Bomber Down. By Owen Zupp.
Flight Lieutenant Francis “Frank” Owen Smith.
Francis “Frank” Owen Smith hailed from the peaceful, rural environs of New South Wales in Australia. By contrast, on 13 March 1945 he found himself serving with the Royal Australian Air Force on a bombing mission over the dark, chaotic jungle of New Guinea’s north. Serving as the Wireless Air Gunner (WAG) on a 100 Squadron DAP Bristol Beaufort, it was his crew’s 85th bombing sortie and their return to Australia was only weeks away. Under the steady hand of the highly competent F/Lt Jack Fowler, Beaufort A9-650 lined up on the Japanese occupied village of Milak. It was just as they had trained and executed together so many times before. Target steady. Bomb release. The following Australian Beaufort reported seeing an explosion that engulfed ‘650 in flames. Disintegrating as it fell to earth; the bomber impacted the earth at high speed. There was to be no homecoming.
Born on 25 January 1922, Frank Smith hailed from inland township of Manilla in country New South Wales, before his family relocated to the dairy region of Kempsey on the northern coast of the same state. Originally working in the local retail stores, Frank had a passion for photography, though World War II meant that all such interests were to be placed on hold.
Frank was keen to fly and was accepted by the RAAF in September 1941 for aircrew, though only 5’3”, he just made selection on the grounds of height! Initially held on reserve, he commenced recruit training in April 1942 and on completion was selected for training in the role of Wireless Air Gunner. He emerged from this training in February 1943 and was commissioned in the rank of Pilot Officer, before being posted to No. 1 OTU which was in the process of moving from its home at Bairnsdale, Victoria to a new base at East Sale. Here he would become familiar with his new aircraft, the DAP Bristol Beaufort.
It was during this training that he first met with the core of his crew, from which that unique friendship of airmen would grow. The captain was P/O H.J. “Jack” Fowler and the fellow WAG was P/O Jack Shipman, with whom Frank had already undertaken training. Their Navigator was F/SGT Johnson, though ultimately he would not see active service with this crew.
The Crew. (Left to Right)
F/O Shipman, F/Lt Fowler (Pilot), F/O Smith (In Jeep), F/O Waite
From their operational conversion, they moved to opposite side of the broad Australian continent to Western Australia where they joined 14 Squadron in mid-1943.Based out of Pearce, they would spend over a year honing their operational skills. During this time, on 6 January 1944, they would tragically lose their Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Charles Learmonth, DFC and bar, who had been decorated during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. His Beaufort (A9-346) crashed into the sea off the Western Australian coast and was one of a number of DAP Beauforts lost under a cloud of mystery in this period. As Learmonth’s fatal training flight unraveled, he was able to relay problems relating to his aircraft’s controllability which ultimately lead to the lethal problem with the Beaufort’s elevator.
Frank was well regarded by those around him and his senior officers. His assessment reports reflect a well liked young man “who possessed considerable ability considering his youth and inexperience”. He and Jack Shipman in particular had developed a close friendship as the two WAGs had been with each other for most of their RAAF experience. Now they were on the cusp of disembarking together and seeing active service in foreign skies.
Frank had recently been promoted to F/O and in August 1944, along with Fowler and Shipman he was posted to 100 Squadron RAAF based out of Tadji, New Guinea. Here they teamed up with a new navigator, P/O Geoff Waite M.I.D, who had already seen active service on Hudsons. Jack Fowler had earned a sound reputation as a commander throughout his training and subsequent postings. Under his leadership, Frank and the rest of the crew melded into an efficient unit.
100 Squadron bombing operations of this period centred on the Aitape-Wewak region and were flown in support of the Australian ground troops of the 6th Division. These ground forces had originally been tasked in a defensive role in the Aitape area so that the isolated Japanese forces would wither away. However, the Australians went on the offensive and moved east towards Wewak, inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese XVIII Army.
The RAAF and AIF worked in close co-operation, with Army observers flying aboard the Beauforts on occasions. In numerous cases, the ground troops marked and called bombing runs on targets only a couple of hundred yards from their own position. The Beauforts often provided ‘default artillery’ support that was not available to ground forces and these ‘diggers’ were quick to recognise the significance of 100 Squadron’s contribution in their battle of the Japanese XVIII Army.
On the morning of January 20th 1945, Frank Smith was lucky to escape when his Beaufort crashed on landing at Tadji. The aircraft was A9-557 and the crew had flown over half of their 60-odd missions to date in this aircraft. The crew, along with an observing Army Captain Nancarrow, had attacked a target at Elimi village received a sizeable amount of ground fire in the process. Complicating matters further, one of their 40 lb ‘frag’ bombs failed to release properly and was now ‘live’ and lying in the bomb bay.
Unable to dislodge the bomb by any means, Fowler opted for a flapless landing in an effort to make the touchdown as smooth as possible. This he achieved satisfactorily as the wheels rolled onto the Tadji runway, but on applying the brakes only a slight deceleration was forthcoming before the brakes failed in total. As the end of the strip approached, Fowler attempted to guide the crippled bomber clear along an adjacent taxiway, but without brakes the aircraft he lost control of the aircraft and it slewed into a number of jeeps before finally coming to rest. One occupant within the jeeps was killed, however, the bomb failed to detonate.* A later investigation found that Fowler had lost the Beaufort’s pneumatic brakes as the result of ground fire damaging part of the air-filled system.
DAP Beaufort A9-557 after its accident at Tadji.
Frank and the crew were to take part in their final, fateful mission on 13 March 1945. Flying Beaufort A9-650, they were tasked to attack the village of Milak in the East Sepik region of New Guinea where Japanese troops were in occupation. Flying as ‘Number 3’ of the lead flight, the crew now had nearly one hundred missions to their credit and were destined for Australia within weeks. Frank was to marry his Kempsey sweetheart, Edith Blight, in early May and the possibility of returning to a normal life was no longer so remote.
The crew had established a sound reputation amongst their peers and Fowler had been rated as ‘Above Average’ in his most recent assessment. The strike on Milak was to be nothing out of the norm, from what the past months had delivered. The three flights of bombers attacked the target in line astern at intervals of three-quarters of a mile. Frank’s aircraft was seen to proceed and the bomb run was observed as “perfectly normal”. Yet at the critical point of bomb released there was a conflagration that swallowed the Beaufort and sent it plunging to the ground with the loss of all lives on board.
It was initially suspected by some that the aircraft was lost to ground fire, though reports from the Australians on the ground stated, “…There was no collision and no other aircraft near. No A/A observed”. Another Beaufort was lost in an almost identical fashion within the week and was once again witnessed to perish in flames at the point of bomb release. Suspicions arose and a committee was convened to investigate. The tragic truth was the Frank Smith and his close-knit crew had fallen victim to a faulty bomb fuse detonating the 100lb A.S. bombs immediately upon release. It was traced to a poorly designed arming fork on the bombs and subsequent units were recalled and rectified. Unfortunately this finding was too late for Flight Lieutenant Frank Smith and his girl waiting back home.
The remains of the crew were not immediately recoverable as they had fallen in Japanese occupied territory. With the advance of Australian troops they were ultimately laid to rest together nearby, before being re-interred some time later at the Lae War Cemetery along with over 2,000 other servicemen.
The war in Pacific drew to a close only five months later in August 1945. In the same month, Frank’s promotion finally became official and he was made a Flight Lieutenant posthumously. Today a street bears his name in his home town of Kempsey, a country town that he left for the last time over sixty years ago.
The tales of those who go to war are littered with “What if?” and Frank Smith is no exception. At only 23 years of age and with so many combat missions behind him, the beginning of Frank’s new life only weeks away when his brave crew were lost. For Flight Lieutenant Frank Smith, one cannot help but think that he was just so close.
Frank Smith’s final resting place in the Lae War Cemetery.
In Memory of
Flight Lieutenant FRANCIS OWEN SMITH
422062, Royal Australian Air Force
who died age 23
on 13 March 1945
Son of William and Gladys Millicent Smith, of Kempsey, New South Wales.
Remembered with honour
LAE WAR CEMETERY
** Today, the remains of A9-557 have been restored and are displayed at the Australian War Memorial as a tangible and poignant reminder of the contribution of the Australian Beaufort crews.
** All images are from the personal collection of Edith Blight unless otherwise stated.