"We found a white man on an island long ago"
A first-hand account of the rescue of U.S Air Force Flight Lieutenant Clarence Sanford on 14th March 1942 by Rirratjingu clan leader Wandjuk Marika and his two fathers, Waninya and Milirrma* is told in the AIATSIS Collection item Nganapurru malngmarama balandanha runungura baman.
This book was written in the Gumatj language by Wandjuk Marika, illustrated by his son Mawalan II Marika and published in 1992 by the Yirrkala Literature Production Centre. It is one of a number of items written in Yolngu language dialects related to WWII held in the AIATSIS Languages Collection.
Nganapurru malngmarama balandanha runungura baman is a travelogue of named places visited by Wandjuk Marika, Waninya and Milirrma and the activities that took place at those locations. The book tells the story of how the three Rirratjingu men were on a hunting trip on Dhambaliya / Bremer Island (North East Arnhem Land) when they noticed: “a white man using a parachute”. The three men went to him (this person would turn out to be Ft Lt Sanford) and asked:
“Dhärriya dhiyallyi, nhä dhuwala nhe yulngunydja
“Ngarranydja dhuwala Djapan”, biyaku ngayinydja. “Manymak, ngarra nhuna yurru dhuwala dharpumana”. Ngayinydja bondi yanabuku-wilyurru, “Yaka, yaka, American dhuwala ngarra”, biyaku
"Stop! Stand there! What sort of person are you? 'I’m a Japanese,' he said. 'Okay, I’m going to spear you'. He changed very quickly. 'No, no, I’m an American.'”
Ga wanganharami nganapurru, gong-yalkyalkthunmi bala ngayi lakaranguna, “Dhuwala ngarraku dikarrny’t ja ya’, lupthurrunana, ga girri’ ga rrupiya nhä-nganydja, warrpam’nha, ga bathi”, biyaku
So we talked shook hands and he said: “My plane has sunk, and my clothes, and money and whatever, everything and my bags.”
We sat together, when night fell we made a fire and went to sleep.
Wandjuk, Waninya and Milirrma nursed Sanford’s injuries, gave him food and water. Over the next two days all the men would make their way to Yirrkala mission. Sanford’s injuries were so severe that he was transferred to Darwin where he remained for two weeks before being flown back to the U.S.A.
The AIATSIS Collection also holds a bilingual (Gumatj / English) version of the rescue story of Flt Lt Sanford published in the Yirrkala community newsletter Yän.
The rescue of Sanford by Wandjuk Marika and his relatives was widely covered in a number of Australian newspapers in 1942, in the official service journal of the U.S Army Air Forces in 1943 and as a newspaper strip that features in a compilation of military stories called;“Fighting Heroes: Battle for Freedom” also published in 1943.
From these various versions of the event, we find out that on 14th March 1942, Flt Lt Clarence Sanford was flying a Kittyhawk over New Guinea against Japanese forces when he became lost in heavy cloud. He flew south and then west across the Gulf of Carpentaria until out of fuel he parachuted into the sea close to Bremer Island. “The survival of Flt Lt Sandford was entirely due to Wandjuk and his relatives. He was very lucky as during those years people only visited Bremer once a week by dugout canoe”. (Isaacs, pg 64).
Sanford never flew again in combat, trained in medicine and practiced as a surgeon for 30 years until his death in 1987.
Wandjuk Marika went on to become one of Australia’s greatest Indigenous statesmen, artists and religious leaders. Wandjuk was involved in land rights activism, appeared in films and co-founded the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973. He lobbied for the creation of the Aboriginal Artists Agency in 1973 to protect the copyright of Aboriginal artists and Indigenous intellectual property. Wandjuk Marika also died in 1987.
*In European kinship systems these men would be referred to as uncles.
- Marika, W 1992, Nganapurru malngmarama balandanha runungura baman, Yän, no 3, pp. 6-15, English – Gumatj bilingual version of story
- Stookie, A 1943, Fighting heroes: battle for freedom, Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, Wisconsin
- Yunupingu, B 1983, Ganapurru djama gundarak = Our small airstrip, story of building Gove Airport during WWII
- Isaacs, J 2006-2009, Marika, Wandjuk Djuakan (1927-1987)
- 1942 '“Jesus No. 1 Man”', Advocate (Melbourne, Vic. : 1868 - 1954), 9 July, p. 19.
- 1942 'U.S. PILOT'S LIFE SAVED BY CROSS', Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954), 9 April, p. 2.
- 1943 Bail – out off Australia, Air Force: Official Service Journal of the U.S. Army Air Forces vol. 26 no. 4 (April) p. 10-11.
- Pastmasters 2019, The Sandy Sandford Story