Places Have Echoes canberra, 16 December 2011

This is the story of searching for the echoes of an uncle who never met his nieces and nephews.

Frank Spooner had two sisters, one older (Dorothy, my mother) and one younger (Margaret, my Auntie Meg). It was through their stories and the pain of their loss that the extended family grew to know the pilot who went missing in World War 2. The longing Frank’s sisters expressed to lay flowers at the war cemetery where he is remembered near Rabaul in New Britain took root. On 6 October 2011, 68 years and thirteen days after Frank’s Beaufort Bomber was shot down, that ambition was fulfilled.

The flowers—native flowers interspersed with rosemary and lavender—were collected from my sisters’ gardens. Our travelling party (my eldest sister, Helen, her husband, Ron, and Geoff and I) was farewelled from Brisbane on Wednesday, 5 October 2011, by my other sister Alison, her husband Graham and their daughter Catherine and son-in-law Justin. Justin was dressed for work in his RAAF uniform. He flies in Super Hornets, not Beaufort Bombers, but it was impossible for the heart not to make a connection between this energetic young man and the one lost all those years ago.

Flowers fresh from the garden

The flowers took on a personality of their own once we set off. They were admired by the Papua New Guinean airlines staff (‘Are they plastic?’), placed in a safe place in the luggage hold (‘Will they be crushed?’) and inspected by quarantine staff at Port Moresby airport (‘Will they grow?’’). By the time they reached the quarantine officers we were rushing to make a very tight connection to New Britain. The flowers survived as best they could as we sprinted to the domestic terminal to get those crucial boarding passes. Success! With five minutes before the plane was due to leave and our stress levels rising, the man at the last check point admired the unusual blossoms (‘What is that one called?’’) and got a very peremptory response. The dash across the tarmac to the plane was like running through a clothes drier, hot and windy, but it wilted us more than the hardy bouquet. By dinner time, they were sitting in a glass of water in the bathroom basin at the Rapopo Plantation Resort at Kokopo while we soaked in the view out over an inviting swimming pool to the bay with its gently smoking volcanoes.

Simmering volcanoes

Refreshed by a good long drink (the flowers) and good food and rest in a tropical setting (us four), the next morning we were ready to find the Bita Paka War Cemetery. I divided the bunch of flowers into one larger bouquet and a smaller posy (sprigs of rosemary and lavender and an everlasting daisy or two). The resort organised a van and two men (Joe and Joe) to take us the short drive past villages and palm plantations to the graves and memorials set amongst a beautifully kept tropical garden. We found Panel 34 with Frank’s name, and the one next to it, Panel 35, with those of his three crew, Eric Braid, Norman Fletcher and Keith Gardiner. (Shortly before leaving Australia, we had made contact with Eric’s nephew, Grahame Braid, with the help of White Pages.) We read an extract from the War Graves registration certificate—which gave the circumstances of the plane’s loss—a poem, ‘Sacrifice’, written by war poet and Frank’s ‘nanny’, Lucy (‘Bah’) Homfray, and a prayer for those missing in action provided by Len Eacott, Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force and an old friend of our family. Then the flowers found the spot they needed to be, between the two panels.

The flowers find their resting place

With storm clouds gathering, we tried to re-enact this small ceremony for Geoff’s new video camera and for posterity. We had limited success before our guides’ shouts and frantically waving arms insisted we run for cover at the cemetery entrance. Our emotions settled as we sat and watched the torrential rain. I like to think the refreshing storm was the response of Frank and the heavens to a special moment in time and eternity. Helen and I wrote our names in the visitors book and we said goodbye. The flowers had been delivered.

The release of a tropical storm over the memorials

But this is not the end of the story. The small posy needed to be somewhere else, a place called Hoskins.

A few months earlier, niece Catherine Baldry had found references in the National Archives to some of the wreckage of Frank’s plane being located in 1945 and 1946, near Hoskins airstrip in East New Britain. This information had either been unknown or the memory of it had been lost by the Spooner family. More research and careful reading and a picture emerged of what happened that fateful night.

A Beaufort Bomber at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra

Frank was the pilot of the leading plane of a group of four that set off from Vivigani airstrip on Goodenough Island in the early hours of 23 September 1943. The Beaufort flew for two hours north to New Britain, across its mountains to bomb the Japanese air base at Hoskins on the island's north coast. Frank’s plane was shot down and, from the 1945 and 1946 reports, had crashed into the sea just off the beach at the end of the Hoskins airstrip. The pilot of one of the other planes, McNally, returned and made enquiries in 1945. The air investigator, Rundle, also did his best in 1946 to find out what happened to the planes and the bodies. These two accounts agree that the plane crashed into the sea near Megigi Plantation, which abuts the airstrip and borders the beach. McNally’s account says the plane crashed 200 yards off-shore and the other says 30 yards offshore near a reef. Both agree that no bodies were found. Some of the wreckage was found washed up on the beach, including the tail with the serial number of Frank’s plane.

Frank the pilot

So the posy needed to keep pert for its journey to Hoskins. This it would do a few days later.

The Hoskins airstrip and Megigi plantation four days before Frank's plane crashed nearby. (Photo courtesy of Cecilie Benjamin)

First, though, we poked around the Rabaul area a bit and indulged in the creature comforts of the resort. From the war cemetery, we went to the town of Kokopo, amazingly once the home of our Canberra neighbour, Jenny. We took photos of the townscape for her (but failed to find her old house) and visited its market full of fresh mangoes, peanuts and ‘take-away’ hot food wrapped in leaves. The collection of rusty artefacts at the local war museum told a bit more of the story of locals and those from faraway lands, killed in war in these beautiful islands.

Peanuts, anyone?
Were these the sort of Japanese guns that brought down Frank’s plane?

Kokopo is the administrative centre for West New Britain, but it hasn’t always been the case. The graceful town of Rabaul used to have that role but a volcanic eruption in 1994 put an end to that. On Friday, while the resort underwent its regular ‘mosquito fogging’ treatment, one of the Joes took us on a trip to Rabaul to see the effects of the eruption. On the way, we were shown tunnels still harbouring the wrecks of Japanese barges, hauled there one last time by local folk in the dying stages of the war, and the graves of Chinese soldiers. From a high lookout, we surveyed Rabaul—both the charred ruins of the ghost town and the green regeneration at the edge. Near the once-splendid Travelodge we had our picnic lunch among the heaps of volcanic ash and debris. The volcanoes continue to smoulder and the sea boils, yet Rabaul lives on.

Rabaul from its smoking remains around to its green edges
The Travelodge sits quietly in volcanic ash

Getting to Hoskins proved to be a challenge. There is no road there from Rabaul so we had plane tickets to Hoskins, to the same airstrip that Uncle Frank once had the task to bomb. However, there had been a hiccup in our plane bookings before we left. Air Niugini had cancelled some sectors we had booked. We had discovered this by chance and Air Niugini sold us replacement paper tickets for the flight to Hoskins with another airline, Airlines PNG, with the promise of a refund for our original tickets on our return. That was the theory. When we tried to check in, we were not listed on the manifest. The reasons for this are complicated but, simply, we had no choice but to buy the tickets for this flight for a third time, on the spot. On our return to Brisbane, we discovered that this payment went through twice, so that this sector was actually paid for four times!

A little frazzled and a short flight later we landed safely at the Hoskins airstrip, fringed by plantations and bordered by its narrow beach. The driver from Walindi Plantation Resort met us and drove us the 40 minutes to our next beds, this time in cabins set in tropical gardens on the shores of Kimbe Bay. After all the excitement of another complicated connection, we needed to unwind. In Chris and Geoff’s case, this involved joining a couple of local birdwatchers, Joseph and David, who took us high above the rainforest canopy in the hinterland. Before sunset, we’d be introduced to dozens of new and spectacular birds for our list. This was a real treat. It was followed by another before dinner. Local schoolchildren sang and danced for us, raising money for the local primary school.

Chris and Geoff’s cabin
Is that an Eclectus Parrot?
Yes! Two!
Local schoolchildren entertained us

As well as being a honey pot for birdwatchers, Walindi attracts divers who explore the reefs and wrecks in the bay and along the coast. When we’d made email enquiries of Walindi months before, we were delighted to find it has another area of expertise. One of its Australian owners, Cecilie Benjamin, is a World War II history buff. She offered to help us in our quest and she also put us in touch with Squadron Leader Greg Williams from RAAF Missing in Action Investigations in Canberra, who knows the area and briefed us before we left. Cecilie joined us for our first dinner and for every meal thereafter, taking a great personal interest in our story.

Cecilie (centre) was a font of knowledge and assistance

Indeed, after breakfast next morning, Sunday, as we were preparing to set off to explore the Hoskins area, she introduced us to a small girl called Leonie who had made a beautiful wreath of purple bougainvillea for us to take with us. The posy of Australian flowers, still bearing up, now had a worthy companion.

The bougainvillea wreath made for us by Leonie, one of the local children

Our guides, Patrick and Sebastian, are local men who know the Hoskins area and its people. Our first stop was outside a village house. No-one was home but there were people milling about at the church opposite. No, the old man was not there either. He must be at home, asleep. Eventually, an old man in his eighties emerged, leaning on a stick, and sat on a seat in the garden to meet with us, Patrick interpreting. He spoke of his childhood memories and family stories of the night of the crash. Most people had fled into the hills, away from the Japanese base. The wreckage of Frank’s plane was memorable because it was the only plane that washed up onto the beach. He remembered this wreckage being covered and uncovered, from time to time, by the sand. He did not know about any bodies.

When we explained that the pilot of the plane was our uncle he became emotional and grabbed the hands of Helen and me saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and his sentiments were echoed by family members gathered around.

Patrick (in white) brought us to visit the local elder who had memories of the crash and the wreckage

We continued on our way to Hoskins and Patrick led us to a house set into the plantation on the other side of the airstrip from Megigi. Here he introduced us to Angie, a local woman who provides food and accommodation to local travellers. Angie walked us along the beach, past the foot of the airstrip, and pointed out a small reef about 30 metres off shore where children were playing. She said that the locals believed that this small reef had grown on part of the wreckage of Frank’s plane. This was consistent with some of the reports.

She then took us further along the beach and back into Megigi plantation, now more a jungle, searching for plane wreckage she had seen there a couple of years earlier. After about 30 minutes of fruitless searching she called for reinforcements and her young son and nephew cleared a path through the jungle to the wreck, much overgrown. More work with bush knives revealed an engine with Japanese markings. No, this was not Frank’s plane but more likely one abandoned at the airbase.

Following Angie along the beach towards the reef and Megigi Plantation
The wreckage in the jungle was a Japanese plane, not Frank’s

All this time, we had been carrying the bougainvillea wreath. We retraced our steps back to the beach and Angie offered to take the flowers—the purple wreath and the Aussie posie—out to the small reef for us. She walked, swam and dived to attach the flowers to the reef below. Before we left this special place, we collected some pebbles from the beach (volcanic pumice) and Helen spotted a starfish remnant in the shape of a cross or plane. This was surely meant for Auntie Meg.

Two sisters watch as Angie (the middle dot in the ocean, the other two are children playing) takes the wreath to the reef
The starfish segment Helen found on the beach is a memento for Auntie Meg. Is it a plane or a cross?

We said goodbye to Angie and settled in a shady spot on the beach to enjoy our packed lunch, looking for all the world like the cast of Gilligan’s Island. On our way back to Walindi, we stopped to visit the old man again to say thank you. By this time, he was down at the beach with all his family. We took photos of them to send him as keepsakes.

The cast of Gilligan's Island?
We found the old man on the beach with his family and said ‘Thank you.’

Cecilie was keen to know the results of our investigations. Now that we had made contact with the local folk, she felt that there was a good basis for her to arrange for a snorkelling or diving party to explore that small reef further.

We spent the rest of our time in New Britain exploring plane wreckage further along the coast at Talasea (all of us), walking in the gardens looking for more birds (Chris), photographing flowers (Geoff), going for a snorkel just as a thunder storm broke (Ron) and reading on the balcony (Helen). We flew out from the now familiar Hoskins airstrip on Tuesday morning to Port Moresby where we had a night in a hotel courtesy of Air Nuigini (another result of the amended flights).

The Hoskins airstrip as seen from the beach

Then, full circle to Brisbane. The day after our return there, 13 October, was eventful too. Wonderfully, Frank’s collection of great-great nieces grew with the birth of twins, Rachel and Lucinda Dorman, in robust good health. Tragically, a similar Airlines PNG plane crashed that day in another part of PNG, killing many family members on the way to their children’s graduation. The circle of life and death goes on.

New life: Rachel and Lucinda

The place where Frank’s plane went down is now known to us. It has echoes that continue to reverberate and invite response.

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