One of the most enduring Australian wartime mysteries has been solved and a poignant chapter in aviation history closed, after the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) conducted a memorial service for the families of the 10 crew members of a Catalina aircraft that went missing 78 years ago during World War Two.
Since September 1943 that fate of the crew of the No. 11 Squadron Catalina A24-50 has remained unknown in what the Australian War Memorial called ‘The Mystery of the Black Cat’ – in reference to the matte black paint the aircraft sported for concealment on night-time operations over Japanese-held territory in the Pacific.
While all on board have long since been declared dead, they fate of the airmen and their flying boat remained a mystery, with no wreckage or bodies ever found, and no indication from Japanese war records of the time indicating they were ever captured, imprisoned or executed.
The latter was a common fate of prisoners during that period, amidst the quickening Allied advance in the Pacific. Indeed, at around the same time as Catalina A24-50 went missing, Allied intelligence was aware of reports of prisoners-of-war being executed in the area of what was then occupied Dutch New Guinea. It later turned out that these were US servicemen.
Wreckage discovered in 2018 in Papua, Indonesia
As an official letter to the wife of one missing crewmember explained: “In view of the consistent refusal of the Japanese to release full and reliable lists of prisoners of war held by them, it has been impossible for an official determination of your husband’s fate to be made.”
That fate remained unknown until 2018, when wreckage was finally discovered at Fakfak in Papua, Indonesia.
A joint Australian Defence Force-TNI (Indonesia military) operation to the crash site then helped recover debris from the crash site and bring closure for the descendants of the 10 Catalina crew members.
In honour of the lost aviators, the RAAF and its Indonesian counterparts conducted a memorial service for the families of the crew members at the Catalina Memorial on the Cairns Esplanade at the weekend.
Commitment to honouring the service and sacrifice
P-8A Poseidon flypast from modern-day No. 11 Squadron of the RAAF opened the commemoration.
“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,” Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, Head of the Air Force, said.
“Families were today presented with service medals, certificates of service and, importantly, artefacts recovered from the crash site.
“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,” Air Marshal Hupfeld said.