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Rundle, Keith Mason (1913–1986)

by Doug Hurst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Keith Mason Rundle (1913-1986), air force officer, was born on 20 March 1913 at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born Arthur Stanley Rundle, traveller, and his English-born wife Mabel Danielle, nee Bray.  Keith won a scholarship to Camberwell Grammar School but left in 1938 to join Vacuum Oil Co. Pty Ltd, where he met his future wife, Thelma Jean Brereton, a stenographer.  They were married at St Mark’s Church of England, Camberwell, on 21 November 1942.

Keen on sports and ruggedly handsome, Rundle well met the popular image of an adventurer, but in reality was seriously restricted by chronic asthma.  Unfit for flying, he nevertheless joined the Royal Australian Air Force in July 1940 for administrative duties and was soon working with RAAF Casualty, a unit that obtained details of deceased or missing airmen, notified next of kin and managed personal effects, deferred pay, pensions and the like.  Commissioned as a pilot officer in 1942, he served most of World War II in northern Australian bases but was working in Casualty again when the war ended.  A huge task lay ahead as some thousand deceased and missing airmen were unaccounted for in the South-West Pacific Area.  In November 1945 Rundle was put in charge of the RAAF Searcher Party in New Guinea.  Setting up a mobile base in the converted trawler Merrygum, he began work at Rabaul, a major wartime Japanese base.  There he discovered a mass grave of thirty Australians and Americans and arranged proper burials.  It was the first of many gruesome finds and helped to explain why so few downed airmen had survived.

With the assistance of a 'Book of Wrecks', carefully compiled by Casualty during the war, Rundle moved systematically through the area, using a number of teams to inspect wrecks and interview local people.  Thousands of kilometres of swamps, jungle and rugged mountains were covered, often on foot, or by canoe or raft, seeking out wrecked aircraft and their lost crews.  By 1948 the teams had located and investigated over two hundred crash sites.  Their findings showed that while many surviving airmen tried to walk to safety, often with help from local people, most were eventually captured and—despite later denials by the Japanese—were executed.  Throughout, Rundle led by example, wading swamps, slogging though jungle and scaling steep terrain, always clearly in charge although one of the team.

Promoted to squadron leader in 1950, Rundle was posted to other duties but continued to visit the Territory of Papua and New Guinea to locate and identify missing aircraft.  He was appointed MBE in 1950 and OBE in 1966.  In May 1967 he retired as a wing commander, with a reputation for competence and approachability.  His main legacy, however, rests with the hundreds of cases he and his team solved from the Book of Wrecks and the many families who, as a result, found out what had happened to their men.  For some years he ran a service station at Townsville; survived by his wife and their son, he died there on 13 June 1986 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Eames, The Searchers, 1999
  • K. Rundle personal file (RAAF Discharge Personnel Service Records, Queanbeyan, New South Wales)
  • private information

Citation details

Doug Hurst, 'Rundle, Keith Mason (1913–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rundle-keith-mason-14189/text25201, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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