A descendant of one of the four airmen killed in a World War II crash off Lady Julia Percy Island has described how he became emotionally overwhelmed by last weekend’s ceremony that honoured them. MARY ALEXANDER reports.
Craig Baulderstone is the nephew of Flight Sergeant Dennis Leslie Baulderstone whose body was never recovered after his plane crashed on February 15, 1944.
The Adelaide man was among 150-plus family members and special guests invited to attend a RAAF and RSL memorial dedication service at The Crags near Port Fairy last Saturday, organised by the East Warrnambool Rotary Club.
“This was the only funeral that Dennis ever got, and I am so grateful for that, and all the effort that strangers put into that,” Craig said this week.
Craig said he had lived his entire life with the stories about Dennis and the mystery associated with what happened to the crew of the missing Avro Anson AW878 after it set out on a navigation sortie from its Mount Gambier base.
“The announcement of the monument has been a great trigger to delve deeper into the history and that, in itself, has been a great journey and I have learnt so much.”
Craig travelled from Adelaide with his family for the weekend events.
“We met some of the people who have dedicated so much of their time to this memorial,” he said. “We met family we haven’t seen for many years, all having heard stories from Dennis’ brothers and sisters as they grew up — all just memories though, with that generation of family all passed now.
“Gone is the chance to question details, like I had of my dad for many years. And yet, from records and first-hand accounts of people I met that day, I think we understand more than any of those or his parents ever did.”
Craig said he watched as his eight and 10-year-old sons played with their cousins at the weekend.
“Here were six boys in all under the age of 10 and I couldn’t help but think how WWI or II would have impacted a family like ours.
“Baulderstone cousins fought in both wars, with loss of life in both — what a tragedy.
“And yet I still want my boys to fight for what is right, don’t stand by and watch injustice, don’t subscribe to what seems to be the common ‘me generation’ of thinking ‘why would I get involved if I don’t have to?’
“Of course ‘king and country’ doesn’t mean much to me, but perhaps that, in reality, means the same as ‘our collective lifestyle we live in Australia’.”
Craig said the first waves of emotion struck him as he was on a bus that transferred guests from the Yambuk Hall to the memorial site.
“I was overwhelmed that this huge number of people were here to honour these men and my uncle. I was just wishing my dad could see this. He was always so proud of Dennis.
“Then as I got off the bus and saw the monument, the military representatives, the tents and all these chairs, it hit me: this is Dennis’ funeral, the only funeral he ever had. We are the only family left now to attend and honour him.”
Craig said it was a shame that only one person who agonised at the time over the loss of the men was still alive and able to attend.
Leading Aircraftman Brian Carter Ladyman’s sister, Elizabeth Hastings, who attended the service, later explained how her parents and remaining siblings were emotionally unable to speak about his death until many years later.
As she was presented with an RAAF bereavement pin on Saturday she threw her hands in the air and exclaimed: “Yes. That is so good. Thank-you so much. My God, it’s good.”
Craig said he was so inspired by her reaction that it sent a chill up his spine. “It was like she was saying ‘at last he is recognised, at last he is put to rest’,” Craig said.
“I feel the same way, but I hadn’t met Dennis to directly grieve his loss and the mystery of never finding a body.”
Craig said his grandmother, Beatrice, had believed Dennis had been captured by the Japanese and always held hope that one day her son would walk back through the door.
“I guess it was easier for her to believe that than after all the dangers of his active service up north, where he had been shot at by Japanese fighter planes and ground fire, that he was now gone in a relatively safe training role.
“But as was mentioned in the ceremony, the war effort is like one big machine and every effort combines to make it effective.
“You don’t get good pilots and navigators unless they are trained and there is always a risk with flying as so many training accidents demonstrated.”
Craig said the afternoon tea following the service was very much like a wake for Flight Sergeant Baulderstone, Leading Airman Ladyman and the other two crew, pilot and Flight Sergeant James Henry Maclellan and Leading Airman Norman Thomas Kruck.
“People were sharing their stories and meeting other friends and relatives, all with the one common aim — paying their respects and honouring the memory as this one big group.”
On Sunday, the Baulderstone family organised a trip to Lady Julia Percy Island with a long-term local fisherman who had helped divers recover a propeller from the plane in the late 1960s which they had found while abalone diving.
“The relatively small fishing boat we went out on was bobbing over the waves and my youngest son Mick was getting scared,” Craig said.
He said his son was named after his great-uncle Mick (officially named Percy Harold Baulderstone on his birth certificate), who was shot and died at Gallipoli.
“I said to our Mick, ‘you know ‘old Mick’ you are named after? He was on a boat about this size, with about twice as many people when they landed at Gallipoli, but it was at 4.30am and still a bit dark and as the boats came in people were shooting at them, and I reckon he would have been really scared too, and it is a good chance to think about him and how he was feeling’.
“Maybe this may have not been the most comforting thing to say to my son, but it did seem to take his mind off things.
“Then, as we approached the island, the boat engine was turned off and drifted in. I think all of us were a bit overcome with emotion and it was quiet except the lapping of the waves. Looking at these cliffs, I couldn’t help but think of those Anzacs at Gallipoli,” Craig said.
“There was also this strange sort of comfort in seeing exactly where the wreckage of my uncle’s plane had landed, being in the same location, being able to picture them struggling to land and being so close, but obviously something going wrong,” Craig said.
“Visualising all this at the location somehow made it all that much easier and made more sense. I could put to rest so many ‘what ifs’ that were running through my head while researching it.
“If only I could take my dad or, better still, my nana there. But at least we have done this, and somehow I just feel all the better for doing it. It all seems so right somehow.
“Like Ladyman’s sister, there is some relief like we have finished something that should have been done years ago. I’m not religious, but if there spirits are there I am sure all four men will rest easier and they would have to appreciate the respect shown to them.”
Craig said the work to recognise the crew would never have happened if it wasn’t for East Warrnambool East Rotary.
“I don’t know how to do justice to the level of gratitude I have. Sometimes you just have to say thank-you and leave it at that.”