Home » Australian World War II bomber and crew’s remains found amid “saltwater crocodiles and low visibility” in South Pacific

Australian World War II bomber and crew’s remains found amid “saltwater crocodiles and low visibility” in South Pacific

Officials have confirmed the identities of an Australian bomber and the remains of two air crew members more than 80 years after they crashed in flames off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The confirmation of Beaufort bomber A9-186’s discovery comes after dozens of dives in murky, crocodile-infested waters.

The plane was found in Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s ongoing search for his uncle Flying Officer David Forrest who has been missing in action since 1943, the Royal Australian Air Force said in a statement Wednesday.

David Forrest, 22, had been piloting a Beaufort bomber in a night raid against a Japanese air strip near the village of Gasmata on the south coast of the island of New Britain in May 1943 when he and his entire four-member crew went missing in action.

Australia Bomber Found
In this undated photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, wreckage of a World War II bomber lays on the seabed of Gasmata Harbour in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. 

/ AP

A9-186 was shot down by anti-aircraft guns during a morning attack on the same airstrip four months later. Both aircraft were from Number 100 Squadron based at Gurney air field at Milne Bay on the main island of New Guinea. Forrest’s bomber was A9-188.

A9-186 was found off the New Britain coast in 141 feet of water in 2020 but identification took 50 dives, search expedition leader Steve Burnell said.

“It’s quite a challenging environment because of saltwater crocodiles and low visibility,” Burnell said.

The wreckage was identified by an aircraft identity plate that was only legible because it had been buried in mud which reduced corrosion, Burnell said.

“It is a very challenging thing after 80 years in saltwater to get a positive ID,” Burnell said.

DNA testing of bone fragments identified the remains of Warrant Officer Clement Batstone Wiggins, 28, and Warrant Officer Russell Henry Grigg, 34, the statement said.

The search had since been abandoned for remains of the rest of the air crew, Flight Sgt. Albert Beckett, 22, and Flight Sgt. Gordon Lewis Hamilton, 26.

A memorial service for their families will be held at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland state on April 26. The identity plate and an attached cockpit lever had been returned to Australia with Papua New Guinea government permission while the rest of the wreckage remained at the crash site.

Funerals will be held for the air crew in Papua New Guinea in September.

Andrew Forrest said he had spoken to relatives of the crew of A9-186 since the identity was confirmed.

“I am thankful they now have some degree of closure,” he said in a statement.

“We remain hopeful in our search for my late Uncle David and his fellow crew. We will never give up until we find them,” he added.

He said his father Donald Forrest had hoped to hold his older brother’s dog tags before the father died last year aged 95.

Burnell said only two RAAF Beaufort bombers remain unaccounted for in the New Britain region and the team was in the process of examining wreckage that could be one of them.

Australia Bomber Found
In this undated photo provided by the Australian War Memorial, a restored Beaufort Mk VIII Bomber is on display in Canberra, Australia. 

/ AP

The head of the Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, said it was comforting for the families to learn of their loved ones’ final resting place.

“We will continue to strive to find, recover and identify our missing service personnel as part of our commitment to honoring their service and sacrifice for our nation,” Chipman said in a statement.

The discovery comes just weeks after a search was launched for the wreckage of American World War II ace Richard Bong’s plane in the South Pacific off Papua New Guinea.

In January, a deep-sea exploration team searching for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s lost plane in the South Pacific said it captured a sonar image that “appears to be Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E Electra” aircraft.