Epic of the Outback – Mercy Flight Rescues Cattleman

Complete article

Published Aug, 1956

In 1944, J.C. Draper was part of a dangerous rescue operation in remote country around Mt. Wellington. The rescue was conducted on foot, on horseback and by aeroplane. The pilot set an Australian record on 19 January 1944, when he landed a Tiger Moth at 5,000 feet (1,500 m) on Mt. Wellington to retrieve the injured stockman. The patient, Bob Goldie is on the horse. Jim Draper is on the right. Photo credit Bruce G. Draper

My last the story told of the rescue of an injured cattleman in the rugged mountain country beyond Heyfield.  It was the story of a brave young man who landed his aeroplane in very inhospitable country and took off despite great hazards to get the injured man to hospital.  It was the story, too, of others who hastened to give assistance, with a warm-heartedness that is characteristic of folk in the more remote parts of our country.

I want to tell you now of a similar rescue of an injured man in the same district; to illustrate once more the prompt and energetic response of ordinary people to a call for help.  Man’s faithful friend – the horse – figures prominently in this story.  Indeed, in the bush it often happens that a man’s best friend is his horse, for circumstances are very different from those in a town or populated area where it is an easy matter to ring for a doctor or call an ambulance when an accident occurs.

On January 16th, 1944, Robert Goldie a cattleman of Valencia Creek, Briagolong, sustained a fall with his horse on the steep and rugged mountainside about eight miles down the south-east slope of Mount Wellington, at the head of the Burnt Yard River. Rex Miller (owner of the famous Miller’s Hut on Mt. Wellington) and a boy named Bill Jones were with him, and they placed their friend on the only piece of level ground in the vicinity.  Night was falling and the boy set off for help, a distance of some 46 miles to Miller’s home at Upper Maffra West.  Miller, meanwhile, stayed with the injured man.

The night was dark and soon Bill Jones had to let his horse have its head to pick its way over the rough country. Reaching the track on Mt. Wellington, he followed along the Razor Edge and down the steep miles-long descent to the valley of the Avon. The slope here is as steep as one in one in places – earning for the locality the name of Purgatory Spur.  Jones hurried on thinking only of bringing help to the injured man.  Parts of the track ran along narrow ledges where the slippery rocks are dangerous even in daylight. It is when travelling tracks such as these at night that one thinks of the lines from Banjo Paterson’s “Man from Snowy River” – “Where the horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride” – for sparks certainly fly from the contact of the horse’s shoes on the rocks, and showers glint if the horse should happen to slip.

It was morning when Jones reached Miller’s homestead. He got in touch with Mounted First Constable Draper, of Heyfield who quickly took charge of the rescue, organising two plans, recovery overland, and recovery by air.  One of the locals who had joined the R.A.A.F. thought a Moth aeroplane could be landed at Wombat Plain on Mt Wellington.   Draper arranged with the officer commanding the Military Aerodrome at Sale to attempt a rescue by air and organised a pilot to take a look at the feasibility of landing, and a doctor to see to the injured man, as well as putting out the call for volunteers to make their way to the site of the accident.  They were to depart at 2:00 p.m. that day, but when Draper reached Miller’s house, Jones said he had to get another horse as his was exhausted. They worked to catch a horse, but discovered it had no shoes. They then caught three more horses, one for the doctor, one for the pilot and a pack horse.  All had no shoes. Draper set to work and shod all four as quickly as possible.

That afternoon Mounted First Constable Draper and Bill Jones finally set out at about 5:00 p.m. from Rex Miller’s place with Dr. Richard Bligh (of the R.A.A.F.), and R.A.A.F. Pilot Officer Ray Kelly.  They led a pack horse loaded with a stretcher, a few blankets for the patient and hastily gathered supplies. Pilot Kelly’s mission was to find out if a plane could land and if so, he was to signal the information to the pilot of an aeroplane which two days later would fly over Mt. Wellington.  The relief party had a hazardous trip. Pilot Kelly had never ridden a horse, and to make matters worse, darkness set in when the horsemen reached Joanba Hut. There was no moon and by the time the junction of Navigation Creek and the Avon had been reached the men were unable to see the track.

Jones’ horse would not cross the creek. Matches were struck, when presently the horse the doctor was on moved ahead. It had been there before and could be trusted to lead. They followed all night along the rocky gorge, their horses stumbling in the dark, and by midnight they reached Miller’s Low Block.  Another party, led by Mounted First Constable George Kennedy of Briagolong joined them.  Kennedy’s party set off for Wombat Plain with Pilot Kelly, and Draper’s party went on to where the injured man was lying.  The doctor gave Goldie morphine injections and they put him on a horse. Draper had left word far and wide that Goldie may have to be carried out and people in plenty were turning up. Some of them went on to assist in clearing a landing place at Wombat Plain.

At 10 a.m., as arranged, an aeroplane flew overhead, dipping low to signify that the pilot had understood the ground signal.  Swiftly it disappeared in the direction of Sale. Sometime later a Moth plane appeared and bumped down on the improvised landing strip. It was probably the first aeroplane to land on this eastern part of the Great Dividing Range. As the ground was rough and covered with small shrubs and Goldie was a heavy man, a longer strip had to be prepared for the take-off.  Finally, the motor was started, and the engine revved up.  Slowly it commenced its take-off, gathering speed, and the anxious watchers held their breath as the machine disappeared at the end of the strip over the wall-like edge of Mt. Wellington. Later it was learned that the pilot, Wing Commander James Hepburn, and his passenger had had a narrow escape from disaster as the plane dropped hundreds of feet before it became properly air borne.

Just before the plane took off other helpers began to arrive. Men from near and far began to flock to Mt. Wellington in case they were needed as a stretcher party if the plan to use the aeroplane failed.  They travelled on foot or horseback and by night about 80 had arrived.  All were delighted that Goldie had been flown out to hospital.  With cares relieved, all joined in a convivial evening in and around Miller’s Hut and the next morning set off in their respective parties for home.

Goldie made a rapid recovery in the Gippsland Hospital.  Wing Commander Hepburn received the Air Force Cross for his brave services, and in 1944 it was the highest landing ever made on the mainland of Australia.

Written circa 1956 when Bruce G. Draper was around 15 years old and his father, Jim Chester Draper was 51.

Note: included in the various rescue parties were – Wing Commander (sometimes referred to as Squadron Leader) James Andrew Hepburn (Chief Flying Instructor at the RAAF Base East Sale), Mounted First Constable Jim Chester Draper (Heyfield), William (Bill) Jones (who brought news of the accident), a medical officer (Dr. Richard Bligh, RAAF), and an assistant (Pilot Officer Ray Kelly, RAAF), Rex Miller.  Cr. Wattie Killeen, Mounted First Constable George Kennedy (Briagolong), Messers. Pat Smyth, William (Bill) Gillio (a well-known local bushman from Briagolong), H. Redwood, and Andy Estoppey (a stockman from Briagolong).  Messrs. Kevin Molphy, A. McFarlane, Fred Horstman, Jack Higgins, Barnie Higgins, Hughie Bourke, Dunsmuir, Norm Chester, Stan Chester, Arthur Rumpff, (Richard) Juer Rumpff (the Rumpff family were early settlers of the district), Eric Cumming, Bill Cumming, George Wilson, Andrew Wilson, Jim Monds, James (Jim) Monds, Harry Monds, Cecil Monds, Dan Flynn, Jack Flynn, Harold Gay, Roy Gay (from “Medowra” north of Glenmaggie), Eric Cole, Jack Horstman, McMichael, Mick Higgins snr, Mick Higgins jnr, and Cr. George Gray.  Messrs. Pat Killeen, Ron Harvey, R. Kincaid, J. Fixter, Allan Greaves, Ivan Morley, Cyril Hurley, and L. Goodwin.  Source: Gippsland Times, Mon 24 January 1944, trove.nla.gov.au, Reminiscences of Jim Chester Draper and this story.  Some sources indicate that the pilot was in fact Group Captain Bill Garing who served as commanding officer of the No. 1 Operational Training Unit from August 1943 to February 1944.  However, newspapers of the day reported that it was James Hepburn, which is consistent with this account, and also with the fact that he won the Air Force Cross at the time.  The injured man was probably Robert Lewis Mathew Goldie, born in 1878 in Bright, Victoria and died in 1962 in Traralgon, Victoria.  His children were born in Stratford, Heyfield and Maffra.

Additional background from the reminiscences of Jim Draper:

“The pilot signalled the Moth, which landed easily. However, the smooth wheels spun on the heath with the weight of the passenger and the plane had not reached flying speed when it went over the edge of Mt. Wellington. Luckily it was the gable end with a drop of thousands of feet. However, the watchers thought the plane would crash and we were almost stunned to see it come back overhead. Goldie was in Sale Hospital in no time. There were probably about 80 people arrived by this time to carry the stretcher. The distance was about 80 miles. It is doubtful if he would have arrived alive if he’d been carried. He was a good 16 stone weight. After we got back Bill Haynes at the Commercial Hotel, Heyfield said to me, “How many men were hurt in the bush? Eight people demanded a bottle of whisky”. Whisky was rationed at the time. Probably the same demands were made at Maffra hotels. We got down to the Avon River and camped. The whisky was used. I had taken some oats for the horse and some food but forgot about camping. The doctor had two blankets and loaned me one. However, there was frost the first night and I felt the cold.

We arrived back at Heyfield in the evening to find there was a fire which had burnt from Toongabbie to the Heyfield-Rosedale Road. I took over the Fire Brigade that night and watched the edge of it for another 12 days”.  Reminiscences of James Chester Draper, 1991

The RAAF Tiger Moth involved in the air rescue of an injured stockman from Wombat Plain, January 1944. Just before take-off, some more helpers arrived. J.C. Draper, 3rd from right. In 1995 Jim Draper recounted the story of this war time rescue operation, conducted on horseback in the rugged mountains of the Victorian High Country, to Ian Stapleton for his book ‘Weatherbeaten Wisdom’ published in 2008. Photo credit Bruce G. Draper
The site of the accident. The men are (L-R across back) Bill Gillio, Rex Miller, Billy Jones (crossed out to say H. Redwood), the RAAF doctor, and (First) Constable Draper. (First) Constable Kennedy from Briagolong is in front. (Isabelle Estoppey). Photo credit High Country History Hub (HCHH)
Navigational instruction under way at No. 1 Operational Training Unit of the RAAF, East Sale, Victoria, in March 1944. Photo credit wikipedia article - No. 1 Operational Training Unit RAAF
At the scene of the accident at the head of the Burnt Yard River where Bob Goldie (1878 – 1962) fell from his horse. L to R: Dr Richard Bligh and Mounted First Constable Jim Draper (1905 – 1998) of Heyfield are standing near a temporary shelter. L to R: Seated are Bill Gillio, Rex Miller (born 1903), Bill Jones and Mounted First Constable George Kennedy of Briagolong (front right). Some sources have suggested the figure of Bill Jones is actually Henry Redwood (1906 - 1992), but recently (in 2021) relatives of Bill (also called Billy) were able to confirm that it is Bill Jones (born in 1925 and aged 19 at the time of the rescue), and Linda Barraclough of Gippsland History was able to obtain a photo of Henry Redwood in the 1940s, thereby confirming that the person in the photo is not Henry. This photo is from the collection of James Chester Draper, January 1944. Information credit Gippsland History, Gippsland Heritage Journal, Linda Barraclough, Brad Kennedy, Robert Jones and Bruce G. Draper
Jim Chester Draper with his horse in Heyfield in the 1940s. The Second World War left the town short of volunteers so Jim became the volunteer Captain and a fire fighter for the Heyfield Urban Fire Brigade (the CFA today) and the Victorian Bush Fire Brigade’s Association, Scout Commissioner, President of the Ambulance Committee, Sunday School teacher and youth group leader, school bus driver, Shire delegate and representative, Progress Association leader, Volunteer Defence Corps leader and Secretary of the Heyfield School Committee in addition to his duties as officer-in-charge of the Heyfield Police Station. Photo credit Draper family
A lifetime on horseback - James Chester Draper at 'Barton Hill', Arthurs Creek c 1907. Jim was described by contemporaries as a superb horseman. Photo credit Draper family
Constable J.C. Draper, Registered Number 8281, on troop horse Robin. Jim Chester was stationed at Woomelang from 1934 to 1939. Photo was taken at the Victorian Police Mounted Branch Depot in St Kilda Road Southbank, during a refresher course for the 1934 tour of Australia by Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester. Photo credit Draper family
Horsemanship in the Victorian Mounted Police. James Chester Draper is pictured 4th from left during training at the Victorian Police Mounted Branch Depot oval in St Kilda Road, Southbank. This photo was used in The Argus newspaper on Saturday, October 19, 1929. Photo credit Draper family
On parade in 1959. Jim Draper completed nearly all his police assignments on horseback from 1929 until his retirement in 1960. Photo credit Draper family
Mounted First Constable Jim Chester Draper of Heyfield (standing behind horse) at a Wellington River crossing, January 1950. The man standing on the right may be Dr Richard Bligh. Jim was described by contemporaries as a superb horseman. Such was the regard and esteem the local inhabitants held for him that he had a street in Heyfield named after him in the late 1970s, Draper Road. Photo credit Bruce G. Draper
The Joanba Hut referred to in this story was located on the lower portion of the valley of Navigation Creek in an area called Green Sidlings. According to an article in the Gippsland Times of Thursday 22 February 1945, called 'Among the Mountains of Gippsland: Place-Names of the Ranges' by John Wilson, the name was derived from a niece of William Huggett called Johanna, who lived there and had a little boy called Bar. However, the more widely accepted reason for the name of the hut is that that Anne Huggett (nee Morrow) and her nieces, Joan and Barbara, created the term ‘JoanBa’ as a reference to each of their names, after they had helped their aunt by painting the hut. Information credit Linda Barraclough. Image credit trove.nla.gov.au
Mounted Policeman Jim Draper, officer-in-charge of the single-officer Heyfield Police Station, one of the last mounted police stations in Victoria. Heyfield, 1949. Photo credit Bruce G. Draper
Bruce with his parents, Beatrice Draper and Jim Chester Draper in 1957. Photo credit Elaine Lewis
Wing Commander James Andrew Hepburn (1919 - 1992) was awarded the Air Force Cross, instituted in 1918 by King George V for air force officers 'for exceptional valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying though not in active operations against the enemy'. The London Gazette, publication date: 2 June 1944. Supplement: 36544. Page: 2650
Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 - 1954) Fri 21 Jan 1944, Remarkable Air Rescue by RAAF Tiger Moth. Melbourne, January 20 – The rescue by an RAAF Tiger Moth of Robert Goldie, 64 who suffered severe injuries when thrown from a horse on an isolated part of Mt Wellington, near Maffra, is probably the most remarkable air rescue in the history of Australia. Goldie lay for four days until rescued. He was placed in hospital late last night and his condition is satisfactory. When the pilot, Wing Commander James Hepburn, chief flying instructor of an RAAF station, took off with his patient the Moth dived 1000 ft, out of control, down the side of the mountain before it could be pulled up. Only the pilot’s great skill made either the landing or the take-off possible. Without the air force’s assistance, it is considered that it would have taken nine days to carry Goldie to safety. Earlier Wing Commander Hepburn had taken off in a Beaufort to have a look at a suitable landing…. (the article continues). Credit Trove
No. 1 Operational Training Unit (1 OTU) were the last stage of training for RAAF aircrew before being assigned to an operational unit. By this stage, individuals had 'crewed up' (i.e. formed and trained) with the other men who were to make up their crew with whom they would fly until separated by death, injury, illness or re-posting. Students would pass through in courses of varying duration depending on aircraft types on which the aircrew were training. Formed in December 1941 at Nhill, Victoria, 1 OTU relocated to Bairnsdale in mid-1942, and then to East Sale the following year. No. 1 OTU's primary role was to train aircrew for multi-engine aircraft operations. At its peak of activity in August 1944, it was operating over 130 aircraft, the most numerous being Bristol Beaufort planes. Its aircraft and personnel also conducted transport missions in New Guinea and maritime patrols in southern Australian waters. Following the end of hostilities, the unit was disbanded in December 1945. OTU were staffed by a full range of instructional and services personnel such as ground crew, administration, catering, transport, communications, security and of course a command structure. Credit Steve Larkins June 2019, Virtual War Memorial Australia, vwma.org.au

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