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    355 Sqn Liberator crew grave exhumation

    Might a DNA expert advise on the "best potential" for DNA matches between RAF airmen whose remains are recovered and their direct blood relatives? Some genetic connections yield better results than others.

    On 17 May 1945 RAF 355 Sqn Liberator KH250 was shot down during a raid on Port Blair, South Andaman Island, in the Indian Ocean.

    One crewman, Harold Wynne, baled out, was captured, imprisoned, and executed by the Japanese two months later (after Hirohito's surrender radio announcement). The ten others are officially missing, but I rediscovered their long-forgotten communal grave in 2010. The five-year campaign to get the grave exhumed continues - it is contingent upon Indian government permission that has yet to be granted. Although the permission may never come in this very political world of ours, it would behoove our group to gather DNA evidence now, in anticipation of an eventual exhumation.

    I am in contact with direct kin from each of the ten crewmates; some (shown in red) are obviously excellent DNA testing candidates, but others are weaker...or I would like assurance that they are good candidates.

    Rowland TOTHAM: daughter of Rowland's daughter
    John MCDOWALL: distant relatives (not great, but better than nothing; not defined here)
    Jim DUCKWORTH: son of Jim's sister
    Harold EMERSON: son of Harold's sister
    Tony MORGAN: either his sister (if still alive; she was, but that was 4 years ago), or else either of two daughters of Tony's other sister
    Harry JOHNSON: son
    Hugh CAMPBELL: son of either of Hugh's siblings.
    Ted RUMSEY-WILLIAMS: daughter of Ted's brother
    Les BENFELL: son of Les' sister
    Bob McPHERSON: daughter

    Thanks for any insight you can offer. I should add that any day now a contact at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should advise us on DNA matters, but I seek additional points of view.

    Regards,

    Matt
    RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

    #2
    Rowland TOTHAM: daughter of Rowland's daughter 1 in 2 chance of carrying the same x chromosome, likely autosomal match somewhere though
    John MCDOWALL: distant relatives (not great, but better than nothing; not defined here)
    Jim DUCKWORTH: son of Jim's sister Should share mitochondrial DNA from Jim's mother/his grandmother
    Harold EMERSON: son of Harold's sister As above
    Tony MORGAN: either his sister (if still alive; she was, but that was 4 years ago), or else either of two daughters of Tony's other sister As above
    Harry JOHNSON: son Lots of matches including y chromosome
    Hugh CAMPBELL: son of either of Hugh's siblings. Y chromosome if from a brother, otherwise mitochondrial DNA will be the same
    Ted RUMSEY-WILLIAMS: daughter of Ted's brother probable autosomal match
    Les BENFELL: son of Les' sister mitochondrial DNA match
    Bob McPHERSON: daughter X chromosome, mitochondrial DNA and many autosomal markers


    I am a (lapsed) molecular geneticist and not an expert in forensic investigations or in familial typing per se (so apologies for any errors from typing in haste) but those should, in most cases be very useful subjects which should also in many cases have autosomal matches as well as those indicated.
    Last edited by Zidante; 6th May 2015, 17:26.

    Comment


      #3
      Many thanks, Zidante. Your considerable expertise was exactly what I was hoping for.

      The ultimate success of a DNA-gathering effort is completely contingent upon a) whether the Indian government will ever grant permission for the communal grave's exhumation, b) whether there is anything left, after 70 years of burial in what now is the frequently-inundated edge of a tidal marsh, c) whether remains (if found) yield any usable DNA, and d) whether that extracted DNA matches to even one relative of a KH250 casualty.

      The Japanese forced the local villagers to gather remains and bury them. Post-war, for some inexplicable reason, the British authorities, unidentified, chose to construct a brick-and-concrete grave marker, complete with a names plaque (long gone) honoring the ten men from KH250. It was a lovely gesture -- although in the same time period the nearby remains of Harold Wynne, their POW crewmate who was killed by lethal injection by his Japanese captors, were collected and moved to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Kirkee War Cemetery in India. And thousands of sets of remains were being collected throughout the Far East for concentration in regional war cemeteries. But for KH250's crew, only one man's remains were collected and reburied...while his crew's well-marked and well-known communal grave was simply prettied-up and left in situ, long before a terrible natural disaster compounded the tragedy. Makes NO sense that these men's remains were not exhumed when Lilias Duckworth was still a young widow!

      The UK MoD's last two Nautical & Air Advisors stationed in New Delhi have put their hearts and souls into convincing the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to green light the project; they are to be saluted for devotion and genuine effort, even though the goal of an excavation is still elusive. Likewise, the CWGC sent their regional manager, Duncan Povey, all the way to the Andaman Islands to survey the gravesite. He recommended an excavation, but it has all been for naught, to date, because India's MEA -- the designated decision-maker -- won't respond.

      Most of the crew (including Wynne) had flown a full tour of ops on 101 Squadron Lancasters of Bomber Command, resulting in a DFC for the skipper, Rowland Totham (see photo below, of his DFC with his American pilot's wings, from training in the US). The front gunner, Ted Rumsey-Williams, likewise, completed a tour, his being flown aboard Halifaxes of Bomber Command's 578 Sqn. He, too, was awarded a DFC. The screen pilot, Jim Duckworth -- who had just completed his full tour as a Liberator skipper on 355 Sqn -- volunteered to fly the op in order to oversee the Totham crew's first combat flight in the Far East. Damn bad luck...anti-aircraft fire at a low altitude set an engine ablaze, yet they still took the time to circle back, make a proper target run, and release bombs before crashing. Duckworth's 97 year old widow, Lilias, will be reflecting upon this tragedy on the 70th anniversary in less than two weeks. And hoping that India's MEA will finally give the necessary permission for a dig...in her lifetime!

      Hope...does...spring...eternal, and with that in mind, it is time to start collecting DNA.

      Thanks again, Zidante, for your most welcome information.

      Regards,

      Matt

      Photo credits: Wynne grave: Duncan Povey; Communal grave: Aparna Singh; Wings/DFC: Carol Walsh
      Attached Files
      Last edited by Matt Poole; 7th October 2015, 09:05. Reason: Photo credits added, typos
      RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

      Comment


        #4
        The Government of India, at long last, has agreed to an excavation by the UK, but with strings attached, driven by a wariness about Indian remains being in the grave. Per significant evidence, this is an unfounded worry, but I can still understand India's concerns.

        As soon as remains are found (IF remains are found after 70 years), the digging will be halted. The remains will then be DNA tested by the UK. This DNA must match DNA provided by kin of the casualties, or else the dig will not continue and, instead, the British Royal Navy will hold a symbolic Burial at Sea ceremony, to be filmed for the kin.

        However, if DNA matches, then the dig will continue, and ultimately remains will be buried in Kirkee War Cemetery near Mumbai, where already the remains of the 11th crewman, Harold Wynne, are interred.

        The optimal DNA donor for each of the 10 families is lined up, and keen to provide a sample, and awaiting further direction from the MoD's Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre. JCCC continues to frustrate kin with an obvious lack of cooperation; it is nothing new in this nearly six-year case.

        Despite JCCC, others (kin of the fallen and a small handful of stellar UK public servants, such as Royal Navy Capt Stuart Borland in New Delhi) have gone to extraordinary lengths to champion the cause of exhuming the war grave -- which, without a doubt, IS that of casualties from RAF 355 Sqn Liberator KH250. The hope, still, is that remains will be found, then recovered and, at long last, given a proper burial in a war cemetery. But even if remains are no longer found in this saturated mess of a grave, the kin can rejoice in the fact that a dig on the site was finally allowed.

        In recent times the last-surviving siblings of two of the casualties have died. The daughter of the skipper has died. The widows of two other casualties have died. (Another widow is 97!) For each of two more casualties, a nephew has died (leaving, in each case, only one surviving nephew as a potential DNA donor). The sister-in-law of another casualty has died. (She was not a blood relative. There is only one niece as potential DNA donor). TIME IS THE ENEMY...but, thankfully, some progress is evident, and hope, still, springs eternal.
        Attached Files
        Last edited by Matt Poole; 7th October 2015, 12:21. Reason: typos
        RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

        Comment


          #5
          Many thanks for the update Matt, fingers crossed for further progress - excellent work.

          Comment


            #6
            Such a travesty this wasn't allowed earlier, one wonders how the obstacle would feel if he wasn't allowed to honour his ( or her) loved ones. Good luck, one hopes for a positive outcome for all.

            Comment


              #7
              Would it be prudent to collect DNA samples from the surviving relatives now so that they can be used in the future even if the donor has passed.
              Facebook: Aussie Cockpits

              Comment


                #8
                Thanks for the good wishes. Fingers crossed, and all of that...

                Ozjag, we (myself and the kin) have been trying to nail down the protocol for collecting DNA. That's our main issue right now with some of the UK gov't powers that be -- getting certain entities to move forward as soon as possible. We know JCCC is officially in charge of DNA analysis, but so far our fundamental questions go unanswered. We have coordinated a list of best donors by family, with very cohesive family cooperation, but now what? Will JCCC be sending out DNA kits to each family's "best donor"? That way of collecting is unsupervised, so we presume JCCC does not want to go this route. Will JCCC send an approved DNA specialist to each donor, so that the collecting will be properly supervised and documented? Will each donor have to travel to a local clinic for the work? Or to a location farther from home? Will there be out-of-pocket expenses? If so, will the kin be reimbursed? Simple questions, really!

                We want to do things right, which means collect and store DNA samples under acceptable conditions. Each sample, in theory, can be the key to the success of the entire mission, because any remains recovered must, repeat must, match DNA from at least one family, or else the dig will not be allowed to continue, per Gov't of India stipulation. So all DNA work back in the UK has to be done right. JCCC will definitely be handling the analysis, no questions there -- except whether they'll wait until human remains are found first (not that any will be found after 70 years) before starting their analysis of kin DNA. If, in the next week, JCCC doesn't respond -- and there has been some refusal to cooperate lately -- then the families and myself will be forced to get moving, without their guidance, on the DNA collecting, once and for all. JCCC may not approve, but at least we will have samples "on ice" -- before we lose any more key donors.

                By waiting so long for the Gov't of India to make a decision on allowing a dig, we have already lost some very important DNA evidence through the passing of kin, and we're sort of at a critical point with some families. Can't wait much longer! In retrospect, we erred in not gambling and collecting some DNA already, from those who have since died. The proposal is to collect DNA now from each family's prime donor, even if JCCC doesn't want to test it in advance of human remains first being recovered at the burial site. We would prefer that JCCC immediately start the ball rolling, to guarantee success in the DNA collection and storage phases. We're a bunch of amateurs, while JCCC can call for the experts to take the helm.

                This has been a complex lobbying effort from the start, nearly six years ago. The main issue until recently was winning permission to dig from the Gov't of India. That involved frustrating diplomacy and waiting, waiting, waiting for Indian bureaucratic wheels to turn. With this hurdle cleared, DNA is the next obstacle, and the families of the KH250 casualties have all their ducks in a row. Now we need JCCC to cooperate. It may happen tomorrow -- I hope so, and ultimately we are absolutely reliant on JCCC.

                There are no guarantees that remains will be recovered from the wartime burial site, or that recovered remains will yield DNA. However, Indian approval has been won, so we're at the next phase, and that is a fantastic victory in itself. There is so much more ahead.

                Here's a photo of KH250, "HAWKEYE", shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Port Blair on 17 May 1945. (Photo credit: Chris Buxton, son of 355 Sqn air gunner Geoff Buxton.)

                Incidentally, the locals said that substantial pieces of wreckage were evident until the late 1980s, and that some Lib wreckage like wheels are still buried there. But the crash site, about 100 meters due east of the grave, is now in an area of permanent flood because the government has failed to repair the sluice gate seen at the bottom center of the photo I posted earlier, where tidal surge rushes in. The sluice gate repair would readily hold out the daily salt water surge, which, since the tragic Boxing Day '04 quake, land subsidence, and tsunami, has inundated and polluted (salt) the agricultural lands. The local farmers have suffered terribly in this area.

                Regards,

                Matt
                Attached Files
                Last edited by Matt Poole; 17th October 2015, 02:43. Reason: Added another point, in red
                RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                Comment


                  #9
                  That's good to know you're thinking ahead, I see there are some simple saliva tests available online but in the worst case scenario a simple collection of finger nail and hair samples would be better than nothing.
                  Paul
                  Facebook: Aussie Cockpits

                  Comment


                    #10
                    Yes, Paul, in the next week, if a certain key UK gov't entity keeps hiding its head in the sand by ignoring e-mail, then we will start collecting samples on our own. There is good "how to" info for this on-line, and I've been given the name of a quality professional group in the UK who might at least provide basic guidance. Also, DNA kits can be purchased for relatively cheap prices. Saliva, hair, and fingernail clippings would be possible, like you said.

                    I'm going to push for a "better safe than sorry" approach with some of the kin (the ones where there is only one "best" donor). It does have to be done correctly, though.

                    And whenever that certain UK gov't entity gets rolling on this, their separate collection of DNA from all ten families (presumably they'll want to control all collection; I can understand why) can always supercede whatever DNA we collect from the same individuals. But if one of the key donors today dies before the UK gov't people can collect a sample, then our previously-collected sample from that now-deceased donor will be emphasized in our dealings with said gov't entity. Hopefully, they would accept it, if need be. If not, we'd have that sample to test independently, if it came down to the need to do so (if no other kin DNA were to match DNA from remains found in the exhumation of the grave).

                    Cheers,

                    Matt
                    Last edited by Matt Poole; 10th October 2015, 00:44. Reason: Typos, typos, and more typos
                    RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                    Comment


                      #11
                      I'm pleased to report that great progress has been made this week. There will be no need, after all, for kin of the KH250 casualties to collect their own DNA samples. JCCC will shortly begin mailing DNA kits to each designated family donor, with no supervision required. The donor will simply follow the directions and mail back the sample for analysis.
                      RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                      Comment


                        #12
                        More than two and a half years after my last posting in this thread, with no DNA kits having ever been sent to kin, the word is out, officially, that the dig is back on. (We don't know why it has taken this long.) However, the start of the monsoon season will prevent digging until the autumn.

                        The same Gvmt of India caveat known back in 2015 is still in place: if remains are found (and after all these years, in saturated soil, the present existence of remains cannot be known until a dig takes place), they must be proven to be non-Indian for further digging to take place.

                        There are many questions that need answering about this process, and this will be possible at a group meeting with the MoD's Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre representative, to be set up in the UK in the relatively near future.

                        Since my last posting, the widow of one of the pilots (a screen pilot overseeing a crew on its first Far East op) passed away. The next-of-kin of one of the other pilots is now in a care facility with dementia or Alzheimer's. The widow of the rear gunner died. The daughter of the rear gunner died. The next point of contact for the rear gunner died of cancer. The next-of-kin of another casualty is recuperating from major surgery and chemo/radiation. The granddaughter of the third pilot -- now the next-of-kin for her family since her mother (daughter of the pilot) died in 2014 -- has been fighting cancer. I'm probably forgetting other deaths and illnesses.

                        Yes, illnesses and aging and death are inevitable, but this case has dragged on for over nine years, and quite a few went to their graves disappointed that the crew remains were not yet exhumed from their waterlogged mess of a grave. Ultimately, if there ever is a reburial in Kirkee War Cemetery, there will be great rejoicing among the kin, and that is what we are hoping for.

                        We do feel the current JCCC representative with whom we are working, Tracey Bowers, is dedicated, smart, and compassionate. For that, we are grateful, and of course we really don't know the extent of behind-the-scenes efforts in negotiating with the Gvmt of India. Thanks to all who have progressed this to the point of winning the chance to physically dig on the grave.
                        Last edited by Matt Poole; 26th May 2018, 02:54.
                        RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                        Comment


                          #13
                          Really rooting for your success in this Matt
                          Tony Dyer
                          https://www.facebook.com/TheAirDefen...homepage_panel

                          Comment


                            #14
                            Good luck Matt

                            Comment


                              #15
                              Thank you, gents. There is still an uphill slope to climb, but more than ever hope fuels our continued passion.
                              RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                              Comment


                                #16
                                Thanks for all your and the teams hard work and dedication on this.

                                Comment


                                  #17
                                  I appreciate your thanks, Paul.

                                  Today is the 73rd anniversary of the loss of 355 Squadron Liberator KH250 and 10 of 11 crewmen (with the 11th, Harold Wynne, baling out, but being executed exactly three months later) when shot down attacking Port Blair, South Andaman Islands.

                                  The software currently won't let me post a photo of bombs exploding on Chatham Island during that op, on 17 May 1945; I'll try to post it later. The largest sawmill in the entire Far East was located there. KH250 dropped its bombs on this same target AFTER an engine had been set alight by anti-aircraft fire, and then it crashed. An excerpt from the book "A Trepid Aviator" by Liberator skipper Wally Frazer RCAF (also the source of the photo), who flew to the same target that day with 356 Squadron:

                                  . . .But Tojo still has Port Blair. We went back yesterday, independently.

                                  Even without the naval ships, A/A fire was fierce. The aircraft of 355's F/O Totham, on his first op, was hit. Smoke pouring from an engine, they were seen to turn, bomb the target on the way down, but slowly lose height and crash into the harbour.

                                  We had cumulus problems too, but bombed through gaps. Joe swears he hit the jetties, but we didn't get photos. No pictures, no brass ring.

                                  Refreshments were flowing freely in the Mess as the day's adventures were discussed, recounted, reviewed and analyzed not unlike the way golfers sit around, discuss their putts. There was discussion about the flak, the small boats in the harbour, a fighter which circled above but didn't attack. But most of the talk was about F/O Totham's crew. Even hit and in bad trouble, they put their load on the target before hitting the water. That's hero stuff, the kind of courage people talk about, wonder about.

                                  But am I getting more callous about losses? Particularly when it's guys I don't know, do I really shed that many tears? Or do I mostly just think, "Hey, that's too bad, I'm sorry, but mostly I'm glad it wasn't us."

                                  Yeah, maybe war does make you more callous.
                                  RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                                  Comment


                                    #18
                                    I posted an anniversary mention on my Facebook page, with the same book quote and the photo that I still can't post here, and the granddaughter of Rowland Totham, pilot, replied to say she didn't know this was in a book (with the photo). Imagine the pride she felt in reading Wally Frazer's words about her grandfather not giving up on bombing the target, though skippering a Liberator in distress: "That's hero stuff, the kind of courage people talk about, wonder about."

                                    That's a heartfelt choice of words from another courageous, long-serving Liberator pilot; his own legacy, to me and probably to Rowland's granddaughter, truly supercharges the value of the words.
                                    Last edited by Matt Poole; 26th May 2018, 02:55.
                                    RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

                                    Comment


                                      #19
                                      Now that the image-posting gremlin has been solved (thank you kindly), I can post a photo taken on 17 May 1945, during the raid when Liberator KH250 was shot down by AA fire. Its bombs were dropped on the same target, Chatham Island, seen here, although I don't believe these are KH250's exploding bombs. This photo is from 356 Sqn pilot Wally Frazer's book, "A Trepid Aviator".

                                      A slightly different frame from the same bombing sequence is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, item C5352 -- seen here with the greasepencil markings.

                                      This same image is seen in a 16 June 1945 issue of THE SPHERE magazine.

                                      For a then-vs-now comparison of Chatham Island, I've posted a two-in-one image (adjoining images). On the left is a cropped 6 Nov 1944 photo recon image I found at the US National Archives. Note the lumber floating in the water near the sawmill. Also note that some of the buildings have damaged roofs -- you can see the ribs of the roofing framework. This is most likely evidence of damage from previous Allied air attacks. On the right is a satellite photo from 22 March 2017 (Google Earth seems to show a different date, by one day, on UK computers). I can tell that logs are still floated in the water. This is very obvious in other satellite imagery available via Google Earth.
                                      Attached Files
                                      Last edited by Matt Poole; 26th May 2018, 02:49. Reason: Adding more photos, text
                                      RAF LIBERATORS OVER BURMA (subtitled FLYING WITH 159 SQUADRON) by Bill Kirkness DFM and Matt Poole, published by Fonthill Media

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