Raleigh man’s role in World War II rescue celebrated

avaughn@newsobserver.comApril 7, 2012 

— As he turned over a cleanly-cut, 5-inch piece of metal in his hands, retired Army Lt. Col. Curtis R. Craver said he was amazed when recently contacted about an almost-forgotten incident he was involved in almost 70 years ago.

Robert L. Richardson of Spokane, Wash., has traveled around the world researching the World War II accident in the South Pacific that almost took his father’s life, and one of the last and most important trips was to Craver’s home in Raleigh this week.

“He must be the toughest,” Richardson said of Craver, the only survivor he has found of the 25-man search party that rescued his father, Air Force Lt. Leonard G. Richardson.

“I’m age 94 and still kicking,” Craver responded.

The piece of metal Richardson brought to Craver’s house is a fragment of the cargo plane his father was navigating when it crashed into the top of a mountain following what should have been a routine supply drop on Sept. 5, 1943.

Only a few miles short of their base, the five-man crew, struggling with severe weather and poor visibility, descended too quickly and crashed into what was then one of the New Hebrides islands. When he came to, Lt. Richardson learned he was the lone survivor. A leg, a hand and some ribs were broken, and the front of his body was severely burned.

After waiting four days by the wreckage for rescuers, Lt. Richardson crawled down the 1900-foot mountain on his back and sought help on his own. According to a vintage clipping from a military newspaper, he ate leaves and drank water from logs for four more days before friendly residents discovered him and brought him to their village.

While the military had a good idea where the plane had crashed, the jungle was so dense that locating it proved difficult. It took a week of aerial reconnaissance to locate the site. Craver, then a captain with the 129th Ground Force Command, was one of the leaders of a patrol that spent a day and a half hacking through the brush before reaching the wreck.

Craver’s patrol was not able to get Lt. Richardson to a military hospital until Sept. 17.

It was on a flight to the islands, now called Vanuatu, that Robert Richardson realized that even if he found the wreckage of his father’s plane it would not satisfy him. He decided to seek out whoever he could who was connected to the crew of the cargo plane or the rescue party.

“I realized it’s bigger than just my dad’s story,” he said.

When he arrived in Vanuatu last July, Richardson discovered that residents still told the story of what happened in September 1943, just as his family did. They took him through the still-difficult terrain to the site of the wreckage on Mount Turi, and the image of the propeller peeking through decades of overgrowth is still burned in his brain, he said.

Five years of intense research into his father’s brush with death has taken him from his home in Spokane not only to that remote island, but also to visit the families and gravesites of the others involved.

But he was shocked to find Craver, a living connection to the crash.

“It was moving for me to shake his hand,” Richardson said. “The same hand that shook my father’s back on that mountain.”

Craver said he has never had any reason to discuss the rescue mission because no one had asked him about it. After his military career, he spent 45 years teaching in the music department at N.C. State University, and he still gives clarinet lessons.

But when he learned earlier this year that Richardson had contacted family and former colleagues looking for him, Craver was eager to speak about the events. During their first phone conversation, the two men talked for an hour.

Though his military service only lasted six months, Lt. Richardson’s recovery from the crash took four years. In that time, he met the woman he eventually married, a nurse in the hospital where he recovered.

Both have died but, sitting at Craver’s table, their son said he feels he is close to “putting a bow” on the story he’s devoted several years to documenting.

“To reach back 70 years to talk to a fella who was there, had footprints on the mountain, and helped my father survive the crash, that was an astonishing moment for me,” Richardson said.

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