Ten members of the Royal Australian Air Force were honoured in a memorial service on Monday, over 75 years after their aircraft failed to return from a wartime mission.
The remains of a RAAF No. 11 Squadron Catalina A24-50 that went missing in Indonesia during WWII have now been recovered and returned to Australia for the memorial service.
On 2 September 1943, the aircraft took off from Cairns, on a sea mining operation in Sorong, in occupied Dutch New Guinea. The aircraft, along with all 10 RAAF members on board, went missing that night.
Early reports suggested the aircraft had hit the side of a mountain due to low visibility and poor weather conditions, however, despite extensive searches, no wreckage was found.
The aircraft was eventually located more than 75 years later in April 2018, when a group of forestry workers discovered the wreckage near Fakfak in West Papua.
Monday’s service took place at the Catalina Memorial on the Cairns Esplanade.
In honour of the 10 lost aviators, a No. 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon performed a flypast to open the commemoration ceremony, according to Defence.
Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said in a joint statement with the Indonesian Military that they hoped the mission to return the Catalina aircraft to Cairns helped to finally bring closure to the families of those who perished in the mission, after 78 years.
“Today we demonstrated our unwavering commitment to honouring the service and sacrifice of Australian military personnel from all theatres of war, no matter the passage of time,” AIRMSHL Hupfeld said.
He added that the RAAF members’ families were presented with service medals, certificates of service, and perhaps most importantly, personal artefacts recovered from the crash site, during the ceremony held in memory of the 10.
“Our hope is that families will take some comfort in knowing the resting place of their loved ones and their aircraft after such a long time,” AIRMSHL Hupfeld said.
“While we remember and honour those Australian Defence Force members lost in service to our country, we must also acknowledge the families who sustained life on the home front during those war years, and who continue to do so today.
“Theirs is no lesser service or sacrifice.”
The RAAF’s recovery efforts of the aircraft wreckage began in 2019,
Deputy director of Historic Unrecovered War Casualties Wing Commander Grant Kelly as among those involved in the recovery, and said that, unlike many crash sites he had seen, he was amazed to see the Catalina site still had large pieces of the aircraft, including its wings and engines, remaining after all this time.
“[They] were recognisable and just made it so much more evocative and real,” WGCDR Kelly told the ABC.
Artefacts on the plane, including its fin with serial number still visible, have been returned to Australia, with WGCDR Kelly stating this piece will be sent to the Australian War Memorial.