Almost 65 years after they died when their 31 Squadron fighter bomber was shot down, the remaining body parts of three New Zealand airmen have been reunited in their graves.

The three died when their Air Force Grumman Avenger was shot down by the Japanese over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea in June, 1944.

The bodies of Flight Lieutenant Charles Gordon Gladstone Prior, Flying Officer Rodney Earnest Clayton and Warrant Officer Theo Raymond Scarlett were found by an Australian war graves unit two years later and buried.

They were later exhumed and buried at Bourail in New Caledonia, said the Air Force's principal chaplain Wing Commander Ross Falconer.

But in 2001 an American military unit found the crash site again and believed it was an American Avenger and contained American bodies.

Only a few body parts were found at the crash site and they were taken to a laboratory in Hawaii.

There, closer inspection, including DNA testing, revealed the body parts were from the New Zealanders who had died in the 1944 crash.

Mr Falconer said relatives of two of the three dead airmen were tracked down after the Chief of Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Graham Lintott, ordered that they be treated with the honour and dignity they deserved.

The remains were returned to New Zealand and then taken to Bourail to be buried with the bodies at the New Zealand Military Cemetery.

For Mr Falconer, the return to Bourail with the body parts was a unique experience. His father also flew Avengers in the same squadron and trained with the dead airmen.

His log book showed he was flying on another raid the day the Avenger was shot down.

Mr Falconer said the burial of the last body parts gave a sense of completion.

- NZPA