How a missing Port Kembla WWII pilot's dog tags were found in the Irian Jaya jungle after 76 years

Mystery solved: John Walter Bissett-Amess, of Mount Warrigal, with the Catalina at HARS which is similar to the one his uncle was on board with nine other crew when it crashed in Irian Jaya. Picture: Greg Ellis.
Mystery solved: John Walter Bissett-Amess, of Mount Warrigal, with the Catalina at HARS which is similar to the one his uncle was on board with nine other crew when it crashed in Irian Jaya. Picture: Greg Ellis.

A Port Kembla WWII pilot's dog tags have been found in the Irian Jayan jungle 76 years after his plane went missing. GREG ELLIS spoke to his nephew with the same name who says his family now has closure.

John Walter Bissett-Amess, of Mount Warrigal, grew up in Port Kembla and as a child heard stories about how the uncle he was named after had disappeared during a RAAF mission in World War II.

About two decades ago Mr Bissett-Amess mounted a photo of his uncle and copies of his medals in a frame at his house to remember the family member he was named after but never met.

Constant reminder: John Walter Bissett-Amess with a tribute to his uncle that he proudly displays in his Mount Warrigal home. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

Constant reminder: John Walter Bissett-Amess with a tribute to his uncle that he proudly displays in his Mount Warrigal home. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

"Every time I heard they found a plane in New Guinea I would think it might be Uncle John's but it wasn't," he said

But now years after hearing all the stories of how his uncle had gone missing Mr Bissett-Amess was not expecting a phone call he received recently that told him some belongings had been found.

Mr Bissett-Amess's daughter Rachelle Bissett-Amess contacted the Illawarra Mercury to help him share the discovery that has also brought closure to nine other famillies.

Flying officer John Walter Bissett-Amess was a WWII Catalina pilot listed as missing in action after not returning from a mission over Irian Jaya on the Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea in 1943.

"The plane was never found," Ms Bissett-Amess said.

That was until recently when her father was surprised to be contacted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to say they had conducted a search and recovery mission after a Catalina was discovered in thick jungle.

Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester said the Air Force Unrecovered War Casualties team were sent to look for the remains of 10 Australian airmen aboard Catalina A24-50, 76 years after the aircraft failed to return from a wartime mission.

Reported missing on September 2, 1943 while on a sea mining operation to Sorong in occupied Dutch New Guinea, the wreckage of RAAF No 11 Squadron Catalina A24-50 was located near Fakfak, in West Papua in April 2018.

"The only major recognisable pieces of wreckage were two sections of the wing, engines and propeller, and the empennage (rear part of fuselage) across the top of a ridge," Mr Chester said.

Mr Bissett-Amess said the wreckage was first found in 2018 by natives looking for a particular type of timber.

After Indonesian authorities contacted the RAAF an initial site inspection was conducted before a second inspection and retrieval operation involved a 12 member team in late July.

Mr Bissett-Amess first heard in June they may have found his uncle's plan. Then at the end of July he was told how the Air Force Unrecovered War Casualties team had positively identified the missing aircraft during a reconnaissance mission to the crash site.

Historical Aircraft Restoration Society president Bob De La Hunty said HARS was contacted to help identify the Catalina.

"They found the tail plate with A24-50 which meant they could confirm that is what the aircraft was," Mr Bissett-Aimess said.

He will never forget the moment he was contact by RAAF and told how they had managed to recover some parts of the plane, as well as the dog tags belonging to his uncle. And has been in constant contact with the RAAF and retrieval the team.

"They actually rang me from up there to tell me they had found my uncle's dog tags. That is all they found. They reckon he must have been thrown out of the plane and that is why his dog tags were found. The Catalina would have had more than half its fuel. But the two mines had not exploded".

Ms Bissett-Amess said his first reaction was he wished his father Reg Bissett-Amess was still alive so he could share the news with him about what happened to his brother and where. It is uncertain whether the Catalina was shot down or flew into the mountain in thick cloud.

The RAAF brought some parts of the wreckage back to Australia which they are planning to exhibit at the Canberra War Memorial.

Mr Bissett-Amess said his uncle was born in Cobar in 1910 but grew up in Port Kembla and became a Boy Scout and later a Reservist who was trained to fly by the RAAF.

At 20 he wrote to Henry Ford asking for a sample of the car he designed they thought was so good and the family still has the reply envelope of acknowledgement sent to his uncle in January 1930.

Mr Bissett-Amess was listed as being from Newcastle because the Catalina base was at Rathmines on Lake Macquarie but was at Port Kembla when he joined the Reserves. He grew in Wollongong after his father was transferred as chief engineer to Port Kembla Power Station at the time. He worked as a clerk in shipping for many years at Port Kembla but there is no record of the date of him being called up to serve his country in WWII but it would have been in the early 1940's.

The missing Catalina's flight path. The red dot shows the crash site.

The missing Catalina's flight path. The red dot shows the crash site.

Mr Bissett-Amess said his uncle was 32 and only flying his second mission in WWII with the 11th Squadron when the Catalina went missing. He has a copy of his flying log that has an entry on August 21, 1943 for a convoy flight and then a pencilled in entry on September 2 for the mission to Irian Jaya that was not finished because he never returned from the 28 hour return flight to Sorong from Cairns.

"They used the Cats because they could stay in the air for so long. They trained him on other aircraft but he liked the Cats. They went from Cairns to Groote to refuel and then to Sorong. They flew in a straight line and where they found the wreck is almost on that line.

"The mission for the 28 hour flight was to drop two mines into the harbour at Sorong which was held by the Japanese. When they didn't come back they were listed as Missing in Action (MIA). And then eventually in 1950 they were declared Killed in Action (KIA). That brought an end to a seven year wait for the news she dreaded to hear for flying officer Bissett-Amess's wife Margaret Bissett-Amess. She died in 1981.

BELOW: Part of the wreckage of the Catalina that went missing in 1943 with 10 crew on board.

BELOW: Part of the wreckage of the Catalina that went missing in 1943 with 10 crew on board.

Mr Bissett-Amess said the Catalina was assumed to have gone down in the sea but no one knew whether it had been shot down or had crashed for other reasons. Neither of his uncle's two brothers and sister are still alive so they and their mother Margaret never knew what had happened to him.

"I have a cousin in Canberra (Jan Booth) who at 78 is the oldest living relative. She is the daughter of Ken and my father was Reg. I am the oldest living male in the family".

Mr Bissett-Amess said the discovery has brought closure to his family and families of the other Catalina crew.

"We went down to a Last Post Service at the Australian War Memorial recently. The Tyrrell family asked for one to be done 18 months ago. They were given dates of either September 2 (the anniversary of the flight) or November 4 (the birth date of their relative Sgt Tyrrell who was on the flight). The family invited us along and we laid a wreath. It was really well done".

The Tyrrell family did not know the aircraft had been found when they made the request.

Mr Bissett-Amess and his wife Halina expect to meet more families of the crew in Cairns soon when a memorial ceremony is held at the Catalina Museum. Until recently no-one had been able to talk about the discovery of the wreckage until all families were told. "The Air Force has been really terrific".

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This story Family find closure 76 years after Port Kembla pilot's plane went missing first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.