurie landed safely enough and started heading for the crashed plane which had burst into flames some miles away. After walking for some time he bedded down for the night using his parachute material to stay warm. Luckily the Diamantina River was in flood so he had plenty of water as he set off again in the morning.
"I kept walking and walking and looked over to the north a bit and there seemed to be a sort of stockade thing with a high tree," Laurie recalled. "I walked over to it and climbed the tree and saw the top of a windmill and some cattle in the distance.
"Eventually the tops of sheds appeared and it happened to be Durrie Station and I was fortunate enough to walk straight to it.
"We raised the alarm by calling up the Birdsville police on the pedal wireless and they brought out trackers and horses," he said. "They picked up Pilot Officer Huggard on the side of the road. Pilot Officer Kelly had swum the river but became ill from exposure but eventually found his own way to the station. Flying Officer Appleton was found sitting in the middle of his parachute in the desert but they didn't find him for a couple of days."
Having informed his unit what had happened, Laurie and his mates cleared a landing strip for an aircraft which was sent to pick them up.
On another occasion, having spent some months with 2 Squadron flying bombing missions to Timor, Laurie was sent out to look for a missing Catalina near Timor. He was on his way back to base when the starboard motor failed and he had trouble maintaining height. He managed to coax the plane back to the top of Australia by throwing out everything movable, including guns and ammunition.
"We were heading for Drysedale River Mission which was under RAAF control but we were still losing height," he said. "When we found this tiny airstrip, it was really too small for a bomber but I had only one chance and I got it down and ended up amongst the rocks but didn't do too much damage."
Later the CO at Drysedale asked if he'd seen anything of a missing Spitfire while they were flying back to Australia. His rear gunner, Bruce Dixon, said he'd noticed something like a big cross on the sand spit of the first island they had crossed and a Walrus sea plane was sent out to search for the plane. The pilot, Flying Officer Gray, was found alive and was rescued.
"He was the luckiest man alive," Laurie said.
Laurie Coleman later received a letter from The Roo Club advising he was eligible for membership. The Roo Club was established by the Light Aircraft Pty Ltd, a Sydney company that made the Dominion Parachutes the men had used to bail out of the Beaufighter. The letter stated:
"You are the 83rd Member - the only class of membership is life, and the sole privilege, its continued enjoyment."
Laurie Coleman has done just that.
The material for this article was supplied by Laurie Coleman of Queensland