In 1972 a group of soldiers on board a Royal Australian Air Force helicopter were flying over a remote part of Papua New Guinea. Suddenly, they detected a large, partially submerged object in a stretch of wetlands, and when they flew closer, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing…
Encompassing a plethora of Pacific islands just north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is home to some of the world’s most exotic wilderness. Its many varied ecosystems include lush tropical rainforests, rugged mountain chains, volcanoes, savannahs and swamps.
And the object that the Australian soldiers had spotted was in a particularly remote, crocodile-infested swamp known as Agaimbo. Indeed, one of the reasons why the object in question was so incredibly well-preserved is that it was in such an inaccessible location.
The mystery object was a World War II bomber, and thanks to coverage in the media, it earned the nickname “Swamp Ghost.” What’s more, over the years it came to be regarded as a kind of holy grail of military aviation history – romantic, well-preserved and inaccessible. “It was widely considered that it was impossible to salvage this airplane,” aviation archaeologist Fred Hagen told Southern California Public Radio in 2010.
Enter David Tallichet Jr., a Dallas-born World War II veteran and entrepreneur. Aside from having built dozens of aviation-themed restaurants, Tallichet had a side business collecting and restoring military aircraft. In fact, at one stage he owned more than 120 planes, including a B-25 Mitchell bomber and a P-40 Tomahawk.
By coincidence, Tallichet’s military career had included co-piloting the same type of four-engine bomber as the one discovered in Papua New Guinea. And so in the 1980s Hagen and Tallichet began a salvage operation that would take decades to complete. “It was our greatest dream,” Hagen told South California Public Radio. “Because for some reason it captured the imagination of people from around the world…”
The behemoth plane was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force B-17E Flying Fortress. According to lore, its name was chosen by Boeing after remarks made by a Seattle Times journalist on the day of an early test flight in July 1935. “Why, it’s a flying fortress,” he had reportedly declared.
Despite spending decades in the open air, Swamp Ghost had been remarkably well preserved at the crash site. And when Tallichet and Hagen eventually excavated it, they became the proud owners of a piece of aviation history. Indeed, it was one of just four B-17Es in the world to have been recovered.
The Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii actually later described it as “arguably the world’s only intact and unretired World War II-era B-17E bomber, a one-of-a-kind example of an aircraft that played an indispensable role in winning WWII. And it is the only B-17 in the world that still bears its battle scars.”
The history of the B-17 dates to the early 1930s. Roosevelt’s drive to modernize the U.S. military included commissioning a new generation of bombers that could carry sizeable payloads and service remote bases in Hawaii, Panama and Alaska. As a result, the prototype B-17 was designed by Boeing for a competition in 1935.
Over the years, the design of the plane evolved to incorporate engineering improvements. Finally, in September 1941 the first B-17Es became operational. And by the end of the war, a total of some 12,731 B-17 planes had served, including 8,600 of the final B-17G model.
Swamp Ghost had been assigned to fly into Pearl Harbor from San Francisco just one day before the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. But as fate would have it, the aircraft did not fly with the Kangaroo Squadron on that day. Instead, it went on to serve in some of the earliest American bombing missions of WWII. Then disaster struck.
On January 23, 1942, the Japanese invaded Rabaul, a township on New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea, threatening Allied bases in the area. A month later, on February 23, Swamp Ghost was dispatched to bomb Japanese ships in Rabaul’s harbour. However, things did not go to plan.
Piloted by Captain Frederick “Fred” C. Eaton Jr., the plane began experiencing problems when its crew attempted to open the bomb bay doors. The doors became stuck, and Eaton was forced to circle the enormous Japanese freighter that was their target. They managed to drop the bombs on the second pass, but by then they’d drawn fire from Japanese fighter planes and anti-aircraft batteries.
A skirmish ensued in which the Flying Fortress claimed three out of a dozen enemy fighters. However, its port wing was then punctured by a round of flak. Fortunately, the flak did not explode, but by now the plane was leaking fuel and would be forced to make a crash landing.
Unable to reach the Papua New Guinean capital at Port Moresby, Eaton was approaching the Owen Stanley Mountains when he saw what he thought was a large wheat field in the lowlands of Oro Province. In fact, though, the “wheat” was ten-foot-high swamp grass.
Miraculously, the plane landed without the crew sustaining any major injuries. However, they were now stranded in the middle of nowhere. So, for days they wandered, starving and exhausted, through the remote wilderness of Papua New Guinea, ravaged by mosquitos and cooked by the sun.
All of them eventually contracted malaria. Fortunately, though, a helpful native eventually guided them to the safety of his village. The crew were nursed back to health, and after being reunited with U.S. forces, they were almost immediately dispatched on a new tour of duty. Meanwhile, the downed Flying Fortress was forgotten… until the helicopter flyover in 1972.
Hagen’s salvage operation was eventually completed in 2006. What’s more, four years later permission was finally granted to allow Swamp Ghost to return to the United States. It subsequently received its first public viewing in Long Beach, California, and among the guests were family of the original crew.
Since 2013 the plane has been in the hands of the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The museum plans to restore the bomber and display it in a hangar on Ford Island, an islet within the harbor. And while the costs may exceed $5 million, that is a modest price for preserving a national treasure.