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Four brave airmen finally laid to rest

June, 2001

FSGT J. Woodgate, FSGT B. Maclean, FLGOFF G. Wells, FSGT S. Drakes

More than 57 years after Beaufort A9-217 was rep orted missing over the sea off eastern Papua New Guinea during the Second World War, the aircrew have finally been laid to rest.

In a moving ceremony on 2 May, Flight Sergeant Jack Carroll Woodgate (Pilot), Flight Sergeant Stewart Ian Drakes (Navigator), Flying Officer Geoffrey Stewart Wells (Wireless/Air Gunner), and Flight Sergeant Byron Veitch Maclean (Wireless/Air Gunner), were buried with full military honours at Rabaul's Bita Paka War Cemetery. The four men were aged 21, 19, 20, and 22 respectively.

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A pensive Mr Frank Wells and Mrs Jill Cook look at the spot where their brothers' aircraft crashed into the sea in 1943. (Photograph by LSPH Brad Cone.)
For their relatives the funeral meant final closure after long years of uncertainty - a closure that began when the RAAF C-130J Hercules carrying them to New Guinea, circled low, and several times, over the place where Beaufort A9-217 had crashed into the sea so many years before.

The ramp was lowered on the Hercules and a canvas webbing safety barrier erected before it swept down through thick grey cloud over Kawa Island and the surrounding sea. A vision of turquoise waters, white-gold sand, an emerald-green island - the stuff of postcards - but a scene that belied the awful event of 15 November 1943 and served to lend thoughts of the tragedy an even greater poignancy.

At the funeral, Group Captain Simon Harvey who welcomed relatives of the men, representatives of PNG's diplomatic community, the RAAF Association, serving RAAF members, and local residents on behalf of Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Errol McCormack.

GPCAPT Harvey said he was both 'honoured and privileged' to be representing AIRMSHL McCormack, the wider Air Force community, and 'a grateful nation, in honouring and laying to final rest, four brave Australians who gave their lives in the service of their country.

'Specifically, we come together today to lay to rest the crew of Royal Australian Air Force Beaufort A9-217 who were reported as missing in action on 15 November 1943 after conducting operations against the enemy not far from here,' he said.

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Mr Ken Maclean places a wreath on his brother's coffin watched by WOFF Greg Williams and Mrs Jan Michell. The children from the Bita Paka Primary School can be seen in the background. (Photograph by Mr Kerry Hodge, Office of Australian War Graves.)
'I would particularly like to extend a warm welcome to the family and friends of the airmen we honour. Clearly today's ceremony would be incomplete without your presence and involvement and I thank you for being with us. While it is no doubt a sad occasion for you, you should take comfort and pride in the bravery and courage that was displayed by your loved ones on 14-15 November 1943. It is also the Air Force's hope that you draw some comfort and sense of closure from today's ceremony after so many years of uncertainty associated with not knowing their final resting place.'

GPCAPT Harvey also acknowledged Mr Alex Venn representing the Air Force Association, Mr Kerry Hodge of the Office of Australian War Graves and Mr 'Dutchy' Shellikins of the RSL. 'It would also be remiss of me not to mention the fact that we are honoured to have with us a World War II coast watcher, Mr Matt Foley. Gentlemen, your presence today is important and greatly appreciated,' he said.

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A gallant airman is laid to rest. (Photograph by LSPH Brad Cone.)
'As we gather in this peaceful and idyllic setting, it is hard to imagine what this region was like in mid November 1943, when the crew of A9-217 conducted their final and fateful mission. By November 1943 enemy influence in the Papua New Guinea region had begun to wane. Nevertheless, the Rabaul region we are in now remained a most significant centre of enemy operations. It was the enemy's main base in the South Pacific and a centre for operations against the Solomon Islands and the Papua New Guinea mainland. So we come together to honour and lay to final rest, the brave crew of A9-217. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so at this cemetery, which is located so close to where the crew conducted their final mission.

'The airmen that we honour did not die in vain. Their final mission contributed in a direct and significant way to the defeat of the enemy threat to Australia. They died defending our nation and the freedoms that we enjoy today. Ladies and gentlemen, they are heroes in every sense of the word and we will never forget them or their sacrifice.'

The funeral was conducted by RAAF Chaplains Air Commodore Stephen de Plater and Squadron Leader Peter Friend and in his address AIRCDRE de Plater reinforced the GPCAPT's sentiments.

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Bugler, LAC Brenton Burley, Air Command Band RAAF Base Richmond, sounds the Last Post. (Photograph by LSPH Brad Cone.)
The service also included a reading of a poem by FSGT Drakes' nephew, Mr Ian Robertson, (he wrote it especially for the occasion) and the recitation of the Ode by Warrant Officer Gaye Mitchell. Wreaths were laid, volleys were fired and the bugle sounded the Last Post and Reveille (played by Leading Aircraftman Burley Brenton, Air Command Band RAAF Base Richmond).

The four men have been, until now, officially commemorated on the Rabaul Memorial to the Missing. Now that their remains have been located and interred within the war cemetery they will be individually commemorated by means of a bronze plaque at the head of their respective grave.

Among the many who attended the funeral were the children of the Bita Paka Primary School. Solemnly they sat, quite unprotected from the relentless heat and glare of the morning sun until their music teacher, Mr Alfons Minio, indicated that it was time for them to play their part. They sang three times in all - first the Papua New Guinea National Anthem, a song called Stormy Clouds and finally a hymn - Bona Kunubu.

And as they sang, one could only conclude how entirely appropriate it was that they should do so - young people honouring young people from another country who can rest in peace, now and forever, in Papua New Guinea's benevolent earth.

Footnote
The letter below typifies the feelings of all the relatives regarding the funeral. It was written by Mr Ken Maclean to Air Force Headquarters shortly after his return to Australia.

I write on behalf of the Maclean family to express our appreciation of the diligence and skill, which the RAAF applied to the recovery of the remains of the crew of Beaufort A9-217. The actions of all those involved are, in our opinion, most commendable.

I also wish to thank you, and through you, the RAAF for the hospitality enabling us to attend the internment of my brother Flight Sergeant B.V.Maclean, BEM, and the other members of the crew.

I should tell you that every member of the RAAF that we came in contact with, and I am sure this was all of them, treated us with the utmost courtesy and respect and rendered every possible assistance to us. In these circumstances it may seem unwise to refer to individuals, however, I feel I must mention Warrant Officer Greg Williams
[WOFF Special Projects who was responsible for all administrative and logistics aspects of the task.] and Flying Officer Sharon Cooper (Nurse).[FLGOFF Cooper travelled with the party to provide medical support.]

In all our dealings with Greg he was extremely considerate and thorough. Sharon did everything possible to ensure our wellbeing.

We are very appreciative of all this above. Thank you!
Yours sincerely,
[Signed] K.M.(Ken) Maclean

By Lindsay Mackerras