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A tragic bond between Goa and The Netherlands

Sanjeev V Sardesai

In today’s times, people have become immune to statistics of plane crashes and loss of life. Goa too has had its fair share of plane crashes and tragedies’, now long lost among the myriad memories of our minds.

The writer was fortunate to have glanced upon a news report of a Dutch airplane crash at Vasco on June 10, 1959, in the local dailies and was made aware about a gentleman, Richard Gabeler, 65 years, the son of one of the victims, who was in Goa to pay respects to his father and his fathers’ flight colleagues, some years ago. Gabeler recollects that he was 5 years old at the time of this accident, on June 10, 1959; and it was a Wednesday.  

In the late morning of this fateful day, Vascoites were shocked to hear the sound of a very low flying aircraft, over their city and then a loud sound of a crash towards the Mangor Hill side. They were later to come to know of the crash of a Dutch navy amphibian aircraft – a MARTIN MARINER PBM-5A P 306, just before it landed, at Gen Benard Guedes Airport or the present airfield, then under Portuguese control. Eight lives were lost on that day.

The Dutch Navy had bought these 17 amphibian planes – Martin Mariner’s, secondhand from the US Navy. Of the four reported crashes of these aircrafts in the world, one was in Goa. Though it required specific maintenance engineers, New Guinea, where they were deputed, did not have such facilities

What makes this tragedy to be written about is that these eight fateful deceased members of this plane – members of the Dutch Royal Navy, were given a final resting place at the St Andrews Church Cemetery at Vasco. Their eight graves and a monument are raised in the cemetery.

It was an apt moment to understand the heritage and feel the sentiments that this tragedy created and a bond that arose between two places – Goa and the Netherlands.

The crew of eight was headed home to Holland from Biak, in New Guinea, mostly on leave. They were Joachem Quispel (2nd Lieutenant), a passenger returning to answer his exam in Netherlands; Manfred J A Baarspul (2nd Lieutenant – Observer) who was going home to be married;  Simon Bruin (Sergeant – airman); Carolus Koster (Sergeant – engineer), a good friend of Constantin Gabeler (victim wireless operator), Petrus A M Lansdaal (2nd Lieutenant), the pilot of this ill fated plane; Constantin Gabeler (wireless operator) and father of Richard Gabeler; Alfred Dijkema (Sergeant – engineer) ; and Laurentius Bemer (Corporal – engineer).

The aircraft had departed from Biak (New Guinea) on May 31, 1959, with destination Netherlands. The first stop was Butterworth (Malaya), where it was found that one of the port engines displayed a crack in one of the cylinders and the complete port engine had to be replaced. This took two days.

On June 8, the aircraft continued its voyage with destination Katunayake Airport in Ceylon, where the aircraft was inspected with the help of RAF servicing crew. And in the early morning of June 10, 1959 at around 2:30 a.m., after observing minor hitches in the engine, it took off on its ill-fated journey, with destination Karachi.

The aircraft had about 2500 US gallons of fuel on board and the payload was 50,723 pounds. The distance of travel from Katunayake Airfield to Karachi was about 1404 nautical miles. The plane was expected to touch down at Karachi at about 2:20 p.m., the same day.

At about 8:07 a.m., during its flight, the wireless operator of this plane contacted Madras Control Tower, for permission to alter its flight path to Goa. At 8:30 a.m. it requested Bombay Traffic Control for permission to descend to 1500 feet. At 9:10 a.m., the pilot of this plane reported that it was losing height and was flying on one engine and they were going to force land. This would be the last contact with this ill fated P-306.

At around 9:13 a.m., the aircraft crashed on a site called Gadgalli, at Alto do Mangor (hillock of Mangor), Vasco approximately 300 meters away from the runway. At the possible site of the crash, we can see the St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church and a cross.

According to the radio transcripts of the PAAB (P-306), with Madras and Bombay, it was clear that the crash took place between 9:10 and 10:08 hours.

Though it was monsoon time, eye witnesses inform that it was not raining that day. Four of the crew died on impact, while four other survivors were rushed to the Military Hospital No 2 at Vasco da Gama town, and located on the first floor of the present municipality building, where they succumbed to their injuries, the next day.

There was a Dutch gentleman Manfred De Graaf, of the Dutch Shipping Co, working in Goa, whose Goa agents were M/s Dempo Shipping Co. He played a major role in ‘trying to arrange to ship the dead bodies to Holland’, through one of the Dutch ships, that was in Mormugao Port. He even arranged for the coffins to be coated in lead, as per specifications.

But due to diplomatic policies of the Dutch Government, to intern any of their personnel, at the destination of their death, the crew was laid to rest at the St Andrew’s Church Cemetery, Vasco.

The Portuguese extended a formal funeral to these victims, with full military honours’ on June 14, 1959, and laid them to rest in a row, from east to west – six victims and south to north two victims. Later a monument was constructed at the head of the south to north graves, with a marble plaque hosting the names, ranks, and dates of demise of all the victims, in Dutch language.

Richard Gabeler, the son of late Constantine Gabeler, came to Goa in 1999, to search for his father’s grave. He was assisted in this search by Sucheta Potnis and her husband Hans Tuinmann, cousin of Late Alfred Dijkema (victim).

What is extremely touching is that the families of these victims gratefully acknowledge the respects given to their deceased family members, by the Portuguese military and the Goan people.

While Gabeler came to find out about his father in 1999, many of the family members of these air-crash victims joined him in Goa in 2009, to pay their respects on the 50th anniversary of this tragedy. In 2019, Gabeler came down to Goa again, and was helped by Marisse D’Lima to organise a religious service, in memory of these victims, at the Our Lady of Piety Chapel at Mangor Hill – incidentally located very close to the probable site of the crash.

There were many witnesses to this tragedy, after the plane crashed. To get a clear picture of what exactly happened, the writer met many elderly citizens, and was fortunate to interact with a lady, Electra Lobo e Rebelo, who was 14  -years-old at that time and resided nearby. She was the first to reach the site, with her brother and later saw a posse of Portuguese soldiers who rushed from the nearby airfield and helped to take the victims to hospital.

There were other witnesses, who saw or heard the plane as it headed to its final destiny and with whom the writer interacted. They were Agnelo Teles – who saw the plane going low over Vasco city, but not from the regular flight path; Antonio Patrociano Vales – who was also a child and reached the crash site later. He recollects taking away a small piece of plastic remnant and later making a cross of it.

Leonard Rodrigues was working in the field nearby, when the crash happened. And then, there was Higinio Rebelo, who saw the four victims being taken into the Military Hospital, as his residence was nearby. The writer also interacted with Cidali Almeida e’ Bodade – the daughter of Jaime Almeida, the medical officer at the hospital, who treated the victims after the crash.

To respect the sacrifices of its soldiers, the Netherland Government has erected a special cemetery in Roarmond, Holland, for victims of the armed forces who lost their lives between 1945 and 1962. A marble monument is put up, with the names of these victims of the Goa crash, known as ‘NIM’ – ‘National Indie Monument’ (Indie = Indonesia) and a memorial service is held here every June 10.

Incidentally, on June 10, 2019, this tragedy will complete its 60th anniversary. Through a tragedy, Goa has built a link with The Netherlands and its people.

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