FOR twenty years Rhelma Kenny retold the amazing and heroic story of her father Bernard O’Reilly, and his role in the 1937 Stinson airplane crash rescue.
Until 2007 she told his story every week to guests staying at O’Reilly’s Guest House, on national television shows, on radio and at local events.
Rhelma Kenny recalls the events of two days which made her father a national hero.
A daughter remembers her Father’s heroic rescue effort
RHELMA Kenny is not surprised that her father Bernard O’Reilly was able to undertake the perilous and exhausting search which found two survivors of the 1937 Stinson crash.
He’d been training for such a search all of his life.
Bernard moved to O’Reilly’s plateau on the McPherson Range as a boy, aged 14. He was widely read and passionately interested in the bush and wildlife which surrounded his home. Bernard was a keen walker and an accomplished horseman. Over the years he came to know and understand every inch of the bushland which surrounded the O’Reilly selection. As the O’Reilly’s Guest House grew in popularity and attracted visiting naturalists, botanists and scientists, Bernard’s knowledge of his surrounds grew and intensified.
He was a natural bushman and his well-honed bush skills are the reason he was able to find the wreckage of the Stinson amid thousands of acres of bushland. Rhelma was five years old when the Stinson crashed, and yet she still has a clear memory of her father going to search for the plane.
“I often wonder why the heck I would remember that but my mother said it was the urgency with which he went,” says Rhelma.
The plane had left Brisbane in near cyclonic conditions, bound for Lismore and then Sydney. It was last seen flying across Kerry and up into clouds.
The plane never made it to Lismore and it was soon assumed that due to rough weather the pilot had steered the plane towards the east coast and it had crashed into the ocean. Searches were made with this theory in mind. However locals around Kerry had another theory. They knew what the weather was like up in the mountains above their valley. The McPherson Range forms part of the northern rim of an ancient volcano, of which Mt Warning is the central plug. The downdrafts created by strong winds at the top of the Range are awesome.
“When the wind hits that cliff it is forced up and returns to earth as a downdraft,” says Rhelma. “It is well known and has been clocked travelling at 2000ft/minute. The Stinson had a climbing speed of less than 1000ft/minute so once it got up there it had no hope. We used to play with the downdraft as kids. We’d stand at the top of the cliff, looking at the view when we’d grab someone’s hat and throw it off the cliff. It was picked up by the updraft and came back to us with the downdraft.”
Ten days had passed since the Stinson disappeared when Bernard and his wife Viola travelled down the mountain to Kerry to visit his brother Herb. Herb kept a tall pile of old newspapers in his home and Bernard began to read the old reports of the plane’s disappearance. Herb and Bernard discussed theories on where the plane could be. During the discussion Bernard became convinced the plane had crashed somewhere along the McPherson Range and he knew he had to go and look for the wreckage. He didn’t expect to find survivors so long after the crash. He and Viola returned to the mountain and early the next morning Bernard set off in search of the crash site.
“He didn’t take much with him, bush men travel very light,” says Rhelma. “He had two loaves of bread, a pound of butter, sugar and tea and some onions to roast in the fire. He couldn’t wait for the corned beef to cook, mummy said he had this sense of urgency that he must go now. I remember sitting on the verandah watching him put on his boots, mummy was obviously worried. He left early on Saturday and went by horse along the track to the border about four miles, then he tied the reins around the horse’s neck and sent her home. He spent the first night beside a little creek where he boiled his billy and placed his onions in the fire to cook. He always carried onions because they were light to carry and easy to cook. Once they had cooked in the fire he gave them a squeeze at the bottom and this beautiful savoury onion popped out onto his bread.”
Bernard spent a restless night in the cold and rain, before setting out again early the next morning, heading for the top of Mt Throakban. From the top of the mountain he hoped to get a view out across the range and what he believed to be the Stinson’s flight path.
But when he got to the top low-lying thick cloud impeded his view. He waited for some 20 minutes when finally the cloud cleared and he was able to see the valley below.
“He noticed a light brown spot which could have been a dead tree,” says Rhelma. “But for a whole tree to be dead he knew something had to kill it. Lightning could have killed it but there hadn’t been any electrical storms. But 100 gallons of petrol burning would do it.”
Bernard correctly guessed that the plane had hit the tree when it crashed, sending the plane, petrol and the tree up in flames. The burned tree became his beacon and he began the tough job of forcing his way through the rainforest, climbing and descending over the intervening ridges and gorges of the range. Just as quickly as it had cleared the cloud soon returned, and for the next eight hours Bernard could not see his beacon again. By the middle of the day Bernard stopped, cold, exhausted and deflated, close to quitting.
But then out of the misty bush came a weak, ‘coee’. He didn’t answer, presuming it was the call of another rescue party, but he did keep going. Around 3pm he reached the top of a final ridge and thought that if he kept a straight course during the day he should be near the dead tree. He gave a loud ‘Coee’ and it was answered from 200 yards down the hill. The calls led Bernard to the burned tree and the crash site.
“He said it was just horror,” says Rhelma. “Full of dead bodies… you can imagine.
“There were two survivors, one with a compound fracture to his leg and bones protruding. His leg was black and full of maggots and dad’s feeling was he had arrived too late to save the man, John Proud. The other man, Joe Binstead, escaped the crash uninjured and had been going for water for Proud each day. Bernard lit a fire, boiled some tea, soaked his bread in tea and fed it to the men who hadn’t eaten for 10 days. That gave them the strength to survive the night of cold and rain and then Bernard left them about 4pm to go for help. He went straight down the mountain to Christmas Creek, which he followed. On his way he came across the dead body of Jim Westray, another passenger on the plane who had attempted to go in search of help but who died at the side of the creek from his injuries. He’s buried up there just above the creek where he died.”
As the trees cleared Bernard came across the Buchanan brothers who led him on their horses another eight miles to their house and a telephone. He called Airlines of Australia, who declared he was best placed to organise the rescue. Postmistress Gracie Silcox ran the Lamington phone exchange and she opened the exchange that night. Gracie plugged all the party lines in together so that a conference could be held by phone. Within 20 minutes the men had organised the rescue. Bernard was to take the doctor and a small part of men with medical supplies and food back to the crash site. A second group of men would cut a tract up a sloping ridge and along the top of Lamington Plateau to allow the survivors to be carried out. The organising of the track-cutting party was left to Gracie who spent the rest of the night phoning the men of the district. Bernard and the doctor set out about 2am, the path lit by lanterns, and they reached the injured men about 10am.
The doctor was confident that the maggots had in fact saved Proud’s leg from gangrene. The cutting crew wasn’t far behind and worked feverishly, cutting a path along the top of the mountain until they reached the waiting ambulances and media at what is now called Stinson Park on Christmas Creek. Bernard O’Reilly had been discovered.
“Bernard suddenly discovered he was a national hero and it floored him completely,” says Rhelma. “It changed his life. He lost about 16kg in two and a half days. His wife Viola and sister Rose rode down there to meet him, but mummy passed him and didn’t recognise him because he’d lost so much weight. My parents went straight to Brisbane after the rescue but he was so nerved up, he couldn’t really relax so they went for a holiday to Sydney and there was a kind of royal parade for him. Viola thought it was great fun, but Bernard didn’t.”
“People kept asking him to tell the story but he hated it because it was such a nightmare that he had lived through. Then he thought if he wrote a book he wouldn’t have to tell the story anymore.”
He told the story of the Stinson rescue in his book Green Mountains. The story has since been told in a TV movie, Riddle of the Stinson, starring Jack Thompson. Bernard O’Reilly only returned to the crash site once, when he took members of the crash victim’s families there. In order to save Bernard from having to relive the horror of the rescue, his sister Rose and wife Viola told his amazing story to guests staying at O’Reilly’s Guest House. Then Rhelma’s Cousin Vince took over storytelling duties, recounting the tale for some 20 years. He handed the storytelling job to Rhelma, who continued for another 20 years, finally calling it a day in 2007.