Visitors to the small New South Wales South Coast town Moruya (population about 4000) can be somewhat bemused when they see a lifelike statue of an airman standing guard outside a hotel at the southern end of the main street.
The painted wooden statue is a result of Moruya Rotary Club’s decision to sponsor a statue to memorialise the airmen who served on Moruya Aerodrome during World War II. It was decided it should be generic; the figure would not be identifiable as any of the nationalities that flew from the base … no insignia, no name, no rank and no serial number.
But it hasn’t turned out that way. The statue carved by Bryan Carrick is recognisably of Second Lieutenant Gus Winckel of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) air force. Indeed, it would have been hard to resist him when the search was on for a model!
Gus was serving with 18,h Squadron (NEI) when the Japanese overran Java following the fall of Singapore. He took part in the evacuation of vital military personnel, flying for hours backwards and forwards between improvised airstrips in the East Indies and Broome.
Broome was packed with refugees and was considered safe from the Japanese — it was believed they couldn’t penetrate that far. But that illusion was shattered when a flight of Zeros swooped over the town strafing Catalina, Short Empire and Dornier flying boats in the harbour, and any targets of opportunity on land. Gus dragged a machine gun from his Lockheed Lodestar and blazed away at the enemy fighters, burning his left arm in the process, but sending a Zero, flown by Sergeant Osamu Kudo, crashing into the sea. The Japanese killed more than 70 men, women and children and destroyed about 30 planes. Gus received a Dutch award for his efforts.
Once the surviving Japanese aircraft left he took part in the ferrying of refugees to Perth, only to be told there that he had to go back to Java to evacuate some RAAF officers, a flight of about 29 hours. He landed as the Japanese were approaching the emergency landing place, with the fuel indicators close to zero. A quick refuel saw Gus flying back with his VIP passengers.
Subsequently 18th Squadron flew east to be based in Canberra for anti-submarine patrols, using Moruya Aerodrome as a refuelling and emergency base. In June 1942 he was flying a Mitchell B25 bomber on patrol off Moruya when he spotted a Japanese submarine. He swooped on it, missing with his first run, climbed, turned and dived again, releasing six heavy bombs.
‘It couldn’t have been better,’ Gus is reported to have said. ‘The path of the bombs followed the length of the vessel and it seemed to us above that every one of them hit it somewhere. When the water settled the sea was so discoloured that the submarine’s shape couldn’t be made out. Then the bow rose slowly out of the water until the submarine was in a vertical position. Soon afterwards it sank, leaving an oil stain 400 yards square. ’
After a few months operating from Canberra and Moruya 18,h Squadron was moved to the Northern Territory to be used in bombing raids against the Japanese.
In 1995 Brisbane-based war historian Dr Jack Ford theorised that Gus had actually sunk one of the Japanese midget submarines that raided Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942. Asked about that, Gus said it just could have been. ‘Everything goes so fast, you don’t exactly know,’ he is reported to have said.
After the war Gus married his pre-war girlfriend whom he had thought had died as a Japanese prisoner. He lived for a time on the Gold Coast, Australia, then they moved to New Zealand, from where he and his wife flew to Australia for the unveiling of his statue, the trip paid for by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Understandably, Gus is a hero in Broome which he visited for the 50,h anniversary of the air raid. They’ve named the road from the town to the airport after him: Gus Winckel Road.