The Hon Bruce Billson MP (DOC download)

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The Hon Bruce Billson MP
Interview – 6PR Nightline with Graham Mabury, 17 October 2006, 9:18 pm
Subject – Progress on forensic work to identify remains found on Christmas Island.

           GRAHAM MABURY: Waiting for us in Canberra is the Minister Assisting
                          the Minister for Defence, Bruce Billson.

                                      Few topics excite the interest of Nightline listeners
                                      like the loss of the HMAS Sydney. So as soon as we
                                      received a media release from the Hon. Bruce
                                      Billson -now he's the Minister Assisting the
                                      Minister for Defence - we knew that you'd be
                                      interested. Because it's about the body that has
                                      been recovered on Christmas Island and whether
                                      that might be the one sailor who may have been
                                      from the HMAS Sydney that was ever recovered.

                                      Well, he's working back in his Canberra office
                                      tonight and kindly agreed to talk to us. The Hon.
                                      Bruce Billson, thank you for your time.

           HON BRUCE BILLSON: You're welcome, Graham.

           GRAHAM MABURY: Bruce, this is an interesting discovery indeed and,
                          as I understand it, through an expedition led by the

           HON BRUCE BILLSON: That's right, yes, it's a fascinating story. I'm sure
                            your listeners would be aware that a great tragedy
                            happened off the West Australian coast back in
                            November 1941. The German ship the Cormoran
                            sank HMAS Sydney, and all 645 men aboard were
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                      What's not been able to be recovered is the remains
                      of people or even the location of the wreck until just
                      a couple of weeks ago, in fact. There'd been some
                      efforts by the Navy and by interested family
                      members to try and locate what was thought to be
                      some evidence from the sinking of the ship.

                      Some weeks after the sinking, a Carley float, one of
                      those life rafts, was recovered 2,400 kilometres
                      away up near Christmas Island. And on board were
                      the remains of a partially decomposed person.

                      At the time those remains were hastily buried in an
                      unmarked grave on Christmas Island. There was
                      fear at that time that the Japanese were about to
                      invade Christmas Island so any sign of military
                      presence on the island needed to be destroyed. But
                      the mystery stayed and has grown about just who
                      these remains belonged to, whether they'd come
                      from HMAS Sydney.

                      And an expedition team led by the Navy has
                      recovered those remains and we hope it will answer
                      some of the stories around this great mystery.

GRAHAM MABURY: I understand it is a complete skeleton?

HON BRUCE BILLSON: Yes, it is. What occurred, because of the remains
                 in the Carley Float that were found about three
                 months after the ship had been sunk, they were
                 partially decomposed, they were interned in a rather
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                      unusually shaped coffin which reflected the position
                      of the body when it was recovered.

                      And based on that information, the approximate age
                      of the individual, accounts of people that recall
                      those events including a Perth residents. One of the
                      Perth residents, who was a very young boy on
                      Christmas Island at that time has provided
                      invaluable advice on where these remains were

                      They have now been recovered, carefully collected
                      and returned to Sydney where they're undergoing
                      further forensic examination.

GRAHAM MABURY: The other thing that's fascinating is that apparently
               there's been a bullet discovered in the body?

HON BRUCE BILLSON: That's right. That's something we didn't expect,
                 Graham. We'd heard stories and legends about
                 these remains: the fact that just weeks later the
                 Japanese did invade the island some time after the
                 vast majority of Europeans had fled. So some of
                 the records surrounding these remains were, let's
                 say, a little bit thin and things were hastily done
                 because of the fear of the invasion.

                      Some of the stories, though, pointed to remains that
                      had perfect teeth, that were wearing a fabric that
                      could have been Navy overalls bleached by the sun.
                      But what's happened when we've recovered these
                      remains we've found rather distinct dental
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                      characteristics which we're hopeful might assist the
                      identification process. And, to our great surprise, a
                      bullet wound in the skull and a small calibre round
                      that's been recovered, and that's also undergoing
                      detailed analysis.

GRAHAM MABURY: And some press-studs, too, I understand?

HON BRUCE BILLSON: Yes, we've got some press-studs and some fabric
                 that was attached to them, some eyelets - you know
                 the rings that you see in fabric. We think at this
                 stage - and we must be cautious, but we think at this
                 stage those items are consistent with the overalls
                 sailors were wearing at that time.

                      We've got other samples of the timber and the nails
                      that were used, they're being analysed as well, and
                      hopefully we can piece together a bit of a story.
                      Because there's been some conjecture about
                      whether - from the area where the Sydney was
                      struck by the German raider whether a float could
                      have travelled nearly 2,500 kilometres up towards
                      Christmas Island.

                      There's been Senate inquiries, there's been earlier
                      investigation, but this remarkable information we
                      got from a Perth resident has helped us to locate
                      them. Mr Say Kit Foo is a resident of Perth who
                      was a very young boy at the time this float was
                      recovered. And he remembered the area, he used to
                      play near that area. He, and the work of Brian
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                      O'Shannassy a former sailer who had a photograph
                      of the site shortly after the burial.

                      We thought with that new information we'd
                      instigate a new search and it's proven to be very
                      successful thus far.

GRAHAM MABURY: Well you're obviously increasingly confident it is
               the body from 1942, but of course the likelihood of
               positively identifying an actual person remains low,
               I guess?

HON BRUCE BILLSON: Yeah, it is a long shot. What we do have is about
                 half of the medical records that were created when
                 the men on board HMAS Sydney enlisted. So they
                 were some years old compared to the time of the
                 sinking, they're not complete. Sadly a lot of the
                 material that would help with identification is
                 believed to have gone down with the ship.

                      But we think, with this unusual dental
                      characteristics, that that may help, although it will
                      depend a great deal on just - if we've got records of
                      the share of records we actually have, whether they
                      can help point us to some information. There's a bit
                      of work still to be done.

GRAHAM MABURY: And that work will be done by the Australian War

HON BRUCE BILLSON: Well there's a combination of experts. We are
                 blessed in this country to have some of the world's
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                     best forensic pathologists, forensic orthodontists,
                     they are helping with the work of identifying them
                     on the basis of the skeletal remains and some of
                     those dental characteristics.

                     The issues relating to the round itself - the bullet -
                     which is thought to have been from a low-velocity
                     weapon, possibly a hand gun, and even some of the
                     other items that have been recovered, the War
                     Memorial is assisting with that analysis and we'll
                     see what we can find out.

                     So the work's ongoing but this has been quite a
                     significant find and hopefully the mystery that's
                     been around now for over 60 years we can maybe
                     answer some of the unanswered questions.

GRAHAM MABURY: Yeah, hopefully. I mean over here in Geraldton, of
               course, we've got the magnificent memorial to the
               Sydney, it's got a huge amount of interest on the
               west coast. And, Hon. Bruce Billson, thank you for
               your time tonight.
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HON BRUCE BILLSON: You're welcome, Graham, and best
                 wishes to your listeners.

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