The Swamp Ghost

The Swamp Ghost

The Swamp Ghost was the nickname given to a WWII B17E bomber wreck that was located inland of Dyke Ackland Bay, in the Agaiembo swamp, in today’s Oro Province of PNG. The wreck rested approximately halfway along the commercial flight path between Popondetta and Tufi. Before relating my involvement with the Swamp Ghost I will outline a brief history of how it got there in the first place.

The aircraft, a USAF B17E, serial No.41-2446, took off from Garbutt Airfield (Townsville, Australia) in the early morning hours of 14 February 1942 as part of a nine-bomber raid. Their mission was to bomb shipping in Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour, and return via Port Moresby’s 7-Mile airfield to refuel before flying back to Townsville. Only five bombers made it to Rabaul, the others aborting.

Over the target, Cpt. Fredrick (Fred) C Eaton (ASN 0395143), the bomber’s pilot had to make a second pass due to a problem with the bomb bay, but finally dropped onto a freighter of 10,000 tons. On this second run, an anti­-aircraft shell passed through the right wing without exploding. Results of the bombing were hard to observe due to clouds.

Off the target, the bomber was intercepted by A5M Claudes and A6M Zeros over Rabaul, and manoeuvred to escape them. The tail gunner, Sgt John V Hall, ASN 96710161, claimed one Zero shot down at 24,000 feet, after firing a burst of 400 rounds from a range of 200–300 yards. Waist gunner, Sgt Crawford, ASN unknown, claimed two more. Their plane was hit by the attackers’ 7.7 mm and 20 mm fire.

After the battle, they flew as far as the north coast of New Guinea, before running short on fuel. Eaton force-landed in a kunai field with the wheels up. He thought it was dry ground but, actually, it was a swamp. As the bomber touched down, it turned slightly, settling in the swampy ground. The crew walked away from the crash site unhurt, but utterly lost in this remote location.

Before leaving the wreck, Bombardier Sgt Richard E Oliver removed the top secret Norden bomb sight, shot it with his pistol and threw it into the swamp. The rest of the B-17 was left intact and undisturbed. The entire crew departed the crash site together, initially towing one of the life rafts with equipment, but soon abandoned it due to the swamp and thick kunai grass.

Lost, the crew pushed ahead for days and, at one point, suffering from heat exhaustion and fatigue they considered splitting up, but decided to stay together. Finally, they spotted a native Papua New Guinean and were taken to his village where they were fed and spent the night.

After the crash Australian Resident Magistrate, Alan Champion, at Buna had been told a B17 had gone down in his area and was told to search for the crew. He departed from Gona in a mission launch and searched the area near Oro Bay and the Musa River. Unable to find them, he called into a village and found the crew in their care. The crew of nine were too numerous for his boat and required him to borrow a canoe from the village, to tow everyone back to Buna.

At Buna the crew waited for two weeks until MV Matura arrived and transported them from Oro Bay bound for Port Moresby. During their journey the vessel called into Samarai Island and Abau Island before arriving at Port Moresby, on 1 April 1942. In total, it was thirty-six days since their crash landing. Afterwards, the crew was sent to Australia and recovered in hospital, then returned to flying duty. The crew were:

Pilot: Capt. Frederick (Fred) C Eaton Jnr (0395142)
Co-Pilot: Capt. Henry M ‘Hotfoot’ Harlow (0398714)
Navigator: Lt George B Munroe Jnr (0412187)
Bombardier: Sgt Richard E Oliver (6578837)
Engineer/Top Turret: TSgt CA LeMieux (6558901)
Radio/Gunner: Sgt Howard A Sorensen (6581180)
Waist Gunner: Sgt William E Schwartz (6913702)
Waist Gunner: TSgt R Crawford (ASN unknown)
Tail Gunner: SSgt John V Hall (6710161)

The wreck was ‘rediscovered’ in 1972 with the help of an Australian army unit carrying out exercises in the area using an Iroquois helicopter. The Swamp Ghost nickname was coined by media articles and visitors to the wreck. It is not the aircraft’s wartime nickname. The plane was nearly impossible to locate during the ‘wet season’, due to the high kunai grass and being half submerged in swamp water. Few visitors and no grass fires kept the plane in excellent condition

For many years the wreck remained seldom visited and undisturbed apart for my brief visit in 1972, and until 1989 when the US Travis Air Force Base Heritage Centre began to recover it. It was salvaged, though illegally in 2006, and moved to Lae wharf where it lay waiting for permission to be transferred to the United States.

By February 2010 the wreck had been released by PNG authorities and taken to the United States. It’s final resting place is Hangar 79 at the Pacific Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor.1

My involvement with the Ghost started in 1972 when I was a patrol officer posted in the Northern District (Oro Province) at Popondetta. The wreck was well known to all of us living and working in the Province at the time. It was visible most times when one flew between Popondetta and Tufi. I had flown over the wreck many times, and had always wanted to visit it on the ground. Although many of my admin patrols took me near the crash site, I never had the time or resources to actually visit the wreck.

My chance finally presented itself in early 1972 when an Australian army unit was carrying out exercises in the area using an Iroquois helicopter. After a few drinks with the chopper pilots and some of the army unit officers in the Popondetta club one night I was able to persuade them to take me, and them, by chopper to visit the crash site. Thus the ‘rediscovery’ and birth of the Swamp Ghost.

When we visited the wreck, and up to well after 1975, the plane was still in incredible condition. All its interior equipment was pre-WWII Air Corps issue. Even the belted .50 calibre ammunition were manufactured in 1933, 1935 and an occasional 1938 round. Airframe corrosion was negligible and no damage aside from bent propellers during crash landing, and some broken Perspex glass. Radios, compasses and guns were still in place. These are depicted by the author of the book, Pacific Aircraft Wrecks, after his visit to the wreck in October 1974.

The day we visited the Ghost was a fine, sunny, still day and I was excited. I met the pilots early at the chopper parked on the Popondetta oval. We consulted maps, checked needed equipment, agreed on a time schedule and took off. We found the wreck quite easily, and managed to land the chopper on its wing without any difficulty. The B17 total wingspan was nearly thirty-two metres and, between the two engines on each wing, about five metres wide. So, the chopper had plenty of space to land on. Myself and a number of army personnel were left on the wreck while the chopper took off to perform other set tasks. It would return to pick us up in an hour or two.

Without delay we began to explore the wreck and it was certainly big enough to explore. Everything was intact and just as it was left in 1942, apart from a bit of rust here and there. There was about 30 cm of water on the deck, and the tail gun and belly ball turret guns areas were under water and inaccessible, but all other guns and ammunition were in good condition with a fine film of rust where the oil and grease had dried up. The cockpit had all the instruments intact. The turret guns were a little rusty as the Perspex dome covering them was broken. While the army boys were busy removing a couple of items from the instrument panel in the cockpit for their mess, I was exploring the rear of the plane.

The Swamp Ghost on display in Hawaii

I ended up where the radio man, the navigator and the bombardier were usually stationed. The bomb-sight was gone, but above the radioman’s desk I found two twin-mounted Browning .50 cal machine guns which were retracted, so completely protected from the weather. On the deck beneath them was a metal box containing a continuous belt of .50 cal ammunition. The box was a type of magazine that was clipped onto the side of the guns when firing. The two guns were attached to a gimbal mount that allowed the guns to be moved in and out of the hatch and aimed up, down, left and right. These were in excellent condition and I was even able to cock them while still in their mount.

Along the port bulkhead inside the fuselage was a compartment about 180 cm long, 80 cm high and 20 cm wide full of endless belts of .50 cal ammunition. These were badly rusted and when I picked up a handful the links fell apart. But I still had the metal magazine box I could use.

I was able to remove these guns and ammunition from the wreck and take back to Popondetta with me. I kept one of the guns for many years and it went with me to all my PNG postings and, eventually, back to Australia with us when I went pinis. The other gun I sent to Kokoda sub-district office to be added to the ‘trail’ wartime memorabilia held there.

One of then guns recovered from the plane

In 1992, back in Australia, my house was broken into and along with other household items the machine gun was stolen. Before I knew it I was being charged with possessing an illegal firearm. Luckily no conviction was recorded, but I had to make a hefty donation to the poor box. However, I was working for the Australian Customs Service at the time and when Internal Affairs got wind of the matter they investigated me to ensure I had not used my position as a customs officer to facilitate the importation of the weapon. Fortunately, I was able to prove that when the gun entered Australia I was not a customs officer and all was forgiven.

Subsequently, the gun was recovered and during my court appearance I asked the magistrate to make a court order that it be donated to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and that is where it is now, rusting in peace.

Further facts on the plane can be obtained from, these links:

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/whotube-2/b-17-swamp-ghost.html

https://www.pacificwrecks.com/aircraft/b-17/41-2446.html

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/swamp-ghost-pearl-harbor-wwii-bomber-hawaii_n_56200556e4b0c5a1ce62a803

Endnotes

Kenneth DeHoff, the Pacific Aviation Museum’s executive director of operations, has called the Swamp Ghost a national treasure. ‘It’s one of those first-time original airplanes,’ he told The Huffington Post in 2015. ‘I’m just in awe.’ Swamp Ghost is 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. ‘This airplane was such a fortress,’ DeHoff said. ‘We counted 121 bullet holes in it.’

Roy

Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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