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WWII plane wreckage newly discovered on Broome battlefield feared stolen

By Ben Collins

A photo of a Dornier wreck in Broome
What's left of a Dutch Dornier flying boat, 75 years after it was destroyed by a Japanese air raid on Broome.(Supplied: Stephen Van Der Mark)

Part of a flying boat destroyed by Japanese fighter planes in Broome in 1942 has gone missing before a salvage operation was able to collect the wreckage.

While not as well known as the Bombing of Darwin, the raids on Broome were the second-deadliest attack on Australia's mainland during World War II.

Nine Japanese Zero fighter planes destroyed more than 20 Australian, British, US and Dutch aircraft — among them flying boats at anchor in Roebuck Bay, with other planes destroyed at the airport or shot out of the air.

The number of dead remains uncertain due to poor records at the time, but it is thought to be at least 80, with more than 20 of these being children fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

Some wrecks of the flying boats become visible on the very low tides in Broome, and sightseers regularly walk up to a kilometre across mudflats to see one of Australia's few preserved WWII battlefields.

A hand touches WWII aeroplane wreckage
A piece of WWII aeroplane wreckage on the Broome mudflat that has since disappeared, feared stolen.(Supplied: Wil Thomas)

But in September, Broome History tour guide Wil Thomas came across some wreckage not previously recorded.

"In a certain part of Roebuck Bay, a piece of aircraft has surfaced through the mud," Mr Thomas said.

"We realised it was a significant piece of aircraft, it still had camouflage paint on it … it's got bullet holes in it and it looks to me like there is a large section of it missing, which is probably a cannon projectile that has taken it off."

Thought to be part of the fuselage of a Catalina flying boat, used by many nations' air forces in WWII, a plan was hatched to preserve the roughly one-by-two-metre section.

"With much consultation with the Broome Museum and a couple of aviation history buffs, we decided we should remove it and preserve it and at the end of the day put it in the museum," Mr Thomas said.

"But certain things have to be lined up: it's been in salt water for 76 years so it has to go in a tank of fresh water."

A flying boat with a red circle and arrow drawn on the photo.
A photograph of an unrelated Catalina flying boat with marks showing what part of the aircraft the wreckage is believed to have come from.(Supplied: Wil Thomas)

Feared stolen

Only revealed by very low tides every alternate week, when Mr Thomas returned to the location of the wreckage to prepare for its salvage, he found that it had disappeared and there were signs that it and other items in the area had been dug up.

"I went out to continue on the recce on this piece and to see how much work was needed to get it out, and it was gone," he said.

Mr Thomas had also seen part of an old pearling lugger's anchor next to the plane wreckage and this had also been dug up.

"A tidal movement wouldn't push a 10kg lump of iron out into the middle of the stream, which leads me to believe that someone's been there," Mr Thomas said.

"The reality is that it's a major historical piece and there is a law in place that says wreckage has to be left where it is."

Broome history guide Wil Thomas helps Theo Doorman and his wife search for the wreck of a Catalina flying boat.
Broome history guide Wil Thomas helps Theo Doorman and his wife Gonne search for the wreck of a Catalina flying boat destroyed in the 1942 Japanese air raid.(ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seabourne)

RSL deeply concerned by vandalism

RSL WA Branch chief executive and former Broome resident John McCourt said the potential theft was deeply disappointing.

"It looks like someone has decided to souvenir it," he said.

Mr McCourt said there would be merit in pursuing state and federal options to ensure the site was better protected.

But he said it needed to start with visitors and members of the community showing more respect.

Catalinas in the air
AWM 009453. Catalinas fly in formation during World War II.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial)

"It was an incident in war where many men, women and children were gunned down by the enemy and that's where they laid," Mr McCourt said.

Back in the Kimberley, Mr Thomas believes a more permanent display of some of the artefacts at Broome Museum could help educate the community and visitors.

"It's value historically to the town of Broome is really important, but historically to the world it's really important because it tells the story of what happened here," Mr Thomas said.

"And if it was to be preserved and displayed on a wall of the museum here in Broome then it goes further in advancing the story that we believe needs to get out about what happened here on March 3, 1942."


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