'It was just devastation in the family'

16 December 2019 by Claire Hunter

Sergeant Melville Beckman Tyrrell

Sergeant Melville Beckman Tyrrell. Photo: Courtesy Susan Pearson

Sergeant Melville Beckman Tyrrell was 21 years old when he and nine others went missing aboard Catalina aircraft A24-50 during the Second World War.

Almost 76 years later, his grieving family would finally learn what happened to the Catalina that failed to return from its mission in September 1943.

For Tyrrell’s niece, Susan Pearson, and her family, the pain of not knowing what happened to “Uncle Micky” was unbearable.

“It was just devastation in the family,” she said.

“My mother and her sister talked about him all the time, and my grandfather never got over the fact that he was the one that allowed my Uncle Micky to go flying …

“Apparently my Uncle Micky was on one of the very last ships that left at the fall of Singapore and when he came home he was desperate to join the flying section so that he could get back up there and do whatever he could to change the war.

“He was already in the air force, but he begged his dad to sign the papers to let him fly. Finally my grandfather signed the papers, and it was only a couple of months later that he went out there on this aircraft and never came back, so my grandfather never forgave himself.

Melville Beckman Tyrrell

Sergeant Melville Beckman Tyrrell. Photo: Courtesy Susan Pearson

“My mom said that he used to say all the time that he should never have signed those papers, but it was just one of those horrible things that happened to a lot of families during the war.

“All their lives, they wondered what had happened. Had he been captured by the Japanese? Was he tortured? And all of these horrible things.

“They had all these years of worry, and they never really got over it.

“He was the favourite brother, and he used to bring presents to my mom and her sister, Iris, and write to them all the time.”

Sergeant Melville Beckman Tyrrell

Melville Beckman Tyrrell was a keen horseman. Photo: Courtesy Susan Pearson

Today, Susan still treasures the letters that her uncle wrote to her mother, Maud.

“My mom kept everything that was important to her so we’ve got all his letters in an old blue folder,” Susan said.

One of the letters was written on the 7th of October 1942, just days after Tyrrell’s 21st birthday.

“The 21st birthday did not go off too well,” he wrote.  “Strange as it seems, it was not until Monday that I realised that the 4th was Sunday. Nevertheless, I’m little worried, one birthday is as good as another to me.”

“Of course, he never had another birthday,” Susan said.

Catalinas

On 2 September 1943, Tyrrell was on board Catalina A24-50 as it took off from Cairns on a sea-mining operation to Sorong in what was then Dutch New Guinea. The aircraft landed at Groote Eylandt to refuel before taking off again that afternoon, and nothing more was ever heard of it.

“It was just awful,” Susan said. “We’ve still got the telegram that came when they said that he was missing, presumed dead.

“My Aunt Iris would have been about 16 when the guy arrived to deliver the telegram from the post office. She didn’t realise the importance of it at all, and had no idea what it could be, so she carried it around in her pocket all day until my grandfather came home from work, and then my grandfather just totally broke down.”

Joe and Anna Tyrrell with the four children they had at that time; Ken, Melville, Maud and Joey.

Joe and Anna Tyrrell with their children Joey, Ken, Melville, and Maud. Photo: Courtesy Susan Pearson

The ten crewmembers were reported as missing, but there was speculation that they had been captured and executed by Japanese soldiers. A wing commander in their squadron had heard from Kai Islanders about the capture and execution of seven Australians, but further investigation revealed that the executed personnel were not Australian, but American.

“It was really terrible,” Susan said.

“It took over three years to get the letter that said they were presumed dead, so for all that time, my poor grandfather and his family were hoping beyond hope that he had amnesia, that he was wandering in the jungle somewhere, and that he would eventually be found.”

Catalinas
Catalina

Susan’s mother would often dream of running into him near her home in Springwood in the Blue Mountains.

“It’s only about 20 minutes from the RAAF Base at Richmond and she used to dream that she would see him sitting there,” Susan said. “I used to think, poor mom, here she is – 85, 87, 88 years old – and still hoping that she’ll run into him one day in town. It was heartbreaking.”

Susan’s mother passed away in January 2015, shortly before her 92nd birthday, never knowing what had happened to her older brother.

The Tyrrell family

Melville Tyrrell, left, with his four siblings: Iris (on the bike), Ken, Joey and Maud. Photo: Courtesy Susan Pearson

Three years later, the ruins of the missing Catalina were found on top of a small mountain in dense rainforest after a joint RAAF/Indonesia Air Force reconnaissance mission to locate aircraft wreckage that had been discovered near Fakfak in the province of West Papua.

“There was a feeling of absolute jubilation that after all these years of not knowing, finally they had been found,” Susan said.

“My uncle’s picture has been on the wall in our house our entire lives, and when we got the phone call, we were just absolutely shocked. We couldn't believe it. The whole family was overwhelmed.

“I was away on a cruise at the time and I cried for three days.

“It was such a big relief to our family to finally find out and to know now what happened.

“It’s not a mystery anymore, and I just wish that they had been found when my mom and her sister and brothers were still alive. They would have been overjoyed at the news; it is what they had prayed for their whole lives.”

Last Post Ceremony

Susan had contacted the Department of Defence six months before the discovery was officially announced in 2019. 

“We hadn’t heard anything in the 30 years since my aunt had received the letter about the seven men who were captured and beheaded and I thought I’m just going to ring to see if there’s anything else we can find out after all these years,” she said. 

“This very nice man – Wing Commander Greg Williams – answered the phone and when I had finished what I wanted to say, I just knew that he was shocked at me ringing. What I didn’t realise was that they had already discovered the aircraft; he just couldn’t tell me yet, and so when I rang him out of the blue, he couldn’t believe it.”

Members of Tyrrell's family at the Last Post Ceremony

Susan Pearson, second from right, with her husband Robert, and her sister Patti Hebert and her husband Robert Hackett at the Last Post Ceremony at the Memorial.

The Last Post Ceremony

Susan Pearson laying a wreath with her cousin Melville "Mick" Lawson. Lawson was named after their Uncle Micky and is wearing his uncle's original medals.

Wing Commander Greg Williams would later share Tyrrell’s story at a Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on the 76th anniversary of Tyrrell’s death.

Susan wore replicas of her uncle’s medals and laid a wreath that she had made in his honour.

“To have this wonderful tribute to him is just fantastic,” she said.

“He never had a funeral, so to think that we can finally honour him is just so special.

“There could be no greater honour for anyone who has given up their life for their country.

“And it’s just lovely that after all these years, the whole story can now be told.”

The Roll of Honour