Some of our Airmen are Still Missing by Robert (Bob) Piper.
There are hundreds of allied aircraft and their crews still missing in the South West Pacific from World War II. Flight Lieutenant Barry Mortimer Cox as well as Sgt Ron Bailey, both of 75 Squadron RAAF, are just two of many mysteries yet to be solved.
In early 1942 a number of pilots of 75 Squadron (RAAF) were shot down in New Guinea during combat with Japanese Zeros over Port Moresby and Lae. Five, unfortunately, from this era are still missing.
The last those on the ground saw of Barry Cox was his P-40 Kittyhawk fighter diving steeply at high speed, its engine screaming at full power, some eight kilometres to the north – west of Port Moresby’s main airfield. This is an area known then and now as the Waigani Swamps, a series of small lakes and swampy ground that changes during the wet and dry season and extends for thousands of kilometres to the west of Port Moresby and inland along the coastal fringe.
On 28 April at 1030 hours eight enemy bombers escorted by twelve Zeros approached Port Moresby for their regular bombing run. Alerted, someone near the airfield shouted “it’s on” and our Kittyhawks raced off and clawed for height to reach the Betty bombers, to try and disrupt the attack. The enemy were at 22,000 feet and their Zero escort could be seen wheeling around and above them in a protective umbrella pattern.
Only five of our fighters were available in defence, the remainder having been earlier damaged or shot down in combat, and these were led by the commanding officer, Squadron Leader John Jackson. Outnumbered and lacking height they still took off to defend Australia’s last base in New Guinea.
The evening before the pilots had been quite unjustly called “cowards” by a senior RAAF officer for not “mixing it” in dogfights with the more nimble and lightweight Zeros. This was confirmed personally to the writer in the 1980s by Dr Bill Deane-Butcher, who was present at the time. It was decided then this time they would, in retrospect unwisely, try dog fighting at close quarters. In the past successful tactics were to dive away with their superior speed and zoom back up to attack again.
In attempting to close behind the bombers our fighters were attacked by the Zeros and a wild melee in the thin air began. Some of our Kittyhawks stalled in the tight turns and two dived steeply away. John Jackson went first, his fighter smoking, and impacted at high speed on the slopes of nearby Mount Lawes. Then Cox fell away also while the other three, separated by speed and individual actions, lost contact with each other.
“Cocky” Brereton discovered great holes in his wing from 20 mm cannon fire and blood on the cockpit floor. He just managed to limp back to base. Peter Masters spun out and found himself over the sea. Looking down he saw a submarine which must have been enemy, so he made two strafing attacks against it. Bill Cowe also spun but recovered and flew safely back to the drome undamaged.
While John Jackson’s aircraft (No. A29-8) was quickly located and identified on nearby Mount Lawes that of Barry Cox took a little longer. Army personnel had seen both aircraft go down and sent search parties to locate them.
Cox’s fighter (A29- 47) was discovered about eight kilometres to the north-west of the aerodrome, then called Seven Mile Strip, and buried deeply in the swamp. The army reported that it was still smouldering under the ground and could not be approached.
Flying Officer John Piper, another pilot in the squadron, went to the crash site on 4 May and said that the plane was ten to fifteen feet ( 3 to five metres) in the soft ground and that the soft soil, when excavated by shovel, kept falling in on the wreckage.
He found a small piece of wreckage with the words “Adeline” and as Barry Cox’s fighter was known to have the nose art “Sweet Adeline”, a popular song at the time, he deduced that this must be Cox’s Kittyhawk A29-47.
On 5 May another unit pilot, Pilot Officer Arthur Tucker, with Warrant Officer Tarrant, also went to the crash site. After several hours work they also realised that excavation of the aircraft and pilot, with the limited tools available, was not possible. Small pieces of what appeared as burnt bone were located but owing to their condition could not be identified as such by the squadron doctor, Bill Deane-Butcher.
While Squadron Leader John Jackson was initially buried at the coastal village cemetery at Hanuabada Barry Cox was listed as “missing”. Both men had not been in good health on their last flight. Cox had just recovered from a fever and John Jackson was shot down near Lae on 10 April and after swimming ashore and walking into the ranges had returned in poor health and weight loss on 23 April.
In September 1942 Cox’s aircraft was re-discovered when the 808th American Army Aviation Company were building Durand aerodrome, co-incidentally where the fighter had gone in five months earlier. Captain James A. Bukholder reported “The Australian authorities were notified”.
This unit would have had the equipment to fully excavate the aircraft and actually identified and recorded Cox’s name in their records.
No 75 Squadron’s intelligence officer Stu Collie, a Melbourne barrister, recorded at the time Cox was lost that:
Barry Cox was a loveable personality who was extremely popular. He and other young fathers constantly compared notes on their children and the characteristics. Barry never lost his smile and as a flyer of P-40s he had few peers.
Pre-war Barry Cox had been a stockbroker’s clerk and lived in Booroondarra Street, Reid in Canberra. Married in June 1940 to Theodora Stephens in Woollahra (Sydney) it is believed they had one child. Cox, born in 1915, had lost his father in 1918 when he died while serving in Palestine with the Australian Light Horse. Father and son as young men with young children had both lost their lives in two wars on a distant shore.
Japanese naval air records recently translated for the Tainan Kokutai (squadron) that engaged 75 Squadron on 28 April 1942 provide additional details for the day. Eleven Zero fighters were in their air that day. They claimed to have engaged “seven” Australian Kittyhawks and could only confirm one shot down. That was by Petty Officer Hideo Izumi.
One of their aces, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, apparently had his engine damaged and force landed in the sea over the range, 10 miles east of Salamaua. Another pilot in the unit landed at Salamaua and arranged for a boat to go out and pick him up, which it did.
A year before his death Barry Cox had been involved in a mid-air collision (April 1941) over the Governor General’s Residence in Canberra. A flight of three incoming Wirraways, of which he was one, had encountered an outgoing aircraft from the airport at the same height. Cox’s aircraft and the outgoing one had collided and while both pilots had parachuted clear to safety, the observer with Cox failed to make the jump and lost his life. The whole scene had been observed by the Governor General Lord Gowrie, acting Prime Minister Faddon and Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Burnett (RAF).
Today Flight Lieutenant Barry Mortimer Cox No. 260706 is listed as still missing. He is commemorated on a plaque at the Australian War Memorial as well as the Bomana War Cemetery, just outside Port Moresby.
Another casualty at the time was Sgt. Ron Bailey flying Kittyhawk A29-12, which crashed during combat some 40 miles (approximately) west of Seven Mile Strip on 28 March 1942. He was last seen by Flying Officer John Piper “diving and one Zero chasing him but well astern”.
New evidence to hand suggests that Bailey may in fact have been recovered by Sgt Tom Bruce (Pacific Islands Battalion) in April 1942 from the Galley Reach area, below Kanosia Wharf, and be currently buried in an unmarked grave at Bomana War Cemetery marked “unknown Australian airman”. The remains having been transferred from the old civil cemetery at Hanuabada Village in 1943. Sgt Ron Bailey was 21 at his time of death and came from Merbein in Victoria.
Tom Bruce was killed later in the war but the possible recovery was well documented by an eyewitness, Lt. Alan Hooper, who later recorded it in detail his book Love War and Letters (1995).
The other three pilots missing near Port Moresby and Lae, from that famous 44 day era, are:
Flying Officer Bruce H. Anderson near Lae flying Kittyhawk initialled “Y” (A29-12 ?) on 22 March 1942.
Pilot Officer R.K. O’Connor (Kittyhawk A29-19 marked “J”) 12 miles north west of 7 Mile Strip on 27 March 1942. My have been a parachute descent as sighted by another pilot.
Pilot Officer A.C.C. “Bink” Davies flying Kittyhawk A29-15 near Lae on 13 April 1942.
The old Seven Mile Strip at Port Moresby, where the airmen last flew and fought, is now appropriately named Jackson’s International Airport. This is after their commanding officer who was lost on the same day and in the same action as Barry Cox.
# The writer of this article, Bob Piper, lived at Port Moresby and learnt to fly there. He later became the RAAF Historian with Defence for fifteen years then with Veterans’ Affairs for a further twelve. He sometimes assists Australian, American and Japanese authorities identify and locate their missing airmen. 2018 – firstname.lastname@example.org