Chris Johnston April 14, 2012
They thought he would be forever lost fathoms deep in the English Channel, in body at first and then over time in spirit only. But he wasn't. The last traces of Melbourne's World War II fighter pilot Bill Smith were found in his wrecked Spitfire on land, five metres under a French farmer's paddock.
This was last year. Filmmakers were looking for another Spitfire - the devilishly fast, single-seat British warplane made famous during the Battle of Britain. Instead they found the bones of Sergeant William James Smith and the bones of his aircraft, 70 years missing.
Brother Bert Smith, 84, is his only surviving direct relative. He lives with his wife June in suburban Mentone. He explains that they found a dogtag in the ruins with his beloved brother's name on it but attached to the dogtag were two other things: a lucky threepence coin, and a tiny St Christopher pendant.
St Christopher was the young Christ's guardian in Catholic stories. When Bert Smith found out that his brother wasn't lost at sea but discovered on earth, after all this time, he was stunned.
''The family always thought, and the RAAF always thought, that he was in the Channel,'' he says. ''I thought perhaps one day a fishing trawler would hook up his plane and he would be in it.''
On Monday Bert and June and 14 family members, including children (they have nine), grandchildren, nieces, nephews and grand nieces and nephews, go to northern France for Bill Smith's re-interment. It happens next Thursday at Cassel cemetery with full military honours.
It will be a burial with ''the dignity and respect he deserves,'' Air Vice-Marshal Mark Skidmore of the RAAF, said. Representatives from the Australian and French governments will also attend.
Bert Smith is doing the eulogy for a brother who was 10 years older and a ''father figure'' in the true sense. ''I'm sure I will cry,'' says Bert. ''I am that sort of person. But I owe it to myself and Bill to hold up and give a good address and make sure he goes off in the right way.''
Bill went to war in 1941. He was 23 and had been working at the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, like his father Samuel and his mother Freda had done. Bert was 13; the pair, and a sister, had been living together in a house in Thornbury.
Their parents lived up near Kinglake at Wallaby Creek. Bill had come to the city to board at Melbourne High School and stayed on when he left. That's when Bert joined him and started going to Northcote High School. He remembers driving around in his brother's old Whippet car to watch Collingwood play at Victoria Park. Bill looked out for him and guided him, gave him confidence and knowledge. Old family photos show a relationship between a mentor and a younger man eager to learn.
''He was a definitely a person who tried to guide us. Our father was a quiet man. Bill was an older brother in all senses. I never think of him in any other way than as a handsome fighter pilot.''
When he left for war Bert stayed in the Thornbury house by himself, catching the bus to school, cooking for himself and sometimes riding his bike the 50 kilometres to Wallaby Creek. ''People don't quite believe me when I tell them that,'' he says. His brother enlisted on Remembrance Day in 1940 and started in Britain with 452 squadron in late 1941 and 457 squadron, also Spitfire-equipped, in April 1942.
A month later he was ambushed by a mob of German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters while helping escort some Allied bombers over northern France. There was a dogfight; he went down from 20,000 feet. He was on the verge of being commissioned as an officer.
Then he was gone. The family now feel like he has come back, in a strange way, to be seen off right.
''I'm feeling very proud to be able to do this for him,'' says Bill. ''Put this thing to bed. Where we know where he is.''