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Pioneer Airwoman Lores Bonney

Bang Biang Island




Maude-Lores-BonneySML Aviatrix Maude 'Lores' Bonney boarding her Gypsy Moth at Charleville, Queensland, Australia, ca. 1933.These were the headlines Western Australians read as they opened their morning newspapers at the breakfast tables on 22 April. All around the country there were similar headlines, Till then her flight had excited little interest from the nation's press. Record of her safe arrival and departure at refuelling points had been tucked away in little paragraphs on the inside pages. Now she was suddenly front page news.

Reports stated that she had not been heard of since passing over Alor Star two days earlier. They spoke of growing concern for her safety.

'Aerodrome officials at Rangoon know nothing of the reason for her nonappearance there,' the Western Australian daily reported. The weather for the last few days has not been ideal for flying, and Burma has received indications that the monsoon has arrived.'

In Brisbane Harry Bonney remained outwardly calm on hearing the news. So far away and with communications so poor with the Malay Peninsula he could do little but wait it out. He received great comfort from her parting advice, 'If I am reported missing and nothing is heard of me for some time, don't worry. I will be down safely on the ground somewhere.' But no doubt, deep down, he was churning with anxiety.

Besieged by reporters he finally made a statement.

'I can't imagine that there is anything wrong with my wife. She would be so busy after her flight to Alor Star and she wouldn't arrive there until between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. She would not have had time to cable me having so much to attend to.'

It seemed that he had chosen to disbelieve or ignore the steady stream of reports coming in from Singapore. He simply decided to say, to the press at any rate, that his wife was not missing. This saved having to answer any more, searching questions that might pierce the guard he had, placed on his emotions. They were a personal matter not to be splashed all over the front pages.

From a further remark it would appear that the gentlemen of the press and Harry Bonney did not really see eye to eye and he did not welcome their attention.

'I am surprised that the Australian newspapers did not make better arrangements to follow up my wife's flight. If the papers want good news they should be prepared to pay for it. The arrangements concerning my wife's flight seem to have been very poor indeed and it is not as though the news had been tied up in any way.'

Unlike the previous round-Australia flight, Mrs Bonney had not given exclusive publishing rights to any one paper for the story of her flight.

He concluded his interview by stating again that he was not at all worried by the reports coming in from overseas. He believed she was just running late.

The RAF detachment at Singapore did not share the Brisbane businessman's confidence. The RAF commanding officer at Seletar took control. The military were the only organisation with equipment and facilities necessary for a major search of the area. He sent messages to all aerodromes south of Rangoon and all shipping in"the area to be on the lookout. An air force seaplane was despatched to the area to scour the coastline and the scores of small islands off the mainland.

On the third day it had become obvious, even to her husband, that Mrs Bonney was down somewhere along the Burma coast. Newspapers carried the headlines, 'Great RAF Search For Mrs Bonney. Little Hope After Three Days Silence.'

Her friends found little comfort in the ensuing report.

'Silence ... which means there is still no news of Mrs Bonney, cousin of the ill-fated Bert Hinkler ... the first woman to attempt the Australia-England flight is somewhere between Alor Star and Victoria Point.

'Perhaps forced down on the coast she may at this moment be stranded in the small collapsible boat off the coast of Burma, still alive but with hope fast fading. On the other hand fate may have stepped in already, a wrecked plane may be lying in the jungle and one of the most treacherous sections of the world's air routes have claimed yet another victim.'

The report went on to recall that only a week earlier the Italian pilot Robiano had gone down somewhere near Victoria Point on a flight from England to Australia. A wrecked aircraft containing a body, believed to be the Italian, had since been found.

Indeed there was little to promote the cause of aviation in the papers on 23 April 1933. It had been a bad week. Around the world, airlines were still struggling for financial security. The public had been slow to accept the new form of transportation. Many were yet to be convinced that air travel was safe. For every successful long-distance record flight, the man in the street seemed to read of half a dozen who did not make it. Unfortunately then, as today, it was the disasters- that received the biggest headlines .

Sharing the news with Mrs Bonney were three other missing flyers. Besides the Italian, whose death was - confirmed a few days later, New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten, and English flyer Captain Bill Lancaster were also long overdue.

Jean Batten was attempting to break Amy Johnson's England-Australia record and had been missing for three days between Persia and India. She later turned up in Karachi, on the back of a lorry. She had damaged her aircraft landing on a plateau near Baluchistan. Baluchi tribesmen later rescued her and took her to the nearest town, Las Bela, where officials put her on a truck for Karachi.

Bill Lancaster was down somewhere in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The English pilot was flying Charles Kingsford Smith's Southern Cross Minor from London to Cape Town in an attempt to break the record that was also held by Amy Johnson. Lancaster was well known in Australia. In 1928 he had flown out from England while Hinkler was making his epic solo flight. But unlike Hinkler, Lancaster had not been alone. He had carried, Mrs Jessie Miller of Melbourne who became the first, woman passenger to make the trip. The Englishman had disappeared on the day Mrs Bonney had reached Darwin, after taking off from Reggan. On the same day one newspaper was suggesting little hope of finding the Queensland woman, it also reported that the fruitless search for Lancaster was being abandoned. His mummified body was found alongside the skeleton of his aircraft by a French Army patrol in 1962. A pitiful diary recorded his death from thirst.

* * *

While the press speculated on the fate of the airwoman, Mrs Bonney spent three days of drama and despair on Bang Biang Island. It was her innate sense of humour that prevented her from wallowing in misery and self pity. As events unfurled after she reached the beach, the stranded pilot found herself involved in a situation that. continually reminded her of a Charlie Chaplin comedy.

She had been sitting for a long time watching the surf pounding her overturned aircraft when she realised that the tide was coming in. Soon there would be little more than matchwood to collect. Already her equipment ·was being washed out of the cockpit and was floating in to shore.

It was growing dark and the buffaloes were moving back towards the bush. There was not a soul in sight. The only noise was the pounding surf and the far off rumble of thunder in the direction of Victoria Point.

She remembered having seen a settlement from the air, so decided to go and find help. Now over the initial shock of the crash, she was thinking ahead again. If she could get My Little Ship out of the water and up off the beach it might still be repairable. She would need a score of helpers to help her beat the tide and nightfall.

As Mrs Bonney stood and turned towards the bush she saw a crowd of villagers watching from the shelter of the trees. Her troubles were over! There stood her aircraft rescue team. All she had to do was get them to help her, and that should not be too difficult.

She hurried towards them beckoning. As she moved closer she noticed they were dressed in a motley assortment of clothes; some were bare cheated with sarongs, others wore ill-fitting European-style trousers and tattered shirts, while the children were naked. They did not appear friendly, in fact some looked hostilely at the approaching airwoman. She slowed down, suddenly unsure of her reception. She felt the pocket of her flying suit for the comfort of the revolver her husband had given her for the flight. It was not there. It must have fallen out in the crash. She dug into the other pocket for her Jack knife. It too was missing.

'I returned to my plane to search for them. But this was difficult as I had to grope around with my eyes shut and holding my breath under the water. I spent some time trying to find them in the sand beneath the upturned cockpit for I felt quite unprotected without them and was really worried that the natives were hostile. I couldn’t find them and eventually decided there was nothing for It but to go back towards them and hope for the best.'

As she walked towards them the whole crowd started to back away. Then to her amazement they turned and retreated. What she had taken to be sullen hostility was, in fact, fear. To a man, they were scared of the tiny white woman in her strange flying outfit! The faster she walked, the faster they retreated. Mrs Bonney could have found the episode amusing, but she became exasperated with their timidity. Every minute wasted meant the tide was getting a little higher. She needed their help.

To stem their retreat she stood still and beckoned with both hands, at the same time attempting to smile through her weariness and discouragement. They continued to retreat looking back over their shoulders. Eventually one stood his ground. She walked slowly up to him praying he wouldn't lose his nerve. Bewildered, but apparently sure he had nothing to fear in the strange looking white woman who had arrived so unceremoniously from the air, the man allowed Mrs Bonney to take him by the arm. Slowly and very gently she led him over towards the wreck. Realising he could not understand a word she said, the airwoman pointed at the plane then patted the sand. He understood at once and returned to the crowd.

After a quick conference during which he rapped out some orders, the whole group rushed down the beach and into the surf. From where Mrs Bonney stood it was a strange sight. Silhouetted against the setting sun the people climbed all over the Moth. Some were already walking on the inverted fuselage and others were trying to clamber onto the wings. They were shouting and gesticulating wildly: If they weren't quickly organised, Mrs Bonney thought, they would do more damage to the fabric and wood super-structure than the waves.

She rushed in among them shouting and waving them off the aircraft. By demonstration and sign language she showed them where to hold the aircraft. After an immense amount of straining, it was obvious that they would not be able to lift the waterlogged machine. The water trapped inside doubled its weight. It would not budge. Meanwhile, more islanders had gathered on the shore. Mrs Bonney beckoned the men among them to help. They bounded into the water. The aircraft moved a little then stuck again.

'Then I had a brainwave. If I could get them to exert their concerted energy as each wave rolled in, maybe the surge of water would help. I invented a sort of sailor's "Heave Ho" chant, at the same time expressing great exertion as the next wave came in. They quickly grasped the idea and with me chanting and raising my arms in exertive expression, wave by wave, they slowly inched My Little Ship towards the shore.

'I will never forget the sight. It was nearly dark except for a rim of light on the horizon. As they worked, they turned their heads to watch for each incoming wave, and the whites of their eyes became accentuated, gleaming in the near dark. My nerves overtaxed by the last few hours were near breaking point and I found the effect very frightening.'

Eventually the aircraft was dragged on to the beach above the high tide mark. It was still wrong way up, but it was pitch dark and Mrs Bonney was exhausted. The rest could wait till morning. Gathering a few sodden clothes and her brandy flask she indicated to the natives that she was ready to follow them.

The procession walked in single file towards lights that twinkled through the jungle. When they reached the little village she was met by a tiny woman who led her through a spiked bamboo enclosure to a palm leaf thatched hut on stilts. Her guide motioned for her to climb the bamboo ladder to the doorway.

As she entered the smoke-filled interior, Mrs Bonney recoiled at the nauseating odour of bad fish. Dozens of villagers were squatting on the woven mat floor staring intently at their unexpected guest.

'I was standing watching the strange scene in front of me when a little brown hand crept into mine. My diminutive guide then led me by the hand into a small semi-partitioned room just off the entrance and indicated that this particular spot was mine.

'She gazed at me with large sorrowful eyes that expressed. such a depth of sympathy that I came close to tears. She noticed that my hand was bleeding rather badly and, moaning softly, she tenderly held it to her face.

'From that moment on she became my shadow, a self appointed bodyguard. She would allow no one else to do anything for me. If they attempted it, she would wave her arms and let go with a cascade of words, all the time putting herself protectively between me and the culprit. My bodyguard would not relax until they moved right back and kept a safe distance. Then she would trot back to my side.

'I nicknamed her SOS, short for Soul of Sympathy. During the four days I was marooned on the island, she did everything humanly possible to distract my mind and make me happy.'

Mrs Bonney's slashed hand was becoming very, very painful. The gash across the knuckles was deep. The last thing she needed with all her other troubles was a poisoned hand.

Too tired to return to her aircraft for the first aid kit, she, searched for some other method of sterilising the wound. Coming from another partitioned section of the hut were great clouds of smoke. That must be the 'kitchen', she thought. Suspended over the fire was a cooking pot and a brass urn of boiling water. She filled a small bowl, took it back to her quarters and bathed the wound. One of the few possessions she had brought from the wreck was the bottle of whisky from the hotel in Charleville. It was still sealed. She had felt no need to imbibe on the way across the Timor. She carefully opened the bottle and poured some of its antiseptic contents into the wound. Disregarding the searing pain, she covered the wound with a handkerchief.

She was able to make SOS understand that she wanted to put on dry clothes. She had removed her sodden leather flying boots when her friend returned with a brand new native sarong. Dozens of curious eyes watched her every move. To their surprise, rather than wear the native dress, she pinned it to a line that she made with her long flying boot laces. Behind the instant room divider she was able to change into clothes which had fortunately remained dry in her canvas grip.

To escape the hut's sickening odour and the stifling heat she moved over to the entrance and sat with her feet on the ladder watching swarms of fireflies light up the night.

After going over the day's events, she decided to try and find out how far away the nearest white settlement was.

'I went back into the hut and placed my hand alongside that of one of the natives. I drew his attention to the different colour of our skins, and using signs tried to find out if there were people with skins like mine nearby. After a long pantomime he seemed to understand. He smiled and made signs indicating that white people were a long way away.

'I knew that I could be no more than 30 or 40 miles from Victoria Point and decided to try and get a message through. I had a pencil with me and searched through my few possessions for a piece of paper. The natives obviously realised I wanted to write, and to my amazement brought me a pen, ink and paper. I found they could write and this was decidedly comforting.'

She wrote a long note recording the day's events, saying she had sufficient emergency rations for three weeks, was being well treated by the natives and was reasonably comfortable. She had already decided to live off her survival rations rather than take food from the islanders. She feared understandably that her system might not take to their food. She had enough worries without getting ill. Unless her rations ran out before she was rescued she would stick to the 'hard tack' ..

The only information she could not send to her would be rescuers was her exact position. She decided to see if any of the circle crowded around her could identify their island from her map.

'The map was the one I had been using at the time of my crash and gave a list of the names of all the islands in Siamese and English. I read out the names of the islands to them. At first they just shook their heads but as I went on they became interested. To my delight when I came to Koh Jang (Saddle Island) and Koh-Pha-Yam (Deslisle Island), they nodded vigorously and pointed. I soon managed to find out that I was not on the mainland at all but on Bang Biang Island.'

She finished off her note and held it out for someone to take. The men drew back. She decided it was the time for positive action so selecting her victim she took him by the arm, handed him the note .and gently pushed him out of the door. He went only as far as the bottom of the ladder, stopped and stood silently staring up at the airwoman.

Either he had no wish to go trekking through the jungle on her behalf, or he was scared of the dark. Whatever the case, Mrs Bonney quickly realised that some sort of bribe was needed. To wait till next morning would mean a loss of half a day, and her husband would be worried enough already. She must get news of her safety to civilisation as quickly as possible.

She fetched the watch she had purchased to replace the gold one that had been stolen at Kupang. It had already been much admired by a number of islanders. She snatched back the note from the hand of her reluctant courier. Placing the watch on top of the note and standing on tip-toe the airwoman turned slowly, offering it to the men who now clustered around her.

For several minutes no one moved. They chattered among themselves, then finally one came forward reluctantly and took them from her. He moved slowly to the door and hesitantly down the ladder. With impatient words and gestures she told him to get a move on! He looked back wistfully at the hut as he walked slowly into the inky darkness.

Mrs Bonney was to find out later that it was a minor miracle to induce an islander to travel at night. He must have been very brave, for the jungle was full of wild animals and his only weapon was a long knife. Her courier must have paddled to the mainland and walked all night to reach his destination.

Confident that she would soon be rescued the Australian now relaxed. She returned inside the hut and sat down with the islanders. She smiled and nodded to the thirty men and women squatted around her. This obviously met with their approval as they grinned back and, wagging their heads, chattered to her.

With SOS sitting beside her, she watched as women placed several shallow wooden platters on the floor. On them were sweet-smelling tobacco leaves, pieces of dried maize leaves, a tin containing a pink paste, green leaves resembling mulberry leaves, betel nuts, and a tool for chipping the nuts.

She watched fascinated as the betel nut chewing ceremony began. Everyone selected their favourite brand of leaf, smeared it with the pink paste, rolled it up and popped it in their mouths. This was quickly followed with a piece of betel nut. There was much chewing and even more spitting.

At first she avoided the sight – it was not quite drawing room behaviour at gatherings of the Brisbane social set – yet it became obvious that to her hosts it was as normal and correct as taking a drink or lighting a cigarette at a formal European party.

As she overcame her reserve she became totally absorbed by their knack of spitting through the clear spaces in the floor. The bamboo canes were laid about 2 centimetres apart. Long streams of crimson fluid shot from their mouths straight through the narrow openings and no one ever missed. The floor was not marked anywhere.

Mrs Bonney remembered that she had copied some Malay phrases out of Francis Chichester's book. She found her 'emergency' note book and tried them out on the gathering.

'Saja minta mata-mata,' she said, meaning, 'I want a policeman.' To her delight they nodded vigorously, so she carried on. As the evening progressed she had learnt the names of a number of items around the hut.

Before she settled down for her first night on the island she took a couple of aspirin and a good dose of whisky. Her head was still aching as a result of the knock during the crash.

During the night she awoke to hear loud voices in the hut. Momentarily she was petrified. Only half awake she almost convinced herself that it had all been a bad dream. But then she was aware of the pain in her hand. It was true. She lay in despair and, as the voices continued, she became increasingly worried. She could stand it no longer. She lifted her sari curtain and walked into their midst. They were all hunched around one of the men as he laboriously wrote a letter. When they saw her they burst into broad smiles. As she settled down again she was ashamed of her mistrust of these kindly people. The letter, in fact, was to their district officer, telling him of Mrs Bonney's arrival and asking him to come to see her.

Next morning she was up early and went straight to the aircraft. It was a heart-breaking sight. The wings were badly damaged and were probably beyond repair. The fin and rudder were a crumpled mass, the propeller was shattered and the fuselage and engine, though outwardly undamaged, had taken in litres of salt water. There was no hope of quick repairs. The Moth would need to be completely rebuilt and that would be exceedingly difficult.

She managed to dismantle the wings before the oppressive heat forced her to head for the shade. The next job would be to turn My Little Ship upright on the undamaged undercarriage. But that would have to wait for the cool of the late afternoon.

Back in the shelter of the hut she rigged up a line and hung out her maps to dry. All her equipment was around her. She decided to turn her quarters into some semblance of home. She might have a long stay. An hour later she was satisfied with her 'boudoir'. She had a dressing table made of ration tins covered with bright silk. On it, in a wooden tray, stood a mirror, powder and hairbrush. She ran out of tins before she could make a washstand, and had to content herself with a large bowl on the floor. A tin lid made a soap tray and her toothbrush was stuck through the bamboo matting.

Her domestic chores over, Mrs Bonney realised she had not eaten since her refuelling stop at Alor Star twenty hours ago. Even then she had only had a few biscuits chewed while supervising the pumping of petrol. She made a sumptuous meal of biscuits, cheese, and dates from her rations, swilled down with a steaming cup of Ovaltine.

With bright daylight streaming in the entrance of the hut she was able to see where its awful odour came from. Strung along the high ceiling were row upon row of dried fish. Among the varieties she saw huge stingrays, which she found out later were considered a great delicacy.

Following a midday sleep she was taken on a tour of the cool jungle close to the village. Her guide, the ever present SOS, smiled with delight as she led her charge hand in hand along a track followed by a crowd of curious onlookers. They reached a small clearing and sat down. Within minutes they were surrounded by scores of monkeys playing in the trees and swinging on vines. The bird-loving Australian was also fascinated by the birds, particularly one, a huge black and white creature, which made an uncanny whining sound as it flapped its wings.

Late in the day she led a working party of men back to the aircraft. They rolled the Moth right way up and wheeled it close to the hut. There Mrs Bonney put to good use the knowledge she had painstakingly gained with the engineers during her Qantas 'apprenticeship'.

'I removed the petrol tank and emptied the contents into any vessel which would hold the precious fluid. Sand was lodged in every conceivable space and I had to dig and scrape it away before washing the engine down.'

Aware of the corrosive effect of the salt water she drained the oil sump and coated the whole engine and ancillary equipment with oil. She removed the spark plugs and filled each cylinder. With any luck it would act as an antidote to the cancerous spread of rust inside the 'mirror finished' cylinder walls and to the meticulously matched pistons and rings. Before she returned inside the hut for the night she had built a huge bonfire, ready to light if a searching aircraft flew overhead.

That evening she added a little rice from the family rice bowl to her beef tea much to her hosts' delight. She had really become one of the family. She gathered with them in the communal living area and spent a happy evening adding to her Malay vocabulary.

She had been in bed some time when she heard a great commotion outside. The women were rushing around tidying up the hut and the men had all hurried outside. Looking out she saw a small group of people arrive followed by men carrying baskets and bundles.

The leader stepped forward and in broken English introduced himself as Khum Ranong Rae, the district officer. He had received the letter the villagers had so laboriously written the previous night, and had come to help her. He had brought his wife and the district opium inspector with him.

The two officials cut quite a picture in comparison with the islanders. The inspector looked very dapper in his wide-legged black satin trousers. He also wore a spotless, well fitting, military cut jacket of white duck; white canvas slippers; and a white topee. The opium inspector wore khaki shorts, a short tight jacket, which Mrs Bonney was sure would burst at any minute, and a little hat similar to those worn by Alpine climbers. He smoked a long thin cigar incessantly and laughed almost non-stop. Khum's wife wore a beautiful sarong and stunning gold jewellery. Also in the party were their children. They were naked.

The visitors presented Mrs Bonney with baskets full of tinned food. Canned pineapple, cream, coffee, fish, meat, biscuits and tea. Khum immediately opened a number of them and invited her to tuck in. Evidently he was under the impression that she was starving. Probably the natives had thought, on the previous night when she ate nothing, that the airwoman had no food with her. She pounced on a tin of pineapple.

While she ate, the district officer explained that he had sent word to Rangoon the moment he received the villagers' letter. He and his party would remain 'until the white people arrived'.

That night when she settled down again on her matting bed she was virtually alone in the hut. Khum had moved her admiring public out and only SOS and a couple of others remained. As had become her custom she lit a mosquito coil by the bed, not that there were any around, but to dull the ever-present fish odour. Things looked brighter and she was already wondering if somehow she might still continue with the flight.

Next day she gave My Little Ship another going over with the remainder of the oil. She also used up every last drop from her grease gun. There was nothing more she could do. She got out her camera and spent the day recording the whole scene on film.

She was still stalked by a curious crowd watching her every move. With her food problem no longer critical she decided to give them a treat. Dipping into the emergency supplies she pulled out a box of chocolate bars. It was time to repay a little of their kindness. They had frequently brought her little presents such as jungle fruits, bananas, coconuts, betel nuts and dried fish! SOS always took the gift, sent the giver on his way with a withering look, then rearranged it on a platter and presented it to Mrs Bonney.

The·airwoman divided the chocolate and handed it to the natives who had grouped around. She had trouble containing her laughter when she watched what took place.

'They took it and very carefully unfolded the silver paper. They smelled the paper and smiled, then held it under the noses of those who sat nearby so that they might enjoy it also. Then they tasted the silver paper, but it did not come up to their expectations. Then remembering the contents which they had overlooked, they turned it over in their fingers, and eyed the sticky mess with deep suspicion.

'They looked across at me enquiringly so I began to feed myself with imaginary pieces of chocolate. They were not taking any chances, however, and took tiny nibbles. Later however it became a case of hiding my chocholate.'

The same ceremony occurred when she introduced them to the wonders of chewing gum.

On the third day she and Khum were walking near the hut when the official stopped, listened intently and said, 'Motor boat.' He pointed in the direction he believed the sound came from, but Mrs Bonney could hear nothing.

When they reached the hut he quietly told his group to pack their things and departed as simply as they had come.

'I would have liked to reward him, but money was refused, saying he was an officer. Khum gave me to understand that he had only done his duty. I was so impressed with his sincerity and simple dignity, and touched by his kindness to me, that on my arrival in London I wrote to the Governor of Ranong, telling him of Khum's kindness and also of the care the natives had taken of me.'

About half an hour after the district officer and his party departed two boats arrived. On board were a New Zealander named Aitken, employed by the Siamese Tin Syndicate and a jovial Scot, called J. W. Petrie, of the Bangram Tirt Syndicate. They explained how an exhausted native had brought her letter to them at the mine after travelling on foot for a day. They listened to her story then reassured her that they had immediately sent news out that she was alive and well.

That night they held a hilarious party in Palm Leaf Cottage as she had named the hut. They tucked into a hamper the miners had brought, which included plenty of 'liquid refreshment'. 'Our table was a box, our illumination a hurricane lamp, and our dress suited the temperature, but the Savoy never saw a gayer party,' Mrs Bonney recalled.



Australia, Terry Gwynn-Jones

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