A 70-year mystery that has tormented the family of a missing World War II air force officer and former St Kilda Football Club captain appears almost certain to have been solved, but is waiting on a stalled Royal Australian Air Force investigation for final confirmation.
Flying Officer Stuart King was one of nine airmen aboard a Catalina flying boat that disappeared during a routine night-time mission off the North Queensland coast in 1943.
The discovery of a wreck in 2013 looked to have finally brought the matter to a close for his children, who can still recall the day that a telegram alerted their devastated mother that their father was missing.
But the findings of an RAAF investigation that is believed to have been completed more than three months ago inexplicably remain under wraps.
The wreck of a Catalina plane was discovered by a recreational diver from Cairns, near the Frankland Islands, about 40 kilometers north-east of Innisfail. Early photographs and evidence recovered from the site pointed to the missing RAAF plane.
But it was only by chance a year later that the King family learned of the discovery and the ensuing air force investigation.
Diana Garretty, Stuart King’s daughter, was in Canberra for a family gathering when she looked up her father’s war records online.
“I nearly fainted when I saw that a Catalina plane wreck had been discovered south of Cairns in Queensland,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, it was staggering.”
Ms Garretty then contacted the RAAF for more information. “The air force seemed very convinced that the wreck was the missing Catalina plane that my father was on.”
Squadron Leader Greg Williams, who heads up the RAAF’s missing-in-action investigation team in Canberra, said he was unable to discuss details of the investigation, which was launched in late 2013.
However, while a number of dives on the wreck confirmed that the site contained a badly broken large aircraft, they apparently failed to locate any of the plane’s three identifying plates, necessitating further investigation.
Ms Garretty was three years old when her father disappeared. Her brother, Gerald King, was six.
Now in her mid-70s, Ms Garretty retains just one clear memory of her late father.
“He came home from leave in uniform and I didn’t know who he was,” she reflected. “I was frightened of him and I ran and hid behind the kitchen door of my grandparents’ house. He picked me up and put me on his shoulders.”
And she remembers the yellow and brown spotted dress she was wearing the day her father was declared missing.
“Gerald and I were outside playing in the garden and a telegram boy came to the front gate and gave us the telegram,” she said wistfully. “We ran inside to mum and said ‘Look what we’ve got’.
“Mum came to the front door with my grandmother, and she opened the telegram and simply collapsed. I remember the doctor came.”
Flying Officer Stuart Patrick King was born and raised in Ararat, Victoria. He grew up a popular and outgoing young man, going on to become a respected solicitor and Victorian cricket and football sporting champion.
Playing Sheffield Shield cricket for Victoria when he was only 20 years old, Mr King also went on to play his first VFL match for St Kilda five years later. After just one season, Mr King became St Kilda’s club captain and caretaker coach in 1931. Over the next three years, he played 43 games while also studying a law degree at the University of Melbourne.
As an older gentleman and with an established law firm in St Kilda, Mr King did not have to join the war effort. However, soon after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, he told his wife that he was very concerned about the course of the war and believed he had a duty to fight for his country.
Soon afterwards, at 36 years of age, he left his young family in Melbourne and joined the RAAF. After completing training as an intelligence officer, Mr King joined 11 Squadron in Cairns in 1942.
Eleven months later, at dawn on the 28 February 1943, Mr King and 10 other airmen boarded Catalina A24-25 in Cairns and headed for Papua New Guinea.
Their mission was routine and involved providing anti-submarine protection to an allied convoy near Milne Bay. The men were expected back in Cairns just after nightfall.
But within 18 hours and despite making a number of radio calls to Cairns airport, the plane disappeared. An ensuing three-day search by the air force and navy failed to find any trace of the Catalina.
At its core, the fate of the plane and its airmen is a story of unfortunate events, bad timing and bad luck.
In fact, Mr King shouldn’t have been on the doomed flight in the first place. As an intelligence officer, he was not part of the required aircrew: rather, he went along as a ‘supernumerary’ person to observe the mission.
“I understand my father usually worked behind a desk,” Ms Garretty said. “On this occasion he wanted to go with the flight crew to see what the flight involved. He didn’t normally go on these flights.”
“Please just tell us what the outcome [of the investigation] is. The impact on us is huge. My father died defending this country. Surely that’s important?” — Diana Garretty, Stuart King’s daughter
Having successfully completed their mission, the crew then made a fateful decision. They chose to head directly to Cairns, for which they had just enough fuel, rather than flying on to PNG to top up their tanks.
According to a 1943 air force investigation, Cairns airport had made “normal preparations for the arrival of the aircraft” but soon received a request from the plane for a searchlight to be switched on.
Five more signals were sent from the plane to Cairns airport asking for “homing facilities” and additional help to locate the airport in deteriorating weather conditions and darkness.
For some unexplained reason, the plane’s final message, which contained the words “force land”, was received at Townsville airport at 10.51 pm, but not at Cairns.
M.I.A. – The flight crew of PBY Catalina A24-25
Wing Comm John William Daniell – Mount Lawley, WA
Squadron Leader Eric Hamilton Barkley – Malvern, Vic
Flying Officer Lewis Melvin Dunham – Claremont, WA
Sergeant Norman Notley Moore – Balwyn, Vic
Corporal John Corbett Stain – Mount Lawley, WA
Sergeant Allen Richard Eather – Enmore, NSW
Sergeant Alexander Eric John Elsbury – East Perth, WA
Sergeant John Daniel O’Grady – St Kilda, Vic
Corporal Douglas Giffen Shaw Russell – Footscray, Vic
Sergeant Keith Arnold Watson – Lismore, NSW
Flying Officer Stuart Patrick King – Glen Iris, Vic
This final communication appeared to indicate that the plane had crashed, but owing to bad weather a search was not started that night.
For the next three days the air force searched unsuccessfully near Green Island, its official 1943 investigation concluding that the plane had crashed after it was “brought down by bad weather conditions”.
Perhaps to lessen her distress, Mr King’s wife, Kathleen, was not told at the time about the plane’s repeated requests to Cairns airport for lights to guide it home. Instead, she was told the plane had run into a thunderstorm, likely crash-landed at sea and that there was “no hope that any members would be found alive”.
Nor did the air force tell Kathleen King that only one person was working at Cairns airport on the night of the plane’s return and, with the airport operating in ‘blackout’ conditions, may simply have forgotten to turn on the landing lights.
By the time the searchlight was finally switched on, the doomed plane was circling Fitzroy Island some distance east of Cairns and out of sight. Unable to locate Cairns, the plane almost certainly ran out of fuel before crashing.
Should the recently located wreck near the Frankland Islands be confirmed as the missing Catalina, it will also mean that in 1943 the air force search had been focused on the wrong area.
Stuart King’s son, Gerald, cannot remember a life with his father but still feels the loss. “When I was a youngster, I used to think he just got lost and one day that there would be a knock at the door and he’d be back. I was young, [but] reality soon set in.”
The Kings say that their mother never got over the shock of her husband’s disappearance.
“She didn’t talk about him a lot, but she did say he was a wonderful man and how much she loved him. She never remarried,” Ms Garretty said.
Their father’s letters to their mother during the war speak of the couple’s deep love.
“It’s Saturday evening and I’m going to the pictures tonight. Bud Costello and some other equally exciting feature, but there is nothing much for a man in love with his wife to do . . . Lots of love darling, to you and the little ones,” Mr King wrote in August 1942.
They are letters his family still cherishes. “The loss of our father really affected our lives,” Mr King added.
“Our father was a top solicitor: gregarious, outgoing, with many friends. His loss changed our way of life. Socially, mum went from being married to a prominent sportsman to a very quiet life, and devoted herself to raising her children.”
Kathleen King passed away from Parkinson’s disease in 1991, aged 79.
“My mother always wanted to go to Queensland to see where the plane had crashed, but she never did go,” her daughter, Diana Garretty said. “I think she gave up hope that he would ever be found.”
However, Stuart King’s children never lost faith that they would one day find out what happened to their father.
“It’s taken so long,” Mr King said. “I’d like to see a service or a military burial for the men. They died defending this country and I think they are entitled to it. It’s about honouring the men.”
The King family is hopeful that, should the plane finally be identified, a memorial service could be held near the site.
“This is very important to our family; for us to have acceptance and closure,” Ms Garretty said.
It seems doubtful, however, that the King family will have closure any time soon.
Recently, an air force spokesperson told The Citizen that they were “currently considering” the outcome of the investigation to determine whether the plane could be formally identified as Catalina A24-25.
While the family understands the need for caution, they are confused about this latest delay.
“Every time I go out, I come home and ask ‘Has anybody rung?’ It’s driving me mad, day after day, not knowing,” Ms Garretty said.
“We’re very stressed about it. We’re not young. Wouldn’t it be awful if we die before we know?
“Please just tell us what the outcome is. The impact on us is huge. My father died defending this country. Surely that’s important?”