By Lydia Koh
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — Finally, after 67 years, the air crash victims of a British Royal Air Force plane will be buried with full military honours at the Cheras Road Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery here this morning.
On August 23, 1945, an eight-member crew from the 356 Squadron left Cocos Islands, Australia on a supply mission to Malaya during World War II.
Unfortunately due to poor weather conditions, Royal Air Force Liberator KL654 crashed in the jungle in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan and everyone on the plane lost their lives.
“For many years my mother never knew what happened to her brother and she tried to find out. They were very close and they looked alike. According to her, he was very religious too. He was a Methodist and he would go into the villages to preach,” said Diane Fletcher, niece of Flight Lieutenant John Selwyn Watts, the pilot who died in the crash.
Family members of the victims were flown in from the UK to attend the reburial ceremony. Besides Watts, the 356 Squadron crew included co-pilot Flying Officer Edward Donald Mason, navigator Flying Officer William Kenneth Dovey, air bomber Flying Officer John Trevor Bromfield, wireless operator/air gunner Flight Sergeant Arthur Turner, flight engineer Flight Sergeant Jack Blakey, wireless operator/air gunner Flight Sergeant Raymond Arthur Towell and air gunner Flight Sergeant William Ross.
“It is a privilege and honour to work on this. I’m grateful for those who were involved including the Malaysian Armed Forces, Malaya Historic Group and Malaya Wrecks Research Group. Tomorrow will be a special day where the aircraft victims will finally be laid to rest. It is the close of the final chapter,” said Sue Raftree, historic casework manager in the UK Ministry of Defence, at a press conference yesterday.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force visited the site of the aircraft crash in 1991 when it was found by locals. Subsequently, the Malaysian Armed Forces, Malaya Historic Group and Malaya Wrecks Research Group visited the crash site in 1996.
“I’ve always had a fascination for history and aircraft as a child so when I read the news about the discovery in 1996, I decided to find out more about the Royal Air Force Liberator KL654,” said Shaharom Ahmad of the Malaya Historic Group.
Shaharom then contacted Sager Ahmad who had been actively involved in expeditions similar to this. The Malaya Historic Group comprises five members and they were also involved in the recovery of the remains of the crew of Royal Air Force Dakota KN630. The team self-funded the expeditions before the British officials approved of the recovery.
“In 2000, we managed to get the full information of the people aboard the plane. We corresponded with the family members and helped them to get more information to present it to the authorities.
“During our initial find, we managed to get the R number of the plane but back then the British officials refused to accept this as evidence because there were several planes with the same number at that time.
“Three years later, we found a faded KL654 marking on the fuselage and we sent this proof of identification to the families. In 2005, we managed to find a stronger marking of KL654 but at that time the British authorities said that there was not enough budget to recover the remains.
“It was only later that we found a plate bearing a Pratt & Whitney engine serial number and some personal belongings that the British authorities decided to accept this as a proof of identity,” said Shaharom.
Between 2005 and 2008, the family members of the aircraft victims used this information to encourage the British officials to send out a team. In late 2008, Arthur Lane from the National Ex-Services Association requested for British volunteers to help out with the recovery of the remains.
“I decided to help out as a tribute to my great-uncle Bob Ungless who was a PoW at that time,” said Clayton Ford, one of the British volunteers who helped out in the expedition together with Ed Macy.
“These men deserve a proper burial because they did a service for the country. They died to help out my great-uncle’s friends,” said Ford.
An expedition involving Ford, Macy and a number of Malaysians in 2009 resulted in a post-expedition report that stated that 63 human bones and 18 possible human bones had been found. The UK Ministry of Defence and Malaysian authorities then engaged forensic experts in Hospital Kuala Lumpur to identify the remains of Royal Air Force Liberator KL654.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission then agreed that the remains should be interred in a single coffin after discussions with the family members of the crew.
“The UK Ministry of Defence doesn’t actively search for crash sites and the expedition in 2009 was privately funded by individuals,” said Raftree. The ministry needed evidence, such as the engine serial number. Otherwise, the site would remain a war grave.
“It has been 67 years since the crash and 3½ years since their remains were discovered, and now the servicemen, who had tragically lost their lives for their country, can finally be laid to rest. I am glad that their family members will be able to pay their last respects and that they will be accorded the military honours that they deserve,” said Simon Featherstone, British High Commissioner to Malaysia.