AFP Forensics assist in recovery of WWII soldier remains in PNG

AFP Forensic experts deployed to Papua New Guinea (PNG) have assisted with the retrieval and recovery of human remains, personal items and artefacts of Australian World War II soldiers from a remote burial site.

Three members of the highly specialised AFP Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology (FAA) cohort supported the Australian Defence Force (ADF) operation to recover the remains of Australian soldiers who died between August and October 1942 during the Kokoda Campaign. The recovery operation was approved by PNG authorities.

AFP Forensic members travelled to PNG with the ADF’s Unrecovered War Casualties – Army (UWC-A) unit which is comprised of investigators, forensic specialists and archaeologists. The operation commenced in June, 2023.

During the War, 65 Australian soldiers were originally buried in the cemetery at Templeton’s Crossing on the Kokoda Track. At the end of the War, their remains were relocated to the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby and the cemetery was disestablished.

The Templeton’s Crossing cemetery, which is only accessible on foot or by helicopter, was thought to be empty until 2018 when a landowner spotted some remains.

Two AFP FAA members worked with UWC-A to clear and exhume all 65 graves during six-week field operation. The field team comprised of UWC-A and other ADF members, forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists.

The partial remains of 15 soldiers were recovered and conveyed to the Bomana War Cemetery morgue in Port Moresby. Artefacts and personal items were found in more than half of the graves and these included cutlery, jewellery and part of a bayonet.

One AFP FAA member assisted ADF forensic specialists with the examination and recording of the remains and artefacts during a two-week phase in Port Moresby.

Investigations into the artefacts and remains are ongoing and it is expected these will be interred at the Bomana War Cemetery when investigations are finalised.

AFP FAA cohort members are trained and experienced in a variety of examinations including war crime investigations, disaster victim identification and scene work where aged human remains have been located.

AFP Crime Scenes Team Leader Sergeant Amy van Bilsen said the AFP was proud to assist the Defence with the retrieval and recovery of the remains of Australian soldiers in Papua New Guinea.

“We recognise the historical significance of this work, and we are honoured to have supported the Australian Defence Force to locate, recover and examine the partial remains of Australian soldiers involved in World War II,” Sergeant van Bilsen said.

“The AFP FAA cohort is a highly specialised capability that is essential to the AFP’s operations in Australia and offshore. These specialists have assisted with complex crime scene searches, anthropological assessments, burial excavations and exhumations, along with identifying human remains.”

Sergeant van Bilsen said the team had provided crucial assistance recovering and identifying human remains on behalf of law enforcement agencies around the world and international bodies such as the United Nations.

“These cohort members have contributed to terrorism investigations, large-scale accidents, emergencies, natural disasters and criminal acts.”

Manager UWC-A Mr Andrew Bernie led the recovery operation and said the cooperation between the participants was critical to its success.

“Defence is committed to finding, recovering and identifying Australian servicemen and women, and in this work at Templeton’s Crossing we have been able to pool our combined expertise with the AFP,” Mr Bernie said.

“Together with our consultant archaeologists led by Professor Marc Oxenham and AFP Forensics we’ve worked side-by-side in a challenging operational setting to recover these remains and now we can lay them to rest.”

The AFP FAA cohort comprises of a group of multi-disciplinary forensic members based across Australia. The members specialise in a variety of elements associated with archaeology and anthropology, including forensic osteology, cranio-facial reconstruction and human anatomy. The cohort works collaboratively with internal Forensic disciplines and external forensic experts.

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