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.
Is that an Eclectus Parrot?
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.