Darwin could become Australia’s “Mecca” for aviation archeologists and enthusiasts nationally and internationally, according to a Territory maritime archaeologist.
Dr Silvano Jung, a PhD graduate with Charles Darwin University, said he believed that as Territorians prepared to commemorate the bombing of Darwin, it was important for people to recognise the rich underwater aviation history right on our doorstep.
“Darwin’s East Arm is quite literally an underwater flying boat museum,” he said.
In 2009, Dr Jung completed a six-year study of the Japanese air attack in the Battle of Broome, which killed more than 100 people and left 15 flying boats on the seabed. His study, one of the most comprehensive studies of the World War II air attack, provided closure to the air raid survivors by linking them to the flying boats that brought them to Australia 69 years ago.
In his earlier Masters thesis entitled: 'Wings beneath the sea: the aviation archaeology of Catalina flying boats in Darwin Harbour', he makes predictions regarding the then missing wreck site.
Dr Jung said he believed that the discovery of a rare PBY-4 Catalina flying boat in 2008 during the Inpex Environmental Impact Study was, for aviation enthusiasts, the equivalent of discovering HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran.
“The United States Navy commissioned the production of 33 PBY-4s in 1937. Only two of these aircraft survived the Japanese onslaught and reached Australia. One of these was converted into a houseboat on the Murray River called ‘Paddlecat’. The fate of the other is unknown, but it is exciting that we have two confirmed wrecksites in East Arm, in the archaeological record” he said.
“Three men were on board, servicing one of the machines: Ed Aeschilman, Tom Anderson and Herb Casey. They dived overboard when bullets from strafing Zeros riddled their Catalina.
“All of the Catalina flying boats recorded to have been lost, in East Arm are still there, and we have the complete set which is extremely rare.”
So rare are the submerged aircraft that no other complete PBY-4s survive as either flying examples or as museum objects in the world.
Dr Jung said the site represented a huge tourism opportunity, perhaps as part of an underwater heritage trial at East Arm.
“The site is currently closed to the public, but it is hoped that after detailed surveys and perhaps an archaeological excavation to formally identify the site, it will be opened to the general diving community,” he said.
“It should be remembered, however, that the site is in pristine condition, with moveable objects presenting too great a temptation to some 'brass-fevered' bubble blowers among us.”
Already, vandals have hit the wreck and have stolen invaluable artefacts.
Dr Jung said that the current interim conservation order surrounding the site was insufficient in both recognition and protection.
“Ideally, automatic protection should extend to all of the US Navy Catalinas in Darwin Harbour, under provisions of Admiralty Law, but the fate of all the Catalina wrecks in Darwin Harbour, including the three Royal Australian Air Force wrecksites, is uncertain,” he said.