World War II Catalina mystery solved

Memorial services have been held in Cairns to commemorate the loss of World War II Catalina A24-25 and 11 crew members.

On a moonless, cloudy night on February 28, 1943 an exhausted 11SQN Catalina crew returning from a long mission and low on fuel desperately tried to locate their Cairns airfield. Despite witnesses seeing and hearing the Catalina in the vicinity and after a brief radio transmission the aircraft was never heard from or seen again. For the next 70 years the whereabouts of A24-25 and its crew of 11 RAAF personnel remained a mystery.

In 2013 a Cairns diver, Kevin Coombs, located an underwater aircraft wreck south of Cairns, prompting an investigation by the Air Force Wrecks and Recoveries team based in AFHQ. With help from Navy clearance divers the wreck was positively identified as A24-25, and preparations began for an event to commemorate the loss of the crew.

On 28 February 2016, exactly 73 years to the day of the accident, relatives and descendants of the A24-25 crew gathered at the Catalina Memorial on the Cairns Esplanade for a commemoration ceremony. Also attending were senior representatives from Air Force, the Member for Cairns Mr Robert Pyne, the Cairns Mayor Mr Bob Manning OAM and representatives from the RAAF Association and the local RSL. The event was ably supported by a cohort of local Air Force Cadets.

Air Commodore Craig Heap, the Commander of Surveillance and Response Group, represented the Chief of Air Force at the ceremony and praised the bravery of the crew and of Air Force personnel of the era.

“Their sacrifice, our freedom; the sea is their grave,” he said.

Wing Commander Nigel Ward, Commanding Officer of No 11 Squadron gave a speech on behalf of the squadron and said “The crew of A24-25 are an enduring part of 11 Squadron history, and it is an honour to commemorate them today.”

A living link between Air Force and the crew of A24-25 exists in Wing Commander Ed Eather, who is the nephew of A24-25 crew member SGT Allen Eather and was at the ceremony with his aunt, Mrs Laurel Vining, representing the Eather family.

Following the commemoration there was a ceremony at the Cairns RSL where certificates of service and previously un-awarded medals were presented to the families.

The following day the families travelled by boat to the wreckage site, where a committal service was conducted and floral tributes were scattered on the water.

As a mark of respect to the crew the wreckage will remain undisturbed where it lies, and the area has declared the area a Maritime Cultural Heritage Protection Special Management Area.

The crew of Catalina A24-25

  • Wing Commander JOHN DANIELL of MOUNT LAWLEY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
  • Squadron Leader ERIC BARKLEY of MALVERN, VICTORIA.
  • Flying Officer LEWIS DUNHAM of CLAREMONT, WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
  • Flying Officer STUART KING of GLEN IRIS, VICTORIA.
  • Sergeant ALLEN EATHER of ENMORE, NEW SOUTH WALES.
  • Sergeant ALEXANDER ELSBURY of EAST PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
  • Sergeant NORMAN MOORE of BALWYN, VICTORIA.
  • Sergeant JOHN O'GRADY of EAST ST. KILDA, VICTORIA.
  • Sergeant KEITH WATSON of LISMORE, NEW SOUTH WALES.
  • Corporal DOUGLAS RUSSELL of FOOTSCRAY, VICTORIA.
  • Corporal JOHN STAIN of MOUNT LAWLEY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA.

Imagery of Catalina A24-25, crew members and the memorial activities are available here http://images.defence.gov.au/S20152593.