Members of the Featherstone family have completed the early-morning
drive from Colac to Bundoora to honour the memory of one of their own –
the Old Paradian
and Flight Sergeant Dennis Geoffrey Featherstone - who lost his life
in the Second World War two months to the day before Japan’s formal
Betty Featherstone, whose husband of 58 years Brian was Dennis’ older brother, came to the College to view the World War II Honour Board bearing Dennis’ name. Joining her were daughters Elizabeth and Jennifer, and granddaughter Zarah, all of whom were photographed by the board.
The Featherstone ladies came carrying precious keepsakes – a wartime portrait of Dennis, his miniature medals and his Royal Australian Air Force flying log book carrying his final notation “BOMBED BALIKPAPAN A/A POSITIONS. DIRECT HITS. 9.50”
Beneath that notation is a posting by the 24th Squadron’s commanding officer, which reads: “Missing believed killed on 2nd Jul 45 over Balikpapan area”.
The Featherstones were also able to share precious details of Dennis’ all-too-short life, which began with his birth in Box Hill on October 22, 1925.
Dennis was the third child of Clarence and Constance Featherstone, who had migrated to Australia not long before his birth. Dennis’ elder sibling Brian was born in Ireland, his sister Margaret (known as “Peggy”) in London and both lived to old age.
Young Dennis attended Our Holy Redeemer Primary School in Surrey Hills and St John’s Marist College in Glenferrie before earning his sub-intermediate certificate at the “Old Bluestone Pile” (CBC Parade East Melbourne) in 1941. A keen sportsman, Dennis can also be found photographed in his creams with teammates of the Gorman XI in the December 1941 edition of The Paradian.
The following year, and perhaps motivated by his father’s example (Clarence having served in the British Navy during World War I), Dennis sought to enlist with the Royal Australian Navy. He was, however, rejected, according to family legend, due to him having lost a toe beneath a moving tram from which he had jumped.
As such, Dennis became a member of the Air Training Corps, part of the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, and commenced duties as a junior inspector at the aircraft manufacturer, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. In late 1943, less than a week after having turned 18, he was accepted for active service with the RAAF.
In August 1944, after extensive training and regular promotion, F/Sgt Featherstone received his air gunner’s badge. Reports indicated he was a good student, “creating a distinctly favourable impression, and being quick to learn, dependable and self-assured”. It was recognised early that with age and experience he would be good officer material.
F/Sgt Featherstone undertook a number of training courses before being posted to No.24 Squadron in December 1944. Operating from bases in the Northern Territory, members of the 24th completed bombing and anti-shipping strikes against the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies before deploying to Morotai Island and then Balikpapan to support the OBOE Operations.
Between May 11 and July 21, 1945, the Australia 1 Corps attacked Japanese forces occupying the island of Borneo. On July 2, a B-24 Liberator carrying F/Sgt Featherstone, 10 fellow crew members and two military observers failed to return. The men were all reported as missing, but news soon filtered back that the plane had been seen crashing near Balikpapan after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.
It is here that Betty picked up the story with its cruel twist.
“The crew, at take-off, were due to leave. One, a wireless operator, actually left and was already on his way home (to Australia). The others committed to one last job . . . no problem,” Betty said.
“They went spotting over Balikpapan when they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. The wireless operator, who I met years later, never got over it.”
Investigation of the crash site revealed all on board the Liberator had been killed on impact, with only three identified by their tags.
F/Sgt Featherstone’s remains were identified by his engraved wrist watch.
Betty never met Dennis, as she was first introduced to her future husband Brian four years after his untimely passing. But she still managed to glean a few precious tales.
“Brian always said that when he enlisted, Dennis was a schoolboy in short pants . . . and when he came back six years later, Dennis was dead,” Betty said.
“There is another story here. Dennis and the 24th Squadron were based at Morotai, while Brian’s 7th Division were staging in preparation for the Balikpapan landings. Now Brian knew Dennis was on Morotai and sneaked across without leave. That happened a fortnight before Dennis was killed and although Brian got to see him he never really got over his brother’s death.”
The remains of those who perished, 19 year-old F/Sgt Dennis Geoffrey Featherstone included, were buried nearby. After the war, they were exhumed and reburied in Labuan Cemetery on the coast of north-west Borneo.
At Labuan, the epitaph chiselled into the headstone at F/Sgt Featherstone’s grave reads – “And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side”.