Australian soldier holds a unique resting place
AUSTRALIAN military personnel have fought in many foreign lands since the Second World War and thousands have been buried in the lands of which they have fought.
This includes lands as far away as Russia, Gallipoli, France, the Middle East and south-east Asia, just to name a few.
But one Australian hero holds the rather unique record of being the only Australian to be buried in Arlington National War Cemetery in Washington, USA.
He is Pilot Officer Francis Debenham Milne of the RAAF, who achieved that honour on November 16, 1989.
Francis Milne was born in Sydney on February 9, 1917, the son of Francis and Mignonette Milne of Southport.
He spent most of his early life and schooling in New South Wales before leaving school aged 18 to take up a position as a clerk with the NSW railways, stationed at Parkes.
In 1940, he enlisted in the RAAF Reserve and became a leading aircraftsman before applying for Aircrew training on October 12, 1940 and posted to the Gunnery School at Evans Head in NSW.
From March 29 until November 13, 1942, Francis completed his flying training on Anson aircraft at RAAF Flying Training Schools at Amberley, Sandgate, Lowood and Temora in NSW, before qualifying for his Pilot "Wings" at No 6 Senior Flying Training School at Mallala, in South Australia, on November 15, 1942.
While undergoing his flying courses, Francis married his sweetheart Nance on April 10, 1942, when she accompanied him to South Australia.
After qualifying as a RAAF pilot, Francis received a commission as a pilot officer and was posted to New Guinea where he was attached to the multi-national No 6 Troop Carrier Squadron 1 Administrative Wing, with the United States Air Force at Dobadura.
On November 26, 1942, Francis was flying as Co-Pilot on a C-47 Dakota Transport aircraft dubbed "Swamp Rat", because on its nose, was painted a distinctive large white rat. It included the following crew members:
Pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Earl Lattier. USAAF
Co-Pilot, Pilot Officer Francis Milne. RAAF
Crew Member, Sergeant Arthur Believe. USAAF
Crew Member, T/Sergeant Joseph Paul. USAAF
The aircraft took off heading for Port Moresby, when suddenly, four miles south of Port Moresby at low altitude over Poppendetta, it was intercepted and attacked by a Japanese Zero Fighter aircraft and was last seen exploding in flames before it hit the jungle floor.
All crew were reported as missing, believed killed, before a recovery team from the USAF managed to locate a couple of the crew of the burnt-out wreckage, and confirmed the death of all members of that fateful flight.
Francis was reported as missing, believed killed, but it was never confirmed until 1989 when a RAAF team searching for war-time aircraft wrecks stumbled upon the remains of the C-47 Dakota.
Investigating the hull of the aircraft, they found the remains of the other three members of the crew that included a RAAF uniform, which indicated that the American rescue in 1942 were not too thorough in their initial search in 1942.
It was a shared decision of the United States Air Force and the Australian War Graves Commission, that because the remains of Sergeant Paul and Pilot Officer Francis Milne could not be separated and were not "individually identifiable" they would be buried together.
At a special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a 642 Acre War Cemetery containing over 400,000 military dead, the remains of Pilot Officer Francis Debenham Milne and Sergeant Joseph Paul were interred in the same gravesite on November 16, 1989, after previously laying in the New Guinea jungle wreckage of that aircraft for 47 years.
The burial party for Francis Milne was escorted by six RAAF Warrant Officers, and each Anzac Day since, members of the RAAF Embassy in Washington pay homage to Pilot Officer Francis Milne.
In 1997 Prime Minister John Howard joined the group at Arlington to pay his respects to the only Australian to be buried at America's resting place for their national heroes and war dead.
While it is a great tragedy for Francis Milne and his family, whom I am sure would have preferred him to buried in his homeland, it could also be recognised as a great honour for an Australian airman to be laid to rest in America's most hallowed ground.