Aviation Archaeology: Dion Marinis, finding WW2 crashed aircraft and bringing closure to the families

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos by Dion Marinis, used by permission

Mr. Dion Marinis from Australia, has located and identified WW2 aircraft wrecks and brought closure to the families of the lost airmen, decades after their fate was sealed.

“My motive is to find the lost WW2 airmen and their crashed aircraft, helping the relatives to get answers and to be able to fill in the missing parts of history.

WW2 memories can be painful for the ones left behind and generations thereafter, not knowing what happened to their loved ones or where they died.

Healing starts when their loved ones are found, acknowledged and given a ceremony and a memorial place.

It’s from that moment on that the hearts of those who lost their Husbands, Brothers, Sons, Uncles, Nephews start to heal.

We need to remember our past so we can be wiser moving into the future.” 

Dion Marinis (centre) with Shirley Burkart (left) and her husband in 2015
Dion Marinis (centre) with Shirley Burkart, sister of  2nd Lt Howard Petschel (left) and her husband Fred in 2015

I soon discovered that there is a lot of history in the north of Western Australia, the town Port Hedland was bombed by the Japanese, there was a Secret WW2 Air base at Marble Bar 200kms south east of Port Hedland, were the RAAF 25th SQN and the 380th USAAF flew B-24’s out of there attacking Japanese targets in Timor, Surabaya, Bali, and throughout the Dutch East Indies” Mr. Dion Marinis says to www.ww2wrecks.com, adding:

Dion Marinis with an alloy plate from the doomed A19-163 RAAF Beaufighter
Dion Marinis with an alloy plate from the doomed A19-163 RAAF Beaufighter

“I have camped out at the base many times with my boys and found some amazing relics, revetments that housed the big Liberators, there are building foundation ruins, bomb tails, bomb crates, fuse arming vanes etc, it’s an amazing place.”

SONY DSC
Dion Marinis at the newly erected plinth memorial for the PK-AFV Diamond Dakota with her Excellency Annemieke Ruigrok Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands-Canberra.

Here is what Mr. Dion Marinis said, regarding his special relation to Greece, his findings and how important it is to find answers to WW2 mysteries, thus comforting the relatives of those young men who sadly lost their lives during World War 2:

“My love of adventure and finding anything lost was a passion from a young age, hearing about a civilian plane wreck on a nearby farm, I went looking and found my first plane crash site at the age of 12.

The Record Card of RAAF's A19-163 Beaufighter
The Record Card of RAAF’s A19-163 Beaufighter

I grew up on a farm and loved all things mechanical, I Joined Army Cadets during High School and had many fun days out at the local Army Base. My mother and father had separated when I was 9 years old, my mother is Australian and my father was from the Greek Island of Poros where he and his brothers were in the Greek Navy before coming to Australia.

I grew up and started a trade in the Automotive industry as an apprentice and my career proceeded to Service Manager at 22 year of age at an Automotive dealership. I am married with four children, three sons and one daughter.

I started a new job in a remote north-west mining town of Port Hedland and there my passion of WW2 history took off.”

After 4 years in Port Hedland I then transferred in my job to the next town 600kms north to the pearling town of Broome where my family and I lived for 7 years.

I soon became very much involved in the amazing history of Broome and the infamous Japanese air raids on the small pearl township, also researching and visiting old WW2 Bases in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions like Corunna Downs, Kalumburu , Truscott and crash sites.

My interest in Greece is my heritage, in Australia I tried looking for my father for years as we had become separated over time, only to find out in 2009 through my father’s brother, whom I didn’t  know at the time, that my father had passed away on the east coast of Australia.

diom
At last! Closure for the families of the lost airmen. The 70 year old mystery is solved and the questions answered, thanks to the efforts of Dion Marinis (right), Jim Miles on left, Mrs Val Bullied (pilot’s sister) and Mrs Judy Smith

I then over 10 years became very close to my father’s brother my late Uncle Tony who lived in Sydney, I always wanted to seek my father’s family , my Uncle then was able to put me in contact with my relatives in Greece and my wife and I visited in 2010 , I fell in love with  Greece and visited my father’s birth place on Poros.

Poros, Greece
Poros, Greece

I want to know more of my family heritage and of Greece. We saw some historical sites, visited Crete, Mykonos, Delos, Santorini  and Delphi.

Delphi, Greece
Delphi, Greece

When walking in the streets of Marousi where we stayed with my aunty, the neighbourhood has eucalyptus trees which reminded me of my home in Australia,  that scent of Australia made me feel really at home in Greece, on that trip the connection to my Greek heritage became strong with-in me.

We are now booked to go to Greece again, bringing our two younger children this time.

I hope to see some military history in Greece this trip as I know the Australians and Greeks fought side by side during WW2 and there is a lot of history of that in Crete. 

How did it all start for you, researching forgotten or little known WW2 stories?

My quest to go and search for MIA aircraft started back in 2012 at the 70th anniversary ceremony of the Japanese air raid on Broome, Western Australia.

Dignitaries and relatives come from all over the world for this event.

Bronze plaque
S Sgt John Morgan Rex Memorial marker at Memorial Grove Park Salt Lake City 2015

During the ceremony I thought about that missing aircraft USAAF B-24a Liberator, loaded with mostly wounded American servicemen, it was shot down into the sea by Zero fighters during the raid on the 3rd March 1942, and why no one has ever gone searching for that aircraft and its missing men. It was then I decided to do something about it.

b24a 40-2374 maybe
Liberator #40-2373 or #40-2374

Over 100 people lost their lives from an air attack in Broome, by 9 attacking IJN A6M2 Zero fighters who left from Kupang Timor, many families of Dutch military personnel on board the flying boats were sitting in Roebuck bay waiting to be refueled after flying in from Java in the early hours of March the 3rd.

memorial
Australian Army standing guard of honour at the memorial, featuring a salvaged aircraft propeller

Women and children were sitting on the pontoons of the Do24 Dornier flying boats, and trying to get some air on that hot humid morning, very sad stories of the aftermath and families swimming through fuel fires from the burning aircraft. There are many stories of personal losses that makes anyone tear up.

There were 23 allied aircraft destroyed that fateful day.

B24
Atlantic Ocean ferrying routes of aircraft

The USAAF B-24a Liberator #40-2374 that just had no sooner got its wheels up from take-off was pursued by Zeros and was shot down in flames ditching into the sea.

The sole survivor, Melvin Donoho
The sole survivor, Sgt. Melvin Donoho

The sole survivor Sgt Melvin Donoho took 2 days to swim back to shore of Broome due to large tides. This is when my quest to find this missing aircraft started.

B24A 40-2374 possible
Possibly the ill fated B24A 40-2374

In 2015 I met many family relatives in the USA, helping them to understand what happened that fateful day and to explain our reasoning’s for the search zone.

I also made acquaintances with the Dutch embassy staff and ambassador during the 70th anniversary commemorations, here I was asked by the embassy to be a part of a restoration committee for a memorial in disrepair for the 4 passengers aboard a DC-3 the  PK-AFV Pelikaan that was shot down 60 miles north of Broome.

Dion Marinis
Dion Marinis inspecting the Diamond Dakota memorial with Australian Army at Smirnoff Beach mounting the bronze plaque.

This was a very rewarding project assisting the Australia Army Major Scott Golden and Army personnel to rebuild the memorial on a remote beach, following a ceremony in 2013 that the Kingdom of the Netherlands ambassador and relatives attended.

You have been involved in research regarding lost aircraft, such as the B24 and the Beaufighter. How did you conduct your research, what did you manage to accomplish and what would the most memorable moment be during your research?

I started researching and reading as many books as possible written about the air raid, and soon learning that every book was based around the same information source.

I then searched national archives, in search of information regarding the B-24A I then soon discovered a small part of information regarding a RAAF Beaufighter from the RAAF 31SQ that crashed into the sea on 18th September 1944 on take-off during an early morning mission in the darkness!

Beaufighter
RAAF Beaufighter aircraft stationed at Broome Airfield in June 1944

My interest was spiked even more, so now two aircraft to find! I discovered that there was a military court file on the Beaufighter crash and  I released it from National archives, on reading the documents it was like finding gold!

There was 13 witness accounts and sifting through them like a detective in an investigation I found some amazing information.

I also soon found the history of the aircraft for maintenance and discovered that this aircraft had a history of engine faults, also gave me and my colleague a good idea where to commence our side scan sonar searches.

The sonar scan revealed the debris field of the crashed Beaufighter
The sonar scan revealed the debris field of the crashed Beaufighter

A helicopter pilot Jim Miles and I teamed up as we both had interest in finding wrecks.

It all started with a home made modified Hummingbird Side scan sonar, fabricating an aluminium tow fish in which we mounted the transducer on, extended the coaxial cables an used this device on our first lot of searches, surveying the sea bed.

The Beaufighter's tailplane
Wreckage of A19-163 Beaufighter

We then obtained a Starfish side scan which had a lot better beam and resolution, this was the unit that helped us find the wreck in the end.

I started with no previous experience with a side scan sonar at all just a desire to find these missing aircraft, in the end of learning and using the side scan sonar , had honed my skills in reading and using the device.

The most memorable events were finding and diving a debris field and plotting the debris, the moment I dived a target from the side scan sonar I found the tail section, main frames and 20mm Hispano cannons with live rounds scattered on the seabed.

Live
Dion Marinis inspecting live 20mm rounds scattered on the seabed, around the Beaufighter aircraft wreck

Then next dive we found both engines, one being the port side had exploded cylinder which then confirmed to us it was not a pilot error as assumed in the court enquiry.

Throughout this search we used many methods even using an underwater metal detector connected to the rear of our tow-fish that picked up small hits of small debris like stringers and small metal parts.

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To be the first people to see and discover the wreck missing for 70 years and knowing that this was a watery grave for two young men who were in only 20 years old, it was a emotional moment for us both.

Smith and Kerrigan
Flt Sgt Ronald Smith (navigator) and Flt Sgt Ronald Kerrigan (pilot)  of A19-163 RAAF Beaufighter

During the commencement of the search I traced and made contact with the Beaufighter pilot’s sister Mrs Val Bullied letting her know that we plan to find the wreck, I kept her updated and met at her Perth home over the Christmas break of 2013. She didn’t think we would find the wreck, but after 2 years of research and searching all our efforts paid off.

I then had the pleasures in June 2014 of calling up Mrs Bullied advising her that we had found her brothers aircraft, it was a special moment when I told her that we found the wreck, she was very happy , but a little sad at the same time.

What are your thoughts, when you are meeting with relatives of lost airmen and letting them know about the fate of their loved ones?

Making contact and then meeting the relatives of the missing men was a special moment for both parties, it was a humbling moment and I feel very honoured to be able to meet with them and to learn more about the men that they lost.

Plaque unveiling ceremony
The relatives of the lost airmen at the 70th anniversary of the RAAF’s Beaufighter A19-163, which was lost due to engine trouble in September 1944 at the commemorating plaque unveiling ceremony

Once the Beaufighter aircraft was found and the debris field was surveyed by Jim and myself, we then proceeded to contact the RAAF MIA unit and advise them of the find including local government and the Maritime Museum of Western Australia.

Once the aircraft was found media news stories went around the country, through this we were able to locate the navigators family who were from the eastern side of Australia and had a surname of Smith, as I tried to locate the Smith family, but to many, so left it to the media, that night the Sister-in Law of the navigator was flicking through the TV channels when she saw Flt Sgt Ronald Smith’s picture on the TV and the story!

She was amazed and had Goosebumps up her spine!

I requested the assistance of the Shire of Broome to have a memorial built and I had written the wording for the bronze plaque.

Leon Mead Photos plaque unveil 62
Dion Marinis (far left), with 3 generations of family members of the lost Beaufighter airmen during the commemorative plaque unveiling

70 years to the exact day of the crash we had a dawn service at the beautiful Cable Beach Broome, we had my daughters school choir sing the national anthem, a ceremony with 18 relatives , RAAF and national dignitaries including the wing commander from the 31 SQN.

It was a beautiful ceremony , even arranging a boat to take the relatives and RAAF personal to the crash site for a personal service over the wreckage.

On my first dive on the wreckage I found an pinctada maxima oyster amongst the wreckage, sadly no pearl inside for my dear wife, but it made a great gift for the families of the Flt Sgt Ronald Kerrigan and Navigator Flt Sgt Ronald Smith, in a beautiful frame that the Shire of Broome arranged with an engraved plaque in memory of their loved ones.

Plaque
Solemnly honouring the lost airmen

It was a very for filling experience from the inception of a thought to find a wreck, then two years later arranging a ceremony of commemoration and remembrance of these two brave young men who lost their lives on the 18th September 1944.

Closure for the families is an important part of the healing process.

“This is a very hi-tech Ceramic Glass technique which allows one to use a much more sophisticated design approach. Before you ask, the image is fused into the glass under heat and pressure and sandwiched between two 12mm thick toughened sheets of glass. The end result is 25mm thick! Virtually indestructible. This technique also allowed us to develop the imagery onto a much more sophisticated level. We changed the theme to a moonlit night over water, since this is when the accident happened, and included actual photos of the two pilots, very faint in the background. This has to be very subtle or it would look too dramatic. “
“This is a very hi-tech Ceramic Glass technique which allows one to use a much more sophisticated design approach. Τhe image is fused into the glass under heat and pressure and sandwiched between two 12mm thick toughened sheets of glass. The end result is 25mm thick! Virtually indestructible.

moonlight in clouds over waterLest we forget… “This technique also allowed us to develop the imagery onto a much more sophisticated level. We changed the theme to a moonlit night over water, since this is when the accident happened, and included actual photos of the two pilots, very faint in the background. This has to be very subtle or it would look too dramatic.”

The “proposed memorial “ for the Beaufighter is a design that the sculptures and I have come up with, we are seeking funding to get this majestic new memorial constructed. I would like to ask if anyone would like to donate towards this new memorial to contact me and I will contact the Shire of Broome to set up a trust fund for this project, Mr. Marinis says.

What are your future plans? Any other WW2 wrecks waiting to be found?

We still need to find the missing US Liberator #40-2374, that still weighs heavy on me to finish the work Jim Miles and I started back in 2012.

Because I no longer live in Broome due to work commitments , I will return when I can to recommence our search zones for the aircraft.

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Through research I know of many missing WW2 aircraft that lay in the water and land, for example there is one in the pacific island of Pohnpei, a USN FU4 Corsair that was shot down and ditched on the inside of the lagoon , the pilot was later picked up by the Japanese and executed.

That aircraft will be in very good condition.

If I could WW2 wreck hunt for a for a living I would, it’s an amazing challenge and also comes with an amazing sense of accomplishment when helping relatives and to give an account in the books of history.

Also there are 3 missing RAAF 31 SQN Beaufighter’s lost over Taberfane in the Aru islands Indonesia during an air raid attacking a Japanese float plane base, 2 collided mid-air and 1x shot down by anti-aircraft fire.

I have a friend whose uncle was shot down there in July 1943 in A19-118 and reports from the locals that the Beaufighter crashed into the jungle near the base, the Japanese never found the wreck. So working on that one too.