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Australian bomber shot down with 4 crew in 1943 identified off the coast of Papua New Guinea

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LA Post: Australian bomber shot down with 4 crew in 1943 identified off the coast of Papua New Guinea
April 11, 2024
ROD McGUIRK - AP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — 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.

Beaufort bomber A9-186 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.

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 43 meters (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.

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