It was a late September morning a couple of years ago when some of the display volunteers were cleaning out one of the museums’ large storage shed. They were busily preparing for the removal of two large Heron wings to make space for the building of a new paint room. The shed had collected a huge amount of junk over the years with dirty old tyres, various broken aircraft parts and trash piled high. Among the mountain of junk was a very old and dirty aluminium and steel aeroplane seat from some unknown craft. There was something interesting about the seat, so after looking for an accessioning number and finding none, I asked one of the volunteers where it had come from, a “don’t know” was the short answer. The seat was put aside, next the “to be trashed” pile while the rest was removed and separated.
Luckily just few hours later, a tall middle-aged museum visitor happened to wander into my office. He asked what was going to happen to that old DC-3 seat, sitting out by the storage shed. Realising that he might know something about the seat, I asked him if he knew its history. He proudly told me how the seat had been recovered by his father during WW2 and how it had sat in their shed in the back yard for decades. As kids they used to have many adventures with it, pretending to be pilots and shooting down all manner of enemy aircraft. His father had told him that it was very valuable seat and that someday it should be put in a museum. Just before he died, his father did donate it to the Museum. But somehow, over the years, it had got moved, then misplaced and then ended up in the storage shed, covered in dirt. When I asked if he knew where the seat had come from, he said it was from the “Diamond Dakota”.
On March 3rd 1942 a KLM DC3 was lumbering down the WA coast, full of refugees fleeing the advancing Japanese army. Although unarmed and in commercial service, the plane was attacked and shot down by Japanese Zeros, returning from their earlier attack on Broome, Western Australia. During the attack, one of the Dakotas’ engines caught fire and the pilot put the plane into a steep spiral dive to avoid the Zeros. The pilot was Russian World War I ace Ivan Smirnov. He had to use all of his flying skill to control the plane. After he recovered to straight and level, the DC-3 with engine still on fire, was put on a course to land on Carnot Bay, eighty kilometres north of Broome. Knowing the plane couldn’t land on the beach, his only option was to ditch as close to shore as possible. Once the plane had come to a stop, Ivan helped get all the passengers out of the plane. As the Japanese continued to shoot at them, they ran up the beach and hid in the sand dunes. Four passengers died during the attack including a baby and its’ mother. Smirnov was shot four times but amazingly survived. As well as passengers, the plane was carrying £300,000 worth of diamonds. Unfortunately the diamonds were lost in the ocean during the scramble to safety.
Needless to say Captain Smirnov’s “Diamond Dakota” pilots seat (complete with Japanese bullet hole) has now been lovingly preserved and has pride of place underneath the C-47 Dakota at the Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek Western Australia. The accessioning number has been found and this very important artefact will never again end up in the back of a dusty storage shed.