MID-NORTH Coast people have never forgotten the day when Hollywood’s star comedian Bob Hope dropped in out of the sky back in August 1944.
His US Navy Catalina PBY aircraft lost an engine and suddenly had to make an emergency landing on the Camden Haven River at Laurieton, 38 kilometres south of Port Macquarie.
Although people soon downplayed the seriousness of the incident, it could have been potentially fatal, as military authorities later conceded.
The Catalina, carrying Hope and a small entertainment troupe touring the Pacific to raise the morale of US soldiers in World War II, skimmed down low over the river before splashing down to a sudden halt on a sand bank.
A little earlier, as the drama unfolded, passengers and crew were instructed to jettison anything to lighten the giant flying boat.
So, out went excess luggage and several heavy crates, but the plane still kept dropping.
Even Bob Hope, the famous wise-cracking American comic, was suddenly lost for words as the big amphibian aircraft swooped lower and lower over the Camden River.
Then, with a thump, the Catalina called Spare Gear splashed down, bumping along, coming to a shuddering halt on the sand spit diagonally opposite Dunbogan boat shed.
Locals said funnyman Hope, back then probably the most recognised comedian in the world, was badly shaken by the incident, as the aircraft had “almost somersaulted”.
A day or so later, at a Sydney press conference, an ever-smiling Hope made light of the frightening, unscheduled war-time landing, declaring: “We let our souvenirs go first. Finally we jettisoned several (precious) cases of whisky. It was very sad.”
With the plane grounded in the river, passenger and fellow comic Jerry Colonna peered outside and remarked: “Funny. I thought Sydney was much larger than this.”
Also on board the fateful flight were singer Frances Langford, scriptwriter Barney Dean, guitarist Tony Romano and dancer Patty Thomas.
The six-member troupe had been entertaining US soldiers in Guam, part of 150 performances in the South Pacific over the previous three months.
They were en-route back to Sydney when they unexpectedly landed at Laurieton.
Soon, surprised residents arrived to rescue the entertainers, who quickly made their way to the post office to alert friends and relatives that they were all safe.
Front-runner Bob Hope reportedly walked into the post office, announcing: “I’m Bob Hope and I want to send a telegram.”
At this, the postmaster Bruce Plunkett apparently replied: “Young man, it’s Monday and I’m much too busy for your jokes.”
The rest of the story is also part of Laurieton folklore.
To help repay the town for their assistance, the troupe that night staged an impromptu concert, their first in Australia, in the School of Arts hall to rapturous applause.
Some 450 people attended when the population of the whole district was only about 600.
Hope and co-comic Colonna then danced away the night with the local girls until about 4am.
Hope was particularly enthusiastic about the ‘Hokey Pokey’, a dance he learned from the locals.
Later, nine army cars arrived to take the stranded entertainers to Williamtown RAAF base to catch a flight onto Sydney.
The Catalina crew stayed behind to have the aircraft eventually pulled off the sandbank for repairs with the aid of a draught horse and a logging truck using a winch.
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Bob Hope also never forgot the warm welcome the entertainers had at Laurieton after their brush with death.
He went on to send Christmas cards there for 24 years, until 1968.
And tomorrow, May 26, what’s probably been the most exciting event ever at the idyllic coastal New South Wales village will be celebrated at the 2019 ‘Slice of Haven’ food and wine festival.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the historic landing, the festival, being held at the riverside end of Seymour Street, is described as a dollop of indulgence with a dash of Bob Hope.
Besides hot dog and drink stalls and music belting out hits from the 1940s era, there will be a mass Hokey Pokey dance record attempt.
The theme is, “It Isn’t Hollywood, But …” and honours the invaluable 2011 book of the same name by Port Macquarie Hastings historian Mitch McKay, which will be available to buy on the day.
McKay began seriously researching the Catalina crash-landing after singer Frances Langford died in July 2005.
He interviewed dancer Patty Thomas in America in 2007, and then decided to also try to track down the actual plane and its crew.
It was just in time.
Bob Hope had died aged 100 years in 2003 while Jerry Colonna had died in 1986.
Patty Thomas was the last surviving member of the entertainers who had unexpectedly landed in Laurieton so long before.
Thomas then wrote the introduction to McKay’s book.
Meanwhile, McKay said he discovered the intriguing fate of the Catalina, which involved a covert operation by the CIA to bring down the Sukarno government in Indonesia.
McKay also helped when Fiona Wyllie, of ABC Mid-North Coast radio, interviewed Patty Thomas by phone in America in 2012.
Thomas said the aircraft landing was “very bumpy”.
The pilot sent out an SOS before yelling “hit the floor”.
Singer Frances Langford, seated in the navigator’s seat but without a seat belt, was thrown forward through the air.
The dancer said the ‘Cat’ then hit the sandbar: “(The pilot) put the brakes on real quick. It tore the bottom of the plane out.
“Barney Dean, who was scared to death of flying, said: ‘Showbiz! Stick with it. Look where it’s got us now’.”
Soon after landing, a little bloke in a power boat came by asking anyone if they had any American cigarettes.
Barney Dean then threw him a packet.
Later the troupe staged a performance for the thrilled locals.
Thomas said the show’s finale had the group all singing Hope’s signature tune, Thanks for the Memory.
“It was a wonderful warm ending,” she said.
Patty Thomas died aged 91 years in 2014.
Today, the Camden Haven Historical Society Museum in Laurieton has a permanent exhibit to the unintended visit by the US entertainers in 1944.
Among the memorabilia is a signed photograph by Bob Hope especially sent to Laurieton in 1989.
The former vaudevillian, comedian and author was declared an honourary veteran of the US Armed Forces in 1997 for his 57 tours entertaining military personnel between 1941 and 1991, including Vietnam.
Bob Hope also appeared in more than 70 films and hosted the Academy Awards 19 times.
The final word now should go to the Camden Haven Courier newspaper.
It reported that when Bob Hope returned to Australia for a second time in 1955 a handful of Laurieton folk were there to greet him.
It was raining at Sydney airport when he quipped, “I always make wet landings in Australia. I’ve wet my feet both times.”