By Con McGrath
ON 7 APRIL 1943, an American flying fortress was forced to crash land about a mile from Clonakilty, Co. Cork. On board were a crew of ten men, one passenger, and a monkey called ‘Tojo’.
What happened next became a local legend, since honoured with a plaque, statue, a novel, and even an ale!
The plane had originally taken off that morning from Marrakesh in Morocco, en route to join the 8th Air Force at a base in England. A storm and a misleading radio report threw them off-course–there was no radar on the plane.
“They actually circled the town here in Clonakilty at midday when everyone was having their dinner and this enormous plane, it must have seemed like a space ship, was flying low around the town,” recalled local businessman Thomas Tupper who grew up listening to the story of Tojo and how he came to be in Clonakilty.
“People were terrified the plane might knock the spire off one of the churches. It headed out towards the sea and landed on a marsh.”
All passengers survived the landing uninjured on White’s Marsh between the mainland and the island of Inchydoney.
The crew of this aircraft, appropriately named “T’Ain’t a Bird” were unaware of where they had landed. Had they landed in German occupied France, or in Belgium, another theory, one held by navigator Cpt SB Hayes, was that they might be off the coast of Norway. All that captain, 1st Lt Willie Thomas, knew for sure was that the plane had run out of fuel.
UPON LANDING Sgt Guy Tice alighted from the plane and spotted local man, one Eddie Collins. “Do you speak English?” the American asked. As if to prolong the drama, Eddie simply gave a nod. “Where are we?” asked Sgt Tice, more urgently. To which Eddie replied with the immortal words: “You’re in Pat White’s Field — but if you want to take off again now I won’t say anything.”
As a crowd gathered, Collins directed the crew to O’Donovan’s Hotel, which was used as a temporary army barracks during the war, until their identities could be verified.
According to Tom O’Donovan, who has been involved in running the hotel since 1979, the forced landing “was always a source of fascination.”
“The plane flew around for an hour beforehand and the whole town was on high alert that something was going to happen,” he said. “Within minutes of them being down, all these guys arrived out of the town.”
The local interest was immediate, and continues to this day — one local resident, Tina Pisco, penned a novel in 1997, about the Americans and their West Cork escapade, entitled: “Only A Paper Moon.”
THE VISITORS provided some welcome relief and excitement to the war-rationed residents of Clonakilty.
The crew became ‘must-see curiosities’. Tina Pisco was even told that two men had cycled all the way from Glengarriff — roughly 65 km — to see the Americans.
Another novelty was Tojo the spider monkey, who, thanks to the dark rims around his eyes was named by the U.S. crewmen after the bespectacled Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
“There was a sort of carnival atmosphere for days,” recalled Dena O’Donavan, of O’Donavan’s Hotel. “People took time off work to go to see this massive plane and the airmen were like celebrities.”
“But none were as famous as Tojo. No-one had ever seen a monkey, so he was treated very well indeed.”
During their stay, the US airmen were able to reciprocate the warm Irish welcome they received by sharing with their hosts the 36 bottles of rum from the plane.
“The Americans were a particular hit with the local ladies,” recalled Ms O’Donovan, whose hotel has been in the family for six generations, and was run by her father Thomas and his sister Bernie when the American visitors arrived.
She added that the family has continued to find mementos in the hotel over the years from that visit–including a lighter with a US military emblem and their Air Force wings.