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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

The Kiwi Connection

Monday, October 1, 2012

Americans and New Zealanders have much common history.

When the American Queen docked at New Madrid in September I met a couple on tour from New Zealand. They were in the United States to see some of the country that saved New Zealand from the Japanese during WWII, and here they were in New Madrid.

They explained without the help of the U.S. their country was defenseless in 1941 because its soldiers had gone to North Africa to fight with the British.

The U.S. sent its Army and Navy into the South Pacific in early 1942. Many soldiers and seamen from Southeast Missouri served there during the war. Recently, service related items from the late J. W. "Buddy" Stowe were donated to the veteran's exhibit at the Higgerson School Museum. An Army veteran, Stowe saw combat at Cape Gloucester in the Solomon Islands during the war.

When the Americans began to arrive in the South Pacific, in was general knowledge that American flyer Amelia Earhart's plane had disappeared in the region four years earlier.

Amidst the confusion of the war going on in the Southwest Pacific in late 1942 where well over 100,000 U. S. servicemen were stationed, a rescue plane landed at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands with a woman aboard who resembled Earhart. The circumstances gave rise to a rumor that Earhart was found alive.

Australian author Patrick Lindsey wrote about the event in his book The Coast Watchers.

This story of mistaken identity all started on Nov.18, 1942 when five B-17 bombers with American crews took off for a mission against Japanese ships off Tonolei Harbor, Bougainville. They were joined by other bombers and fighters, and when the formation arrived over its target there were 40 Japanese fighters and floatplanes waiting for them.

One of the B-17s was attacked from the front by several fighters. The B-17's pilot, Major Allan Sewart was killed and the co-pilot, 1st Lt Jack Lee, mortally wounded. Fortunately, Colonel "Blondie" Saunders, also a pilot, was a passenger on board, and he took control of the crippled plane and flew it away from the air battle.

Off Baga Island near Vella Lavella Island the plane ditched in the ocean. The eight remaining crewmen along with the injured Lt. Lee and Col. Saunders rafted to shore as the plane sank. Lee died on the beach and was buried there.

Soon, several friendly natives appeared. They left and returned with Jack Keenan, an Australian coastwatcher. With several of the crew injured, Keenan sent for the help of a nurse he knew to still be nearby at Bilua village mission.

Nurse Merle Farland
(photo courtesy of www.pacificwrecks.org)
The nurse was New Zealander Merle Farland. Farland, 36, had begun her career as a piano teacher, but became a nurse in 1934 and in 1938 was assigned to the Methodist Mission at Bilua. She had refused to evacuate with the other nurses and nuns when the Japanese occupied parts of the island because she was the only trained medical person remaining to care for the patients.

When the runner arrived asking for assistance for the wounded U.S. B-17 crew members, she walked seven miles and hitched a ride in a canoe to reach them. She attended to the injured crewmembers, and shortly afterward a rescue plane arrived to evacuate the crew.

Farland's assistance to the crew could cost her life it the Japanese learned of it. The Japanese were just as likely to summarily execute a nurse, priest or nun as anyone else they even suspected of giving aid the enemy.

Allan Sewart
Not long after assisting the downed B-17 crew, Farland joined up with another coastwatcher, Donald Kennedy, at Segi, also on Vela Lavella, manned his radio set, and at one point ran his entire coastwatching operation for three days. She assisted in the rescue of another downed U.S. B-17 crew before she, too, was ordered to evacuate on Dec. 21, 1942.

A Catalina plane escorted by 17 fighters picked up her and a group of Japanese prisoners at Vella Lavella. Traveling first to Tulagi and then to Guadalcanal, the pretty young nurse was mistaken for Amelia Earhart by the servicemen who witnessed the operation

The truth of Farland's identity as a missionary nurse eventually quelled the rumor--and hopes.

After her brush with fame, Farland served through the war as a New Zealand army nurse in the New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and Middle East campaigns. She was eventually recognized and decorated for her heroic actions on Vela Lavella by both Great Britain and the United States.

The visiting New Zealanders to New Madrid had not forgotten the help of the United States to their country some 70 years ago. Over here, we shouldn't forget New Zealanders like Merle Farland either.

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H. Riley Bock

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