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HOW LIONEL VAN PRAAG EARNED HIS GEORGE MEDAL

(In His Own Words)

 

Returning from Sourabaya 26th January, 1942, in a DC2 Douglas A30-8 after having transported 10 WT Operators from Darwin, were F.O. Webster, Captain. Sgt. Picker, W. T. Operator. Cpl Mason, Fitter and myself Co-pilot.

We had run through occasional banks of low cloud, the sky being completely overcast. On nearing the Island of Soemba the weather began to clear a little. As we approached the Northern most point still yet about 40 miles from it and about 20-25 miles from the nearest land. Noel and I were quite pleased that we had plenty of fuel to get to Koepang without making a landing at Soemba, thanks to the monsoonal N.W. wind which was blowing at about 15 knots, our height 2250 ft., time 0915 hours, Sourabaya time.

The first intimation we had that anything was amiss was a burst of machine-gun fire coming up from underneath. I was hit on the knee and said, "They've got me." I pushed the prop controls into fine and Noel set the nose down. He then asked me to go astern to get parachutes and Mae Wests.

I told Picker and Mason to don theirs, as I reached the near luggage compartment a burst came through there and the lavatory, one nicking me on the arm and letting lots of daylight into the plane. The 'chutes not being there, I started to return as I thought it would be just too bad if Noel was shot, the machine would then be out of control. As I stepped out of the lavatory another burst started punching holes between Sgt. Picker and myself. I felt a burn on my side. Picker was adjusting his chute in a rear seat on the Port side, Cpl. Mason was further forward. I looked out and saw a fighter fly past. We were now very close to the water, Noel using his rudder violently to throw the Japs aim off.

I started forward again, another burst was coming from somewhere as I neared the cockpit, the machine landed and a very good landing it was.

I told Picker to see if the rear door would open and luckily it did. Noel came out of the cockpit, we started blowing up our Mae Wests. Noel directed Picker to send an S.O.S. he told me to throw the secret code book and Syco overboard.

On my return he went forward to get a two gallon tin of water.

I asked Picker and Mason to bring a chute with them, my intention being to open it when we all got together and use it as a sail. I also thought it would have some effect in keeping away any sharks that may be around. The plane was now filling rapidly, Noel shouted from forward that we should get away. Cpl. Mason was already in the sea, Noel climbed out of the front hatch and I told Picker to hop out. He did not hesitate, poor fellow, I did not then know he couldn't swim. I grabbed the tool box which was made of wood and thought might be useful, jumped in and swam after Mason who seemed to be in trouble. Noel called out that a Mae West was going flat, I gave Mason the boy, swam over and blew it up but found it would not tighten on the valve, I tried it with my teeth, teeth did not seem valuable at the moment. I broke a peice off so asked Noel to have a try, he broke some off his teeth, so I suggested tying it which we found quite successful.

We gave this fifth Mae West to Picker who was in difficulties and looked like he needed it.

By this time Mason was drifting away and did not seem too bright. I swam after him and brought him near Noel. I then asked if anyone had a chute, apparently it had been overlooked, so I started back to the plane. As I neared her she started to settle. Noel shouted she was going down, and warned me to keep clear, as I swam away, she nosed down - tail up, hovered awhile and then slipped out of sight.

I think we all felt as if we had lost a good pal and were afraid of the huge distance we would have to swim through these shark infested waters.

After a little more manouvering with Picker and Mason, we settled down to swim, with the wind to the island of Soemba.

Mason let the tool box go, I think he had taken aboard a little salt water.

I said how lucky we were that the Japs had disappeared and that they would probably have gunned us in the water if they hadn't thought us already dead, Noel said even Japs wouldn't do that. His code is of the highest and because it seemed inhuman to him he could not imagine anybody else doing it.

We thanked our lucky stars for the Mae Wests we had, as I had drawn them just before we left Darwin. Five for Bonnington's ship and five for ours. A happy thought.

We talked of most things except our very terrible plight in the sea.

Picker told us how he had seen holes appear in the starboard wing. Then saw an Aileron shot partly off, come adrift from its bearings and finally fly off altogether.

The wind freshened and it was with mixed feelings that I received it. I knew that it would blow us faster towards the island, on the other hand the seas were mounting and breaking over our heads continously. Picker started vomiting but still continued to give us direction as Noel and I were laying on our backs.

We were now very thankful for the tin of water which I had looped through my gun belt. We rationed it out.

It rained several times and we would open our mouths to catch a few drops of water and as likely or not succeed in getting a mouthful of salt water with it. I was the first to suffer from cramp, then Noel complained of cramp in the foot. I began to be worried if this sort of thing continued the already almost hopeless prospect became more hopeless.

I was troubled three times with cramp within a period of half an hour, and after that Noel and I were completely free from this distressing condition.

I decided to alter the position of our Mae Wests and use them similarly to a pair of water wings. The water did not continually wash in the mouth and up the nose and our swimming position was improved.

Towards late afternoon we could see our efforts were being rewarded ... the land was appreciably closer. We renewed our efforts. My gun belt kept coming undone as I had Mason tied to it, this was causing some nuisance.

At dusk we were probably as close as five miles from the shore. Mason showed signs of recovery. Things looked brighter.

I continually looked around the horizon for the fear of sharks had never left me since entering the water. There, perhaps twenty yards away to the rear, I saw a fin coming swiftly towards us. I yelled "SHARKS, use your guns and yell like hell." No extra urging was required shots flew in all directions and the yelling was terrific. Whether the shark was hit or not was problematical. We were all now starkly on the alert, some minutes later, I had no idea exactly how long. (we arranged ourselves go that we could see in any direction.) I saw a fin appear four yards or so away - making a direct line for Noel. My gun was in my hand beneath the water, I fired and yelled. The shark turned off and in so doing scraped Picker's legs.

I was amazed later to think that the gun operated beneath the water.

We then continued to fire in four directions and yelling as well, the object being to frighten away other sharks that might have had similar ideas.

My line of fire, I knew must have gone close to Noel and I was no end relieved to know that he had not been hit. Pretty soon he said, "Who shot my bloody Mae West." It would have been amusing if not so nearly tragic. I remember wanting to laugh like hell.

Things didn't seem to be going our way, the wind had dropped and the tide had turned, try as we might land seemed to get farther away, and we were faced with the prospect of spending a night in the water.

Noel now used the two gallon tin to keep himself afloat. I was sorely tempted to take one of Picker's Mae Wests for him. But I thought that Picker might get into difficulty and Noel seemed to be doing moderately well with his tin.

We'd stopped swimming as one could not be sure of direction, we seemed to be drifting in an easterly direction and although Noel said nothing, I knew he was thinking the same as I, that once we missed the most northerly point, the coast slopes away to the south-east, and our chances would be extremely remote.

The boys now began to get drowsy and very soon they were all asleep. Noel would lose his tin and wake with a hell of a splash and splutter recover the tin and place it beneath his stomach and drift off to sleep again.

I ever I came near to praying I did then.

I was greatly relieved when it began to get light, the lads were now awake and Mason whom we thought would die the day before, was now swimming weakly.

Picker was all used up and could do very little. We could now make out the northern most point and we were pleased to find that we were mistaken in our previous assumption of missing this point completely. Our hopes rose and Noel with constant encouragement and doing two men's work started swimming strongly.

We were getting closer to land as the wind rose and the tide again helped us. Mason was now swimming well, an amazing thing, although he could hardly see and some of his effort was wasted in swimming in the wrong direction.

I now took two points on the Island and urged the boys to give it everything they had, as the tide would be turning, and we should make every effort.

We made considerable progress and then the tide changed, I could see we were going out again by my two points. My spirits sank end I felt all used up. Noel constantly encouraged me and said we were getting closer. I knew he was shamming and thought all the more of him for it.

Soon this spasm or reaction passed and I was swimming moderately well again.

We didn't lose much ground during the next six hours.

We saw an aeroplane circling over the big point and hoped we wouldn't be seen as it may have been a JAP.

The wind was rising, the tide changed and again we put a supreme effort into action.

Noel was struggling so I gave him as much assistance as I could, which was not very much.

Poor chap still had his two gallon tin and when one of us wanted a drink, he would have to suffer for it.

As we neared the beach the thought of sharks was uppermost in my mind, I lay on my back guarding the rear.

Mason was now swimming strongly and Noel and Picker became separated from Mason and myself. Noel called me back to help him with Picker, so I let Mason go and went back and assisted Noel.

What a relief when we reached the line of breakers, to me it was indescribable.

The time I now estimated to be 1500 hours. We separated, I caught a good chute and was soon scrambling amoung the coral none of us could stand.

We crawled up the beach into the shade of overhanging rocks and promptly went to sleep.

A truely remarkable feat by F.O. Noel Webster, towing a man for thirty hours, never losing his temper and always with an encouraging word and setting a fine example in what he was doing.

L. Van Praag

 

(Noel Webster also received the George Medal for his heroism.)

 

Retyped (mostly OCR) on 17FEB24 by Ron Cuskelly from a poor copy of a typed but untitled and undated document supplied by Warren Ide. The source document is under the name of L. Van Praag. This document is a facsimile copy with the original layout preserved. Spelling mistakes have been left unchanged.

 


Issue
Date
Remarks
1
18FEB24
Original issue.