Brewster Buffalo A51-5 wing tip : Sergeant J Austin, 87 Squadron (1 Photographic Reconnaissance) Royal Australian Air Force

Accession Number REL34222
Collection type Technology
Object type Aircraft component
Maker Brewster Aeronautical Corporation
Place made United States of America, United States of America: New York
Date made 1941
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945

This wing tip is the outboard end of the starboard (right) mainplane. It was severed from Brewster Buffalo A51-5 by the fire that engulfed the aircraft when it crashed during an attempted precautionary landing on 25 September 1942 in Derby, WA. The Brewster Buffalo was a single engined fighter, which was designed and built in the USA by Brewster. The wing tip is damaged on the underside by corrosion, while the top surface retains part of its camouflage paintwork. The paint varies from a light green yellow Munsell 2.5 GY 5/2 to a darker green yellow Munsell 2.5 GY 4/2. It is unclear whether the colour variation represents two differing applied colours or differing survival of the one paint scheme.

History / Summary

Brewster Buffalo A51-5 was part of a group of twenty Buffalos ordered by the Netherlands Purchasing Commission on behalf of the Dutch government in early 1941, for use by the Militare Luchvaart-Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger (Netherlands Indies Army Air Corps or ML-KNIL). A51-5 was assigned the ML-KNIL serial number B3-185 and given the factory designation Model 339-23. The Model 339-23 Brewster Buffalos were powered by the 950-hp Wright R-1820-G5 engine and their armament was four 0.50-inch machine guns. Earlier deliveries of Buffalos had seen action against the Japanese from December 1941. The delivery of the group of aircraft comprising B3-185 commenced between January and March 1942, however while on their way to the Netherlands East Indies, Java fell to the Japanese and the four ships carrying the Buffalos were diverted to Australia. On arrival the aircraft were assigned to the US Far East Air Force (later 5th Air Force USAAF). However 17 Buffalos were passed on to the RAAF in June 1942. They were then issued RAAF serials: A51-1 to A51-17. A51-5 was received at 1 Aircraft Depot (1AD) on 6 June 1942 after being reassembled at Ansett Airways in Essendon. The aircraft was then issued to 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (1PRU) on 15 June 1942 with the objective to carry out long range, high altitude strategic reconnaissance and tactical reconnaissance. A51-5 was one of six Buffalos assigned to 1PRU in the month of June along with A51-1, A51-2, A51-3, A51-4 and A51-6.1PRU was formed at Laverton on 8 June 1942. The unit’s strength was eight officers and 35 airmen at this time under the command of 144 Squadron Leader L. W. Law. Training of pilots in navigation and aerial photography was carried out at Laverton until 12 August 1942 when the Unit began moving to Hughes Field, NT to prepare for operational service. A51-5 arrived at Hughes Field on 19 August 1942 after having been modified into a Photographic Reconnaissance aircraft by the removal of its four machine guns and armour plating and the installation of three F24 long focal length cameras and an additional fuel tank. Reconnaissance was scheduled to begin 1 September 1942 with photographic surveys of various aerodromes and possible aerodrome sites in the North West Area as well as other work requested by the Army Survey Corps, Camouflage Section and local anti aircraft units. This work resulted in the loss of A51-5, on Friday 25 September 1942. Whilst travelling from Darwin to Broome with some important stores pilot 404699 Sergeant James Austin RAAF lost his way and decided to make a precautionary landing near a house to enquire as to his whereabouts. Mr. Archer, the owner of the house, saw A51-5 circle twice and waved to Sgt Austin. Austin waved back in reply. He then lowered the undercarriage and opened the canopy of the aircraft in preparation to land. A few seconds later Austin apparently stalled and A51-5 crashed vertically into the ground. The pilot was killed instantly and the aircraft completely destroyed by fire. The crash occurred 24 kilometres south-west of Derby, WA at 17.30 Western Standard Time (19.30 Eastern Standard Time) Sgt Austin’s funeral was held at 17.00 Western Standard Time (19.00 E.S.T.) on Saturday 26 September 1942 at Derby Civil Cemetery. The service was conducted by Sergeant Street who had been a missionary for many years. The Union Jack, several wreaths and an Army Firing Party were all present at the ceremony. Most of Derby’s inhabitants were also present to pay their respects. Six members of the RAAF acted as Pallbearers. Sgt Austin had been a medical student in civilian life. He passed 1st Year Medicine at the University of Sydney in 1935 before relocating to Emmanuel College in Brisbane. Austin became a Private in the Australian Army Medical Corps, 7th Field Ambulance in 1939 but was discharged on 8 November 1940 when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force as an Aircraftman. Aircraftman Austin was posted to 2 Initial Training School on 10 November before moving to No. 6 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in Tamworth on 9 January 1941 and No. 3 SFTS at Amberley on 10 March 1941. Austin was then posted to No. 2 Embarkation Depot on 27 June 1941 as a Sergeant in preparation for departure to Singapore as part of the newly formed 453 Squadron RAAF. Austin left Sydney on 29 July 1941 arriving in Sembawang, Singapore on 15 August where the Squadron was equipped with Brewster Buffalos. Austin was attached to RAF Station Sembawang from 16 August moving to RAF Station Ipoh on 13 December following Japan's surprise attack on Malaya on 8 December. 453 Squadron was deployed to forward airfields at Ipoh to assist 21 Squadron RAAF which had not fared well against the Japanese attack. 21 Squadron was caught on the ground on 8 December and when it retreated the next day only six aircraft could be made airworthy. Of these, four were shot down on 10 December in support of Allied troops already retreating from the Japanese. 453 Squadron met with immediate success on arrival in Ipoh destroying eight enemy aircraft in their attempt to support the ground troops while also attacking Japanese troops and transport. However squadron losses were high, with a number of aircraft being lost on the ground. After 453 Squadron withdrew to Kuala Lumpur, a large formation of Japanese bombers and fighters attacked the squadron's base, destroying five Buffaloes and damaging another four aircraft. With only three serviceable aircraft left, its fleet having already been replaced once, 453 Squadron withdrew to Singapore on 24 December where it merged with 21 Squadron. This combined Unit attempted to defend Singapore, which was now under regular attack by Japanese aircraft. However on 26 January the merged unit separated when 21 Squadron was evacuated from Singapore leaving 453 Squadron as the only operational squadron on the island. It fought on with just six Buffaloes until it was ordered to evacuate these to Sumatra on 5 February 1942. The ground crew left by ship the next day, bound for Java. With no replacement aircraft or spares available in the theatre, 453 Squadron could not again be made operational. Sgt Austin and the remainder of the Squadron embarked for Australia on 22 February disembarking at Adelaide on 15 March 1942, where the unit was immediately disbanded.Sgt Austin then took twenty-two days leave from 17 March to 7 April 1942 after which he was posted to 23 Squadron RAAF, who were carrying out reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols off the east coast of Australia. Austin then joined No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit on 29 June 1942. He had been about to receive his commission at the time of the accident. The crash site was located by Mr. Stan Gadja in about 1982 and a number of aircraft components were removed at this time and sent to Sydney. The Memorial’s wing tip comes from this group of recovered pieces; it was acquired in the early 1990’s.