stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
The story of Keith Kearney, a young lad from Bogan Gate, is similar to many others of his era. With life opening its doors of possibilities, the Second World War disrupts this potential like it did for so many young men and women. Yet in his short life he displayed courage, commitment and a desire to serve his country. Keith’s cousin, Cliff Kearney, wrote a book detailing his journey to get closure on the death of Keith Kearney and perhaps unravel the mystery surrounding his sudden demise; answering questions that had remained unanswered for nearly 60 years. This story is told in The Flying Officer from Bogan Gate ISBN 9780646431178 which can be found as one of many reference books in the Family & Local History Resource Room in Parkes Library. Cliff shared the same love of flying that his cousin had done and knew too well of the fine line between life and death for aviators.
Little did I realise that my researches would soon take me down the path of something that had happened fifty eight years earlier, and which had all the hallmarks of some of the flying shortfalls that can bring men and machine undone very unceremoniously. For a career in the air is very much the same as those who wish to circumnavigate the globe by oceanic means – a very forgiving life within itself – but extremely unforgiving of mistakes. Stumble not my son, for the fall can be hard.
C. Kearney (2004) p. 44
Video footage of how to fly a de Havilland DH82 Tiger Moth – the training plane for not just Australian fighter pilots but also most of the Commonwealth.
The surname Kearney is one that is synonymous with the many pioneering families of the Central West. The excellent book, Forbes, published by Forbes Shire Council explains
The Kearneys have had an association with Forbes since the 1880s and it all began with a baby Honorah Egan being born on the ship Gilbert Henderson coming out from Ireland in 1841 and John Kearney arriving at the age of twleve with his parents on the ship, Subraon in 1848 from Clonmel, Ireland. They married at St Michael’s Roman Catholic church, Bathurst 1858 and purchased land near Cudal in 1866 and called the property “Bowan Park”…..
Forbes Local History Book Committee (1997) p. 604
The move approximately 111 km west would come later.
Patrick Kearney was born at “Bowan Park” Cudal, which his father purchased in 1866 and is owned by a nephew today. In the early 1880s Patrick and his three brothers acquired land in the Bogan country and blazed the trail from “Farrendale” to Narromine as well as “Merton Plains”, “Waterloo” and part of “Bundemar”.
When Patrick married Mary Looby guests arrived in 450 buggies and sulkies at “New Park” Tullamore.
The family came to Bogan Gate in 1906 to be near brother James, an original settler on “Plainview”. Patrick purchased “The Glen”, “Uralba” and “Glen Lea”. The former owner had built a wooden mansion on “The Glen” which was later destroyed by fire and replaced with a pise home, the first in district.
Gateway To The Bogan Book 2 (1997) p. 34
Patrick and Mary had four children: Kit, Frank, Michael and Tom. It is from Tom that Keith Kearney is directly descended.
Tom was the first boy from Bogan Gate to receive secondary education.
Tom married Miss Eileen White and had two sons Lawrie and Keith. Mrs Kearney owned the first sewing machine in the district, purhased in 1920. She won many trophies for golf and was office bearer in CWA when the War Memorial Hall was being built and was also patron of Red Cross. After her husband’s death, she worked for the commonwealth public service. Lawrie addressed the ANZAC service in 1929 and was ‘dux’ of primary school in 1931 and Keith was boy ‘dux’ 1933 receiving the Dr Dunstan prize. Both had secondary education at Dubbo and were friends of Rawdon Middleton.
Gateway To The Bogan Book 2 (1997) p. 34
Prior to Cliff Kearney researching his cousin, he stumbled across an interesting family anecdote. Cliff’s father was called Keith Joseph Kearney. While this is not uncommon when tracing one’s ancestry – many families have more than one ‘Keith’ or ‘Thomas’ for example – at least Cliff was able to find out how the name Keith came to be so prominent amongst the Kearney clan:
A very interesting and intriguing aspect of my father’s name and Keith Henry Kearney’s name came to light many years later and to this day I am extremely touched by it. My uncle John…. hadn’t told me the story when I was younger and probably would never have done so if I hadn’t taken so much interest in Keith Henry later in my life.
Apparently Keith’s father, Thomas Kearney and his new bride Mary had been returning from their honeymoon during which they spent a fortnight or so down the south coast of NSW. On their way back to their new home ‘Berara’, they took the opportunity to drop in on Thomas’ cousin Daniel and his family at ‘Downderry’ near Cudal and spent the day with them. Daniel Kearney was my Grandfather, the date was late May 1920. My father Keith was the first born of five children to Dan and his wife Kit and he had been twenty months old at the time of the visit. The story goes that the newly weds were so taken with my father as an infant on that day, particularly Mary, that on the 12th of February 1921 when their first born son arrived he was christened Keith Henry Kearney.
C. Kearney (2004) p. 33
The term commuting today usually is used for adults and their journey to and from work. During a visit to Bogan Gate, Cliff learnt that many years ago, commuting could be used to refer to children and their journey to and from school.
Laurie explained to me a bit about the house in Bogan Gate where he and Joan had lived for many years. Keith and Laurie had been raised on the family farm some seven miles out of town, but they used to spend four nights a week in this house so as not to have to ride the horses in from the farm every day to attend school. At the end of each school week the boys would saddle the two horses and ride back out to the farm to meet their parents and spend the weekend with them.
C. Kearney (2004) p. 37
One of the most poignant moments in Cliff’s book about his cousin comes when he was visiting his relatives some twenty years before he would put pen to paper. Cliff, and a friend from Queensland, Bob, had stopped to visit Keith’s brother, Laurie and his wife Joan in Bogan Gate.
As we left Laurie and Joan’s house I said to Bob, my loader driver who had accompanied me on the job that day, “Let’s stop off at the Cenotaph down by the Memorial Park and Community Hall and pay a silent respect to Keith and all the others that never returned to the Bogan Gate district.” Bob, being in no particular hurry replied, “Not a problem, mate.”
Alighting from the Landcruiser ute and being just a short distance from the Cenotaph, it was quite daunting to see all the names listed, and that was only the northern side of the memorial obelisk.
“My God,” I said to Bob, “That’s staggering, makes you wonder just how many they sent from this area doesn’t it?”
Bob replied, “Have a look round the other side, you haven’t seen half of them yet Cliff.”
I was quite gob smacked [sic] to say the least. “The price this district paid is bloody outrageous,” I said. “Look at all that fine, young Australian bloodstock wasted, especially when you look now at the sparsity of families occupying this area.” Bob nodded slowly before adding, “Not to mention the tremendous sadness the friends and family that were left behind would have went through.”
C. Kearney (2004) p. 38
Whether it was because Cliff shared the same loving of flying as Keith Henry Kearney – and therefore knew the dangers involved in flying – or just because there were many unanswered questions relating to his cousin’s sad and sudden death; Cliff had worked up the courage to try and investigate. Very little was spoken about the sudden and shocking death of Keith Henry Kearney. The few pieces of information that Cliff had gleaned over the years led him to believe that his cousin was at fault for the accident. The two pilots, Keith and Flight Lieutenant James Alexander See, were best friends who died tragically in an aerial accident. To discover more this would involve writing a letter to Keith’s brother, Laurie. Keith’s death from a “flying accident” was rarely spoken about at family gatherings. Cliff did not know if by flying accident his cousin was a pilot, passenger or bystander nor even where he was buried. Indeed Cliff only stumbled across the mystery when a photo of his flying officer relative in uniform needed repairs to the frame. Over years there were rumours of mysterious visions and questions about Keith’s responsibility for the deaths, yet no one had brought the subject up to get the full story. When Cliff took the photograph out of its damaged frame, he realised that Laurie had given him the photograph on the understanding that a copy be made and sent to him. That was nearly 30 years ago and Cliff hadn’t made a copy. So in making amends he would use this as an opportunity to ask Laurie about his brother. Cliff found out that the accident occurred at Ross River, Queensland and that his cousin’s final resting place was in Townsville Cemetery. But he received more information than just where his cousin was buried:
Some of Laurie’s hand writing contained the following information:
The morning he lost his life he went to the priest and said “Sorry Father I cannot go to Mass this afternoon as I have to go flying immediately.” But the Priest wrote to Mother and Father afterwards and said that as he was saying the Tridentine Latin Mass he looked around and he saw my brother standing at the back of the church in his flying suit and said “Dominus Vobiscum” which means “May the Lord be with you”…..
Keith took the pledge never to touch alcohol when he was confirmed at Dubbo and he never broke it. One commanding Officer said to him, “When you get in the theatre of war you will have to drink to get Dutch Courage.” But he never did break his pledge. I have his confirmation medal for which the nuns at Dubbo instructed him (as a soldier of the Lord).
A telegram arrived notifying my father of his death. We could not ring Sydney with a four hour delay and it was impossible to ring Townsville. It was dreadful sitting at Bogan Gate and not being able to attend his funeral…..
I couldn’t believe what I was reading: imagine a four hour delay to phone Sydney! How terrible that none of the family could get to Townsville and that it was even impossible to phone Townsville, but there was worse to come. One would have thought the telegram would have been fairly quick to arrive, where something so serious as the loss of a serviceman was concerned, but alas Keith was dead, buried and gone at least two days before any notification came to the family. Surely even a carrier pigeon could have made it from Townsville to Bogan Gate and back virtually overnight! Was the system really that slow? I guess I cannot comment too much on that matter as todays [sic] communications are such that it is almost incomprehensible to compare one against the other.
C. Kearney (2004) p. 49-50
Not a bad effort, I thought as I studied Keith’s history that Laurie had forwarded to me. Primary School at Bogan Gate saw him receive the Dr Dunstan Boy Dux Award. Thence Secondary School at Dubbo where he was inspired by Rawdon Middleton, who later received a Victoria Cross, to join the 6th Light Horse at eighteen years of age. Soon he became a Corporal and gained his Officers Commission. Recovered from a hernia operation before he studied solidly for the RAAF Pilot’s entry exams….
As time was to pass I was also to learn, somewhat by accident, that he had a lovely relationship with a young WAAAF named Betty who was also based at RAAF Garbutt in Townsville. The relationship was so much so that Keith was engaged to her…..
When I think about it, the family reunion had achieved two ends; not only did it bring the living together it had also re-acquainted the eternal who were now at rest. How cruel it all was. It took very little imagination to realise that extreme sadness in its ugliest form must have visited Keith’s fiancée Betty and buried itself deep inside her for years to come.
C. Kearney (2004) p. 51
The deeper that Cliff delved into the mystery surrounding his cousin’s death, the more fascinating discoveries he made. Undertaking the journey to Townsville to explore the Ross River area, he made another startling discovery:
With a few hours at my disposal I decided that it was a good opportunity to pay a visit to the RAAF Townsville War Museum, which is an integrated part of the Garbutt RAAF base….
It was so tragic that Keith and his good friend and fellow Squadron 84 member James Alexander See, who been flying the other Kittyhawk involved in the accident, had paid such an unnecessary price beyond the call of military duty….
Striding through the big old double security gates of the Museum I was about to throw on some left rudder to go through the front door, when something caught my attention. Well I’ll be dammed [sic] I said to myself. Could it be possible? No surely not, I just couldn’t believe my eyes…. and walked towards the propeller of Keith’s Kittyhawk A29-1185…..
Half an hour later when I finally got through the entrance doors John asked me, “What’s wrong with you? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost or something.”
I replied, “John, you aren’t going to believe this, but I’ve just seen part of my cousin Keith’s chariot.”
C. Kearney (2004) p. 62, 63 & 66
Thankfully Cliff had been sent all the information he required to accurately confirm the dented propeller blades on display were the remains of Keith’s Kittyhawk plane.
What follows in the remainder of Cliff’s book is the journey he took in his attempts to track down Keith’s fiancée Betty and to find out as much as he could about the fatal collision. Cliff had read Daughter of Australia: The Remarkable Life Story of Nina Finn by James Rorrison, discovering that Nina had spent time in Garbutt where she befriended Betty Smith. From reading her story, Cliff had realised that Nina would have been one of the friends trying to console a distraught Betty. As he continued his research he was informed that there were EIGHT Betty Smiths involved with the WAAAF! Even more remarkable was the fact that one of the Betty Smiths (but not ‘the’ Betty Smith he was seeking) had married a man called John Long. John had been stationed in the Army camp that was “….situated less than one mile to the south east of the eastern end of Ross River airfield’s main runway.” (C. Kearney, 2004, p.200) While John Long, his best mate, Arthur McCluskey and his fellow AIF personnel were on parade, they were distracted by a group of Kittyhawk fighters returning from low level flying exercises. John Long had witnessed the air collision that killed Keith Kearney. Years later he married one of the eight Betty Smiths in the WAAAF. Cliff was to discover that Betty was in a hospital recovering from ‘Dengue’ fever. She was with a small group of WAAAF patients sitting outside in deck chairs watching the Kittyhawks flying when she too had witnessed the air collision! (C. Kearney, 2004, p. 201) So while Cliff had come to a dead end for Cliff’s fiancée Betty, he was sitting in the lounge room of a married couple who before they were going out had both witnessed the aerial accident!
By December 2003 Cliff had tracked down the address of Nina Finn. Although there was no answer at her address, he persisted and knocked on the doors of the neighbouring abodes. In one of the houses, a Marietta Goldberg answered her door. After explaining who he was and who he was looking for, Mrs Goldberg explained that “Yes, of course I knew Nina. In fact she was my best friend for ten years. We were the greatest of friends and used to visit each other sometimes twice a day.” (C. Kearney, 2004, p. 204) Cliff’s excitement was tempered when he realised Marietta had spoken in past tense. Sadly, Nina had passed away in January of that year.
This left Cliff wondering how he would find the Betty Smith. However he was gathering more information that enabled him to write what he believed occurred. By April 2004 Cliff had written the first fifteen chapters of his book and was well into final production. Then he received a phone call from Sergeant Ken Moran, ex RAAF Ross River and another witness of the collision of the two Kittyhawks:
What Ken said to me was this:
“Cliff your cousin did not cause the accident. The other aircraft was misfiring and then he levelled out and started to turn right. You see myself and two other pilots had the day off, so we decided to go into Townsville. We had no way of getting into town so the three of us reckoned if we walked down the southern side of the runway to the eastern end we’d be able to catch an army truck heading back to Townsville on the Charters Towers Road. We got to about two hundred yards from the end of the runway and holy smoke Cliff, you wouldn’t believe it but the second last Kittyhawk started backfiring. He definitely had a problem because he started to turn right, then the unthinkable happened. The last aircraft come up and smashed into number three – this happened right above where were standing.”
C. Kearney (2004) p. 212
This news confirmed for Cliff that his cousin was not to blame for the accident. Cliff states that it was an accident and his intention on writing the book was not to cast blame on the other pilot – the two pilots were good friends as well as comrades. Yet Ken Moran was yet to astound Cliff even further.
“After the crash I picked up the cockpit oxygen receiver valve from A29-1185 and it is now displayed in a glass case at the Canterbury Bankstown RAAF Association Headquarters. Would you and your family like to have the part? I feel it would be treasured much more by you than us.”
There was a significant break in Ken’s sentence and I detected a very emotional tone to his voice, as if he was about to let an old friend go forever, never to be touched or looked upon again – after all he had been its custodian for going on sixty years. How unbelievable that I, on behalf of all Kearney’s [sic] concerned with the Flying Officer, was to be entrusted with an actual part from his aircraft!
C. Kearney (2004) p. 213
Extract from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Listing. Retrieved from http://www.ancestrylibrary.com via Parkes Library’s subscription. Original Source: Peter Singlehurst; War Dead of the Commonwealth Cemeteries in the State of Queensland – 2
While Cliff was certain that Betty Smith existed and was his cousin’s love, he never was able to track her down. The other Betty Smith (who married John Long) remained in touch with Cliff – their story of how they came to know each other after having witnessed the Kittyhawks collision is remarkable too – but sadly Cliff was no closer to finding the Betty who had been engaged to his cousin.
There is a post script in his book dated 13th June 2006. Cliff received a letter which contained a sealed envelope which was marked
NOT TO BE OPENED PRIOR TO DECEMBER 2007
Cliff hoped that once December 2007 came around that he would be able to finally solve the last piece of the puzzle – who is, or was, Betty Smith? While the book does not contain the contents of the letter, Parkes Shire Library Officer Dan Fredericks rang the telephone number that accompanied Cliff Kearney’s book. Unfortunately the cancer that had plagued Cliff during the researching and writing of his book had won – Cliff passed away in 2008 and had been too sick leading up to his passing to follow up on the sealed envelope. Cliff’s widow, Kay, kindly took the time to talk about her late husband’s passion for his cousin’s story. Researching and writing the book had been a kind of therapy for him, even if he never was able to obtain that final piece of the puzzle. While that mystery remains, Cliff’s perseverance resulted in a fascinating book for not just the Kearney family, but for everyone who enjoys reading a great Australian story.
The final resting place of Keith Henry Kearney is in the Belgian Gardens section of Townsville War Cemetery in Queensland. Source: Australian Cemeteries Index website
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