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Air Force Underwater
Recovery Operation

June, 2001

In March this year, Air Force Headquarters mounted a successful underwater operation in the waters off Papua New Guinea. The operation was part of the Air Force's continuing activities to locate and recover airmen missing in action from WW II.

On 14 November 1943, 12 RAAF Beauforts of No. 8 Squadron took off from Goodenough Island in PNG to attack Japanese shipping at Rabaul. All aircraft dropped their bombs or torpedoes over the target, but on the return leg Beaufort A9-217 lost contact with the rest of the squadron and failed to return. Army observers on the remote Kawa Island, about 70 km north of Goodenough, reported seeing an aircraft in trouble circle the island then crash into the sea. A PT boat was despatched from Kiriwana Is but found no survivors. All four crewmen were listed as missing presumed killed. Their names were inscribed on the Monument to the Missing at the Bita Paka War cemetery at Rabaul.

Fifty-six years later, in January 2000, a commercial dive operator in PNG discovered the wreck of a Beaufort off Kawa Island and advised Air Force Headquarters. Two recces of the site were conducted during 2000 and a full recovery operation was mounted in March 2001.

Underwater shot of aircraft
The aircraft lay upside down in 18 metres of water, buried to about half its depth in sand and silt. The operation was eight months in the planning, as it required a highly experienced team of divers, specialist skills, detailed safety planning, and access to specialised underwater dredging equipment.

The team assembled for the operation was a combination of PAF, Reservists and an expert in underwater recovery operations from the Museum of Tropical Queensland. The team consisted of Wing Commander Mark Schenk RAAFRSG (Detachment Commander), Group Captain Chris Griffiths RAAFSR (Forensic Specialist), Squadron Leader Peter McGregor RAFRSG (Diving Officer), Flight Lieutenant Ken Kemp PAF (Medical Officer), Flight Sergeant Steve Avery RAAFAR, Flight Sergeant Dave Bell RAAFRSG, and Mr Peter Illidge from the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

The recovery plan gave the team only eight days diving on site and required the removal of about 40 cubic metres of sand and silt. The extent of the task required the team to plan every dive carefully to ensure that the maximum dredging time was achieved with the limited time we able to spend underwater each day. The dredging equipment provided by the Museum of Tropical Queensland proved to be extremely effective, although the speed of removal was tempered by the need to carefully examine the waste as it was removed to ensure that evidence was not missed during the process. We also had many hours of work topside sifting through the material collected in catch bags over the dredge outlets.

The team approached the task very professionally. Although recovering human remains might seem a somewhat morbid activity, our initial expectations were that we might recover limited remains and this kept us relatively dispassionate about this aspect of the operation. Within a few hours of starting dredging, however, we realised that this was going to be much more. At the end of the first day's diving we had confirmed the presence of two sets of remains, within the high priority search areas around the cockpit and inside the fuselage. The major breakthroughs occurred on day 3, when in the space of only a few minutes one crewman was positively identified through dental records, and dog tags for two of the other crew were found while sorting through debris. Later that day, the remains from all four crew had been identified.

Once the crew had been identified, the search took on a much more personal and emotional dimension. In addition to planning the next day's operations, most of the team now spent time in the evening reading squadron histories and researching the histories of the four airmen. Our initial detachment from the personal side of the recovery had been replaced by an overwhelming sense of personal involvement in resolving this 57-year-old mystery.

ID Plate
At the end of the task, all the objectives of the operation had been achieved. All four crew had been positively identified, the aircraft ID plate recovered, and the wreck site completely investigated. Importantly, all safety aspects had been rigorously adhered to and no one suffered any ill effects.

The success of the operation was largely due to the experience gained from the previous recces, the detailed planning undertaken by WGCDR John Smith and the expertise of Mr Peter Illidge from the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Unfortunately, other last minute Service requirements prevented WGCDR Smith from leading the operation; however, he did represent the team at the funeral service in Rabaul in early May this year.

As we completed the final dive on the site, a brief memorial service was conducted for the four aircrew who could now be buried with full military honours. Importantly, the operation would enable the remaining family members to achieve closure on the lives of their loved ones. It was seven very tired, but very proud team members who slowly motored away from Kawa Island on 14 March 2001.

On our return to Australia, it was very gratifying to see the press coverage that quickly led to the identification of the family of FSGT Stuart Drakes in Perth. All the other families had already been identified and contacted by Air Force Headquarters.

Editor's note: Group Captain Simon Harvey, Director of Management Air Force, has expressed his sincere thanks to all those personnel involved in the recovery of the airmen.

By WGCDR Mark Schenk RAAFRSG