Home' Aerogram : Aerogram 2008 2 June Contents Aerogram June 2008
ABC investigative journalist Ian Townsend writes to us about the issues
surrounding crash sites which are also the resting place for the aircrew
Of all the final resting places of the
Australians who fought and died in the
Second World War, a mangrove
swamp in North Queensland is
perhaps the least appealing.
Far away from what was considered
the front lines of battle, within a day’s
trek of the largest city in the Australian
tropics, it seems strange that four
men from the 32nd Squadron of the
RAAF should still be there, where they
died 66 years ago – at the height of
the battle for Australia.
But that’s where they are, in a
waterlogged bomb crater deep in
mangroves south of Townsville. In
May 1942 two Lockhead Hudson
bombers which, depending on which
report you read, were either on a
training run or patrolling for enemy
submarines, collided over the coast
near the small sugar town of Giru.
One plane crash landed on a saltpan
and all four men survived, but the
Hudson A16-191 fell out of control in
dense mangroves. It was carrying live
anti-submarine bombs and may have
exploded before it hit the ground.
In any event, none of the four crew
survived. So inaccessible is the crash
site of this plane, only a handful of
people have stumbled across it and
few people have been able to find the
main wreck site twice.
There’s no clue that this is a grave.
The only thing that marks it is a
section of the wing of plane over one
of the craters deep beneath the
canopy of mangroves. This is where
the remains of Sergeant Maurice
Cooper, Sergeant Herbert Gillam,
Sergeant Jim Herman and Pilot Officer
John Jewell were put by the rescue
team that found the site two days
after the crash.
It’s a remarkably well preserved crash
site. There’s an engine cowling nearby.
A relatively intact wing leans against
some mangrove trees, with the RAAF
markings still clear beneath it. There
are bits of piping and rubber, Perspex,
and ammunition scattered all over this
gloomy and quiet mangrove forest, as
if it fell to earth the day before.
It seems odd that with the intense
interest in the recently found HMAS
Sydney and Japanese and Australian
submarines, this piece of air force
history has hardly raised an eyebrow.
Although a few people know about
this crash site near the small town of
Giru, south of Townsville, it’s remained
largely undisturbed because it’s so
hard to reach. And no-one’s attempted
to retrieve the remains of these four
men who died in action in May 1942.
Hundreds of Australian war planes
crashed around Australia during World
War Two, but most were training
accidents. The Hudson at Giru was a
warplane that crashed looking for
submarines and it went down in active
war service, on patrol, when the front
line was Australia’s doorstep.
It’s the only known crash site on land
with human remains and one of the
best preserved of any known crash
site in the country. The wreckage at
other sites has long been taken away
as scrap or for museums or as
The locals know it’s there, but Kevin
Whelan is one of the few people who’s
seen it. He was last at the site in the
early 1960s, when he saw human
bones still scattered around.
“A tragedy all right, all these young
lives lost and just left there, and no-
one seems to worry about them,” he
said. “I reckon they should be given a
decent burial myself. Why can’t we
exhume the bones and take them
back to the War Cemetery in
Townsville and bury them?”
It’s a good question. Why shouldn’t the
bones of Sergeant Cooper, Sergeant
Gillam, Sergeant Herman and Pilot
Officer Jewell be recovered from the
mud and reburied in a cemetery?
It seems like the right thing to do, but
there are good reasons why these
men should stay where they are.
Sergeant Jim Herman, the plane’s
wireless operator and gunner, was 28
when he died here. His parents lived
in the suburb of Woodville in Adelaide,
and it was only two months earlier
that Jim’s brother, Ron, was killed in a
similar plane crash in Malta. This was
a family disaster and you have to
speak to the relatives of these men to
get a true appreciation of the what it
must have been like for the people
that loved them.
Sergeant Jim Herman’s niece, Jill
Sheppard, lives in Canberra.
“It was devastating,” she said. “The
younger boy Ronald had died in
March of 1942. As you could
understand they were reeling from
that and two months later, had the
telegram to say that Jim was believed
dead. My grandmother never again
played the piano or sang around the
piano, and that had been one of the
favourite things in the family, that she
would play, and they all played, but
she would play and all the children
would sing. And the children had
friends and partners, and it was a
great family occasion, but my
grandmother never again played or
sang, and she died very young in
The crash site remains sacred for the
Herman family. They’ve always known
that his remains still lie with the plane,
and that the plane was in inaccessible
mangroves near Giru.
May in 1942 was the peak of the
Pacific War, a Japanese invasion felt
real. The Japanese had started
moving towards the New Guinea town
of Kokoda, Darwin had been
bombed, there were air-raids in
Townsville, the Battle of the Coral Sea
had just been fought and Japanese
submarines were sinking merchant
ship and about to launch a mini-
submarine raid on Sydney Harbour.
These Hudson crew were in action
over Australian soil when they crashed
not far from Townsville, but in a place
that couldn’t easily be reached.
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