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DNA testing confirms identities of two airmen, more than 80 years after bomber crash

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23rd April, 2024

NSW Health Pathology’s Forensic & Analytical Science Service (FASS) DNA laboratory has helped to identify the remains of two airmen on board a bomber that crashed off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

The Roy­al Aus­tralian Air Force has pos­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fied a Num­ber 100 Squadron World War II Beau­fort air­craft that was first report­ed miss­ing in 1943, along with its four crew members.

The bomber was recent­ly dis­cov­ered in croc­o­dile-infest­ed waters off the coast of Papua New Guinea as a result of Aus­tralian busi­ness­man Andrew (Twig­gy) Forrest’s search for his uncle, Fly­ing Offi­cer David For­rest, who was lost in the same area while pilot­ing a sim­i­lar air­craft in 1943.

Chief of Air Force, Air Mar­shal Robert Chip­man said the crash site was first iden­ti­fied in 2020 and is locat­ed in 43 metres of water, which meant pos­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fy­ing the air­craft took con­sid­er­able time and effort.

Spe­cial­ist divers lat­er recov­ered bone frag­ments from the fire-dam­aged wreck­age that was also cov­ered in lay­ers of sed­i­ment and marine growth.

A hand sifts through marine debris on a large green net.
A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Papua New Guinea Nation­al Muse­um and Art Gallery assists in the siev­ing of mate­r­i­al raised from the wreck of the WWII Beau­fort air­craft. (Sup­plied: Roy­al Aus­tralian Air Force) 

DNA was extract­ed from the bone mate­r­i­al and analysed by Foren­sic Biol­o­gy spe­cial­ists at NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Ser­vice DNA lab­o­ra­to­ry along with ref­er­ence sam­ples pro­vid­ed by bio­log­i­cal rel­a­tives of the miss­ing airmen.

The recov­ered DNA pro­files were then pro­vid­ed to the His­tor­i­cal Unre­cov­ered War Casu­al­ties (HUWC) team.

Air Mar­shal Chip­man said the RAAF’s HUWC team col­lat­ed the evi­dence and a Defence Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Board iden­ti­fied the remains as those of War­rant Offi­cer Clement Bat­stone Wig­gins and War­rant Offi­cer Rus­sell Hen­ry Grigg.

“Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s with a heavy heart we can con­firm that no remains of the oth­er two crew mem­bers, Flight Sergeant Albert Beck­ett and Flight Sergeant Gor­don Lewis Hamil­ton, were recov­ered,” he said.

The crew of 100SQN Beau­fort A9-186 was:

  • War­rant Offi­cer Clement Bat­stone Wig­gins. Born in Gat­ton, Queens­land, he worked as a school teacher before enlist­ing in Bris­bane in March 1941. War­rant Offi­cer Wig­gins was 28 years old when killed in action.
  • War­rant Offi­cer Rus­sell Hen­ry Grigg. Born in Bris­bane, Queens­land, he worked as a fruit grow­er before enlist­ing in Bris­bane in March 1941. War­rant Offi­cer Grigg was 34 years old when killed in action.
  • Flight Sergeant Albert Beck­ett. Born in Launce­s­ton, Tas­ma­nia, he worked as an appren­tice car­pen­ter before enlist­ing in Tas­ma­nia in Novem­ber 1941. Flight Sergeant Beck­ett was 22 years old when killed in action.
  • Flight Sergeant Gor­don Lewis Hamil­ton. Born in Bris­bane, Queens­land, he worked as a baker’s assis­tant before enlist­ing in Bris­bane in July 1941. Flight Sergeant Hamil­ton was 26 years old when killed in action.
An underwater photo of the fuselage of a plane on the sea floor.
The rear fuse­lage and tail of the wreck of the bomber that crashed off the coast of PNG in 1943. (Sup­plied: Roy­al Aus­tralian Air Force)

“No fur­ther recov­ery is planned for this chal­leng­ing crash site,” Air Mar­shal Chip­man said.

“A memo­r­i­al ser­vice for the fam­i­lies of all four crew is being planned for 26 April 2024 at RAAF Base Amber­ley, Queensland.

“Thank you to all those involved in this sig­nif­i­cant mis­sion; it is espe­cial­ly heart-warm­ing for the fam­i­lies of the four avi­a­tors involved to final­ly know what hap­pened and learn of their final rest­ing place.”

NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Ser­vice Direc­tor, Michael Symonds (pic­tured above) said the organ­i­sa­tion was proud to have played a part in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

“This out­come demon­strates the val­ue of the DNA analy­ses under­tak­en by FASS in con­tribut­ing to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of his­toric war casu­al­ties,” he said.

“Extrac­tion of DNA and gen­er­a­tion of DNA pro­files from skele­tal remains that have been exposed to extreme envi­ron­men­tal impact is chal­leng­ing and requires a range of spe­cial­ist methods.

“FASS is recog­nised as a leader in the foren­sic field, util­is­ing the lat­est foren­sic DNA technology.

“Our ser­vices and peo­ple enable us to pro­vide the high­est qual­i­ty and reli­a­bil­i­ty of results.”


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