How our missing fallen soldiers are being found

Helen Kirton was 92 years old when she travelled to Papua New Guinea for the funeral of her younger brother Lance Sergeant Jim Wheeler — 57 years after he died.

Mrs Kirton was a sprightly centenarian when I met her for lunch in July 2018 at her home in Bunyip near Melbourne.

Over homemade soup and dainty sandwiches she told me the story of her beloved Jim who was killed in action at Sanananda on the north coast of New Guinea in December 1942 at the age of 23.

Helen was just two years older than Jim and they were inseparable as they grew up at Narrabri in northwest NSW.

Mrs Helen Kirton (101) with photographs of her younger brother Lance Sergeant Jim Wheeler, who was killed at Sanananda in New Guinea in 1942, and finally laid to rest at Bomana War Cemetery in December 2009. Picture: © Ian McPhedranSource:Supplied

Lance Sergeant Wheeler was buried where he fell during the fierce fighting at the end of the Kokoda campaign and after the war his remains were uncovered by a local man, who handed them to Australian authorities in 1998.

Due to an administrative mix-up several sets of remains were left untouched in boxes in the Australian High Commission’s vault until 2009 when Army History Unit investigator Major Jack Thurgar finally solved the mystery.

It was one of the great joys of Helen Kirton’s life when she travelled to Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby in November 2009 as a guest of the government to deliver a moving eulogy and to lay her beloved little brother to rest.

“Jim would have been 90 at the end of August, but I can’t imagine him as an old man, white-haired and wrinkly like me, so for me he will be forever young,” she said.

An older brother, Bill Wheeler, was also killed in action on a Royal Navy warship HMS Cossack in the Mediterranean in 1941 and his remains were never found.

The story of the Wheelers is just one of many I came across in researching Where Soldiers Lie.

The genesis of the book was an assignment to Vietnam in 2007, for the repatriation of the remains of two of the final six Australians missing in action from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam Veteran and Medal for Gallantry holder retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bourke had formed an organisation called Operation Aussies Home (OAH) in 2002 and his tenacity eventually shamed the government and defence into searching for the missing six.

Lance Sergeant Jim Wheeler was just 23 when he was killed in action at Sanananda in New Guinea in December 1942. He was finally laid to rest 67-years-later. Photo from Helen Kirton

Lance Sergeant Jim Wheeler was just 23 when he was killed in action at Sanananda in New Guinea in December 1942. He was finally laid to rest 67-years-later. Photo from Helen KirtonSource:Supplied

It was Dr Bourke’s OAH team and defence experts who identified the remains of 1 Battalion soldiers Lance Corporal Richard “Tiny” Parker from St Leonards in Sydney and Private Peter Gillson from Holsworthy in NSW, 42 years after they were killed in action.

Peter Gillson’s son Robert never met his father, who was serving in Vietnam when he was born, but he served as lead pallbearer at his dad’s funeral in Melbourne.

Standing on the steamy tarmac at Hanoi International Airport and witnessing the profound impact that the ramp ceremony had on Robert and his mother Lorraine was a seminal moment in the back story for the book. As tears blended with sweat it was clear that the complex process of recovering some of Australia’s 35,000 war missing was a fascinating tale.

Between 2007 and 2009 I was privileged to report on the recovery of all six from Vietnam. The other four were: Private David Fisher (Balgowlah Heights, NSW), Pilot Officer Robert Carver (Toowoomba, Qld), Flying Officer Michael Herbert (Glenelg, SA) and Lance Corporal John Gillespie (Carnegie, Vic).

Where Soldiers Lie by Ian McPhedran.

Where Soldiers Lie by Ian McPhedran.Source:Supplied

Early on during the research for Where Soldiers Lie it became clear that there was much more to the process of identifying unrecovered war casualties than meets the eye.

The public only sees the end result when a coffin is lowered into the ground or a named headstone is fitted to a grave previously marked simply “Known Unto God”.

However, leading up to that point is an incredible detective story and a remarkable tale of detailed research, dogged persistence and scientific expertise involving some highly dedicated people.

The number engaged in the search on behalf of Australia is small, with just six full-time staff working for the army and the RAAF and a handful of reservists and civilian experts including archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, forensic dentists, forensic biologists and DNA experts.

Despite these low numbers, up to 15 missing Australians are recovered each year — bringing closure to families and a reminder for us all remember their stories.

Where Soldiers Lie, by Ian McPhedran, is published by HarperCollins Australia.


*To experience the stories of those who served on the Western Front in WW1 and as prisoners of the Japanese in WW2 in immersive 360-degree vision, download the free Anzac360 app.

*Our Book of the Month is Just One Wish by Rachael Johns. Get it for 30 per cent discount at Booktopia with code NCBT19 — and share your own bookish brainwaves at our Facebook group.

Just One Wish by Rachael Johns.

Just One Wish by Rachael Johns.Source:Supplied

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