By Brad Dison
In August, 1944, the world was at war. Everyone, it seemed, had some role to play in what was the deadliest conflict in human history. Most able-bodied men joined some branch of the military. Factories which had produced consumer goods before the war, retooled and manufactured the many tools for war including uniforms, tanks, airplanes, etc. Women, who had previously been largely responsible for keeping house, entered the workforce to fill the void by men who had joined the military, and collectively became known as “Rosie the Riveter.” School children held scrap drives where they collected scrap metals, paper, rubber, and rags for the war effort. Hollywood actors, comedians, singers, dancers, and musicians performed for soldiers in USO shows around the world to keep morale high.
On August 13, 1944, a troupe of five entertainers took a Catalina flying boat from Guadalcanal and headed south for Sydney, Australia. The troupe consisted of Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Patty Thomas, Tony Romano, and Leslie Townes. During the flight, Leslie chatted with the pilot, Lieutenant James “Fergie” Ferguson. At about dusk, some 300 miles south of Sydney, the airplane’s left engine sputtered. Fergie’s demeanor became serious when the engine failed. He looked at his gauges and tried to restart the engine, but it would not restart. The fuel line to engine had ruptured. The Catalina quickly began losing altitude. The pilot told Leslie and the others to put on their Mae Wests, which was a slang term for inflatable life preservers used by aircrews. The name derived from the actress Mae West because, when inflated, the preserver was said to have resembled the actress’s chest and the name rhymed with breast.
Despite the pilot’s best efforts, the plane continued to lose altitude. Fergie looked for a suitable spot to land the flying boat, but there was no water in sight. The plane was fitted with wheels, but there was no clear land in the area large enough to land the plane. The only option was to lighten the airplane and hope the plain could gain altitude. In desperation, the pilot hastily ordered the troupe to throw anything they could from the plane. The troupe dumped the airplane’s heavy tool kit, Francis Langford’s and Patty Thomas’s glamourous and expensive wardrobes, the troupe’s personal baggage which included their collection of souvenirs, and several cases of cigarettes. Tony Romano refused to throw his prized guitar out of the plane.
Leslie nervously returned to the pilot, gave him a forced smile, and asked if they had thrown out enough weight for the plane to level off. Leslie’s teeth “rattled like a typewriter.” The pilot kept his focus on the controls and on the skyline. Leslie only had to look at the pilot to get his answer. The plane continued its descent. Leslie returned to the cabin with the bad news. He begrudgingly told the others that they had to dump his three cases of whiskey of a brand virtually unobtainable in Australia. Once again, Leslie returned to the pilot hoping for better news, but he had none to give. Just then, they saw the Camden Haven River just a short distance away.
Fergie aimed the plane for a straight stretch in the river. He warned the occupants that the plane was descending too quickly and would make a hard landing in the water, which would probably damage the underbelly of the plane. The occupants would have just a short time to exit the plane before it sank. The pilot had but one chance to get his landing right. Although they were landing on water, if they hit the water too fast and too hard, everyone would probably be killed on impact. If he slowed the plane too quickly, it would stall and fall out of the air like a rock. Everyone braced for impact.
Just a few feet above the water, Lieutenant Ferguson pulled back on the controls to slow the plane. The Catalina hit the water hard and bounced just a single time. The plane hit the water again and came to a quick stop. To their surprise, the plane did not sink. Luck was on their side. The plane slide to a stop on a sandbar which was just a few inches below the water level. The relieved occupants of the crashed Catalina climbed out of the plane and stood in the ankle-deep water. Luckily, no one was injured in the crash. However, Tony Romano bruised his shins as he climbed out of the beached plane. Local fishermen saw the plane crash into the river and came to their assistance. The survivors waded to shore.
They learned that the small town of Laurieton was just a short distance away. The troupe walked into the town and called the base in Sydney to report the crash. Learning that it would take some time to get a replacement plane to pick them up, the troupe put on a hastily-arranged charity show at Laurieton’s tiny town hall. Nearly all of the 300 citizens of Laurieton happily attended the biggest show to ever come to their town.
On the morning of August 15, the replacement plane arrived and transported the troupe to Sydney to continue their shows for the soldiers. During the Sydney show, Leslie told the crowd about the crash in a series of jokes. He said the pilot “ordered everyone to put on their Mae Wests. Jerry Colonna held out for a while for a Lana Turner, but he finally settled for Mae West.” The crowd roared with laughter. Leslie told the crowd about having to dump all of the belongings from the plane; “Colonna, I hate to throw out this case of liquor; I’m saving it for a sick friend,” “Who is the sick friend?” Colonna asked. “Me,” Leslie replied. The crowd roared with laughter again. He told the soldiers, “This morning we saw a shark swimming around wearing Frances Langford’s gowns, smoking a cigarette and singing, ‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’” Again, the crowd roared with laughter. Leslie told the crowd about his visit to the Laurieton post office. He told the postmaster his name and asked to use the telephone. The skeptical postmaster at first refused because he was in disbelief. He asked to see his identification as proof. Leslie showed his identification to the postmaster. The postmaster allowed Leslie to use the phone after he realized he was speaking to the real Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope.
The McAllen Monitor, August 16, 1943, p.8.
Arizona Daily Star, November 19, 1943, p.3.
The Central New Jersey Home News, August 14, 1944, p.1.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 14, 1944, p.1.
Lafayette Journal and Courier, August 15, 1944, p.1.
The Evergreen Courant, August 17. 1944, p.8.
Des Moines Tribune, August 28, 1944, p.1.
The Fresno Bee, September 5, 1955, p.17.