Billionaire helps solve Wamuran mystery

Published 6:00am 23 May 2024

Billionaire helps solve Wamuran mystery
Words by Nick Crockford

Above: Beaufort Bombers from 100 Squadron over New Guinea. Picture Australian War Memorial 014683A. Inset: Warrant Officer Russell Grigg. Picture Virtual War Memorial

The mystery of exactly what happened to Wamuran resident Russell Grigg is over - thanks to Australian billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest.

After more than 80 years the final resting place of Warrant Officer Russell Henry Grigg was revealed by family friend Hilary Berger-Childs at Wamuran’s Anzac Day Dawn Service last month.

The following day his two surviving children, Mary Peden and Dr Frank Grigg, joined 40 direct family descendants at a Memorial Service for the crew of A9-186 Beaufort Bomber.

Warrant Officer Grigg, Warrant Officer Clement Wiggins, Flight Sergeant Albert Beckett and Flight Sergeant Gordon Lewis were officially honoured at RAAF Base Amberley.

“It is especially heart-warming for the families of the four aviators involved to finally know what happened and learn of their final resting place,” Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman said.

Mrs Berger-Childs, who lived “across the railway bridge” from the Griggs, a prominent family in the area, said: “It’s amazing and so wonderful. 

The coffin of Warrant Officer Grigg at last month's memorial service in RAAF Amberley. Picture Department of Defence

“Not only them, but the families of the other crew as well. But I feel for the Forrest family and the other plane that’s missing. It must be devastating.

“Mary and Frank didn’t just hear the stories, they lived through it. Chrissie (their mother) probably talked about it as she believed Russell would just walk through the door one day.

“They were good neighbours and my dad told us about Russell, so this is emotional. I spoke to Mary, she said discovering it (the plane) brought everything back.”

Russell Grigg was born in 1909, the youngest of seven. He married Chrissie Copeman, had three children and farmed pineapples, small crops and flowers in Wamuran.

He joined the RAAF in March 1941 and in June 1943 was stationed to 100 Squadron in Milne Bay, New Guinea, flying Beaufort bombers.

Warrant Officer Grigg was 34 when his Beaufort A9-186 was shot down in the early hours of September 5, 1943, attacking a Japanese airstrip, in West New Britain province.

Families of the four crewmen lost on Beaufort A9-186 were at the Memorial Service at RAAF Amberley. Picture: Department of Defence

Three Beauforts, each with a crew of four, were lost in that raid and seven in the battle for Gasmata. There were no survivors and three planes were never found – until a remarkable break though in 2020.

Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the billionaire former CEO of Fortescue Metals, had launched a team to search for Beaufort A9-188, piloted by his uncle David Forrest.

Flying Officer David Forrest was just 22 when his plane, also part of 100 Squadron, was damaged and went down on May 21, 1943 also attacking the Gasmata airstrip.

While looking for A9-188, Dr Forrest’s team came across an unrecorded RAAF Beaufort Bomber in 43m of water south of Gasmata.

The team returned in 2022, with two members of the RAAF Directorate of Historical Unrecovered War Casualties (HUWC).

Specialist divers recovered the aircraft identity plate and cockpit lever as well as small amounts of “bone material” which were analysed by anthropologists and DNA specialists.

Andrew Forrest who launched a team of divers to find his missing uncle and discovered the wreck of Russell Grigg's plane. Picture: Hayden Fortescue

There were no public announcements for two years until April 10 this year when Air Marshal Robert Chipman officially identified the crash site, now a war grave.

He said a Defence Identification Board identified the remains as those of Warrant Officer Clement Batstone Wiggins and Warrant Officer Russell Henry Grigg.

The identity plate and cockpit lever will return to Australia under a permit from the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery.

The RAAF has thanked Dr Forrest for his “work and resources”.

Dr Forrest wrote to the Grigg family in 2022 about the discovery of A9-186 saying his uncle and Russell Grigg were “brothers-in-arms” and “almost certainly knew each other”.

“I am grateful the A9-186’s discovery may provide your family some small comfort of sense of closure; and we will continue our search for my uncle David,” he wrote.

Hilary Berger-Childs confirming the discovery of Russell Grigg's plane at Wamuran's Anzac Day Dawn Service last month.

Dr Forrest said the only time he saw his father cry was when he “recalled receiving the news his younger brother was missing, presumed dead, in PNG”.

“Despite so many years having passed, it remains incredibly important for the families to know what happened to their loved ones,” he said.

“We must never forget the sacrifices these young men and women made. They had their entire lives ahead of them yet were prepared to risk it all to defend our country and our way of life.

“We will never give up until we find them.”

Warrant Officer Russell Griggs remembered by the war memorial on Caloundra foreshore.

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