Warrant Officer Pete McGarry, who served in the Defence Section of the Australian Embassy in Manila, narrates the search for an Australian aircrew that perished in WWII – a 75-year-old story of mateship and not leaving anyone behind
About 75 years ago two Royal Australian Air Force aircraft were lost over the Philippines, both during vital missions involved in the liberation of the Philippine Islands. A Catalina (flying boat) went missing on arguably the greatest mission flown by the Royal Australian Air Force during the campaign as part of a flight of 24 aircrafts that dropped mines in the mouth of Manila Bay to protect the landing of a multinational force on Mindoro in December 1944. The other aircraft was a Royal Australian Air Force Liberator which failed to return to Mindoro from Borneo after conducting the first operational parachute insertion of an Australian special forces team by an Australian aircraft. Neither aircraft has been found.
It was my mission as a member of the Defence team of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines in early 2019 to facilitate an expedition to investigate a reported crash site in Mindoro, and to find out if this was the final resting place of the aircrew of one of the missing aircrafts.
The crash site was believed to be high up a mountain in Mamburao province of Occidental Mindoro. During preparations for the expedition it was discovered that the site was known by some local Mindoro people who told stories of the recycling of scrap metal from the site. This encouraged the team that they were searching in the right area but introduced the risk that there may be little to no debris to confirm the details of the aircraft and therefore the final resting place of the crew.
Before climbing the mountain, the team needed approvals of local authorities and communities. Collaborating with the local people of the region turned out to be one of the most rewarding elements of the mission. The expedition team was substantial; made up of members of Royal Australian Air Force Heritage team, the Embassy Defence Section, Australian veterans, the Philippine Army, the Philippine National Police and the Paluan local government, all of whom had to scale to considerable altitudes, up and through dense jungle terrain. This was no walk in the park. During the climb, the team built a rapport that mirrored the spirit of Bayanihan, demonstrated by the allies 75 years earlier. It was a significant feat of endurance and teamwork.
It was with mixed feelings of relief, sadness, intrigue and exhaustion, that the team set about examining the site once they found it. There was not much left above ground. Through some expert detective work, the team thought that they had found evidence that indicated that the aircraft was in fact, the missing Catalina. This could not be confirmed, until the collected scraps of metal and debris was returned to Australia and analysed in the laboratory and cross referenced to aircraft type.
It was with some joy in the Defence Section a few weeks later that the heritage team confirmed the identity of the aircraft. It was, indeed the Catalina. This of course led to two further engaging questions; would the heritage team return to conduct a further mission to identify the remains of, and honour the unfortunate RAAF aircrew; and if this was the Catalina, then where is the other ‘lost’ RAAF aircraft -the Liberator?
The intent to conduct a further mission to Mindoro is currently planned for 2022. The search for the Liberator – is another story.