The Aircraft Hall was one of the original display halls in the Australian War Memorial when it opened in 1941. Dark and somewhat crowded, it contains some absolute aviation treasures from Australia’s involvement in World War Two and the Korean War, including one very historic RAAF CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II advanced trainer/utility aircraft. The main theme of the hall is Air Power in the Pacific 1941-1953.
On December 26th, 1942 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer with crewman Sergeant J.L. (Les) Coulston of No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron were flying this CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II (serial number A20-103) on a reconnaissance flight over a Japanese ship wreck near Buna, New Guinea, when they spotted and dived on what was reported as a Japanese Zero/Zeke fighter 1,000 feet below. With machine guns blazing and against all odds he shot it down!
His five second burst of machine gun fire saw the Japanese aircraft plummet into the water and burst into flames – the victory was confirmed by 3 sources that day (the crew along with personnel from Australian Army 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions). Archer and Coulston completed their reconnaissance mission after this incident, and the body of the Japanese pilot was later recovered – it was discovered that he had been shot through the head when his fighter came under attack.
Archer achieved the only known air to air victory in a CAC Wirraway. A post war investigation revealed that the aircraft shot down was actually a Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa (“Peregrine Falcon”) or Oscar as the Allies called it, of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force 11th Sentai, rather than an Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero/Zeke. The mistake is understandable as back then everything was probably reported as a Zero!
This was an amazing feat as the Wirraway advanced trainer was not intended to be a frontline combat aircraft but in those desperate early days all available aircraft were thrown into the fray! Armament was just 2 x forward firing 0.303 in. Vickers Mk V machine guns and one Vickers Mk 1, 0.303in GO machine gun in the rear cockpit (it could also carry a bomb payload of 454kg/1000lb).
Archer later said he just acted on impulse and was lucky to get a good shot in first. For his act of bravery, on January 19th, 1943 he was awarded the Silver Star for combat valour by none less than United States General Douglas MacArthur, Allied Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area! The citation stated “doing the impossible – shooting down a Zero and bringing home his observer to tell the tale“. He was personally presented the medal by Brigadier Ennis C. Whitehead, the Commanding General Allied Air Force in New Guinea.
In an amusing footnote from the pages of history, Archer was given six bottles of beer from the Australian High Command. Liquid gold for his heroic actions! Coulston, in the back of the Wirraway, was mentioned in despatches for his part in this unlikely aerial victory.
John S (Jack) Archer, enlisted in the RAAF on August 15th, 1941 and graduated from his flight training as a Pilot Officer on May 28th, 1942. He conducted 42 sorties and 19 air strikes with No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron between November 1942 and June 1943 – his commanders assessment of his abilities was “Above average and exceptional“. His wartime career spanned numerous units and included a stint with No. 75 Squadron from August 1944 to June 1945 flying Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighters out of various bases in New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies (Noemfoor Island, Morotai and Tarakan), harassing the last of the Japanese forces still based in the region, he conducted 20 sorties and 45 air strikes (171 hours of flying time) – his commanders assessment of his abilities was “Above average. He returned to Australia and continued his career with the RAAF until his discharge from service in March 1948.
The historical significance of the Wirraway (A20-103) flown by Archer on December 26th, 1942 was recognized and today it is displayed in the Australian War Memorial for future generations to learn the important role this aircraft played in World War Two. Unfortunately space is a bit tight in the hall and the aircraft is displayed without one wing and it does not stand on its undercarriage but don’t worry the AWM is bound to have the missing parts in storage!
Wirraway A20-103 Operational History
CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II was produced at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation factory at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne in 1940. Entering RAAF service with 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton on September 8, 1940 this aircraft flew with No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron from October 7th, 1940 to January 15th, 1943 – during this period it was based in Australia at Canberra (ACT), Camden (NSW) and Kingaroy (QLD); along with its service at Berry/Bomana in New Guinea. The squadron pilots completed 42 operational missions and 49 other flights.
Wirraway (A20-103) went on to fly with 5 Service Flying Training School (5 SFTS) at Uranquinty, NSW. Here during March 1944, the aircraft was involved in another significant footstep in Australian history, when it was flown twice by one Sergeant Leonard ‘Len’ Waters, the first Australian Aboriginal to become a fighter pilot (he originally trained as an aircraft mechanic before switching to flight training in 1943).
Len Waters would go on to fly 95 operational sorties in Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk fighters with No. 78 Squadron in the Dutch East Indies during 1944/45 (he mostly flew ground attack missions as there was not much Japanese aircraft opposition by that stage of the war). Len left the RAAF in 1946 with the rank of Warrant Officer.
This time at 5 SFTS could well have been the end of this history making Wirraway, when it was struck by Wirraway A20-80 during a taxiing collision on April 16th, 1944! Luckily it was able to fly on!
The Wirraway then went on to serve with 3 Communications Unit, Mascot, NSW and saw out its post war days at the RAAF Point Cook Central Flying School (CFS) in Victoria. The aircraft was presented to the Australian War Memorial in 1959 for permanent preservation with a valuable 3,371 hours and 25 minutes of RAAF flying time on the clock.