The American Liberator transport cartwheeled as it spectacularly fell from the sky into mangroves near Whenuapai airfield. Yet for years the crash in which Japanese diplomatic staff were killed was hushed up.

Occurring on this day in 1943, It was one of two fatal crashes by big American military planes at Whenuapai within little more than a year that were kept secret until after World War II had ended.

The Herald's clippings file of the time is silent about them.

Not that there was blanket military censorship. We carried numerous wartime reports of the many fatal crashes in this country of New Zealand Air Force planes - some on training flights - including the bomber that ploughed into shops in the centre of Akaroa in June 1940, with the loss of two airmen's lives.

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But it wasn't until December 1945, after the war had ended, that the Auckland Star wrote about the June 1942 crash of a US military B-17 Flying Fortress bomber at Whenuapai.

The paper noted the great "official secrecy" during the war, despite the wide knowledge of the crash which arose partly because "the noise of the explosion following the crash woke up half Auckland".

American history websites record that the army plane was assigned to an Air Force bombardment group and was known as the Texas Tornado.

Carrying bombs, it crashed on take-off en-route for Melbourne. Two bombs exploded and all 11 people on board were killed.

The following year, on August 2, a US military transport plane, a Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express operated by a United Airlines crew, crashed soon after take-off at around 2.30am in rain and fog.

Its passengers were Japanese internees and Thai nationals.

A 1998 book on Liberators in the South Pacific says the plane bounced several times and exploded.

The Listener in 1991 quoted Mike O'Malley, who was at the airfield when the crash happened. He didn't see it, but reported an eyewitness's account.

"The pilot tried to turn back and land on the runway. In attempting the manoeuvre he cartwheeled into the mudflat between the end of the runway and Herald Island. As he went down he swiped one wing off and the [plane] appeared to slide like a railway carriage."

Of 30 on board - 25 passengers and five crew - 15 died at the crash site and one later.

The plane was taking the Japanese to Australia to exchange them for British and Allied prisoners of war, according to the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

The Japanese were diplomatic staff from Tonga and their wives and children. The women and children had been kept first at a YWCA camp and then at houses in Pokeno and Pukekohe.

Nine Japanese died - of whom three were women and four children - along with three Thais and three crew members.

"In November that year a ship was commandeered to transport the internees ... to Sydney, from where they were later returned to Japan," the dictionary says.