A GHOST NO LONGER
B-17E c/n 41-2446 was built at Boeings’ Seattle factory and delivered to the USAAF on December 6 1941. The aircraft was flown to Hawaii on December 17 and later made its way to Australia arriving at Garbutt Airfield near Townsville on 20 February 1942. It was from here that the aircraft would undertake its one and only mission. Piloted by Capt. Fred Eaton, the B-17 took off just before midnight on February 22 to bomb shipping in Rabaul at Simpson Harbor at dawn the next morning. Townsville to Rabaul was just over 1,770 kms, meaning the B-17s had insufficient range to return to Garbutt, so they would divert via Port Moresby to refuel after the raid. Unfortunately the mission had been hurriedly planned and furthermore, fuel consumption was based on peacetime operations - not allowing for combat conditions. Once over the target Eaton's aircraft had to make a second pass due to a problem with its bomb bay, but dropped its bombs onto a large freighter. It was on the second run an anti-aircraft shell that passed through the right wing without exploding, but this wasn’t the last of the Japanese resistance with ‘Zero’ and ‘Claude’ fighters of the 4th Kokutai attacking the bombers following bomb release. During the attacks tail gunner S.Sgt.John Hall claimed one Zero shot down at whilst waist gunner T/Sgt Russel Crawford, claimed two more. After a 30 minute battle the B-17s managed to shake off further attacks and despite suffering some damage from the fighters were able to continue to the north coast of New Guinea. However the evasive maneuvering had used a lot of fuel and meant Eaton’s aircraft could not make Port Moresby. As they crossed the coast a field suitable for a forced landing was spotted some eight miles inland, and the aircraft put down gear up on what turned out to be Agaiambo Swamp. The crew successfully evacuated the aircraft and with assistance of locals and Australian ‘Coast Watchers’ they arrived by boat at Port Moresby on April 1, 1942 and returned to combat.
The B-17 remained where it lay and in the postwar years was visited by the occasional local and used as a reference point by missionary pilots, but was otherwise forgotten. It wasn’t until 1985 that any serious thought of recovery was first mooted. A group from the Travis Air Force base put forward a proposal that would see the B-17, now popularly known as ‘Swamp Ghost’, recovered to the U.S. in return for the restoration of several wrecks for the P.N.G National War Museum, but this was eventually rejected. David Tallichet who heads the Military Aircraft Restoration Group has had a long term interest in salvaging the B-17 ever since the large and successful recovery expeditions with Charles Darby in the seventies. He was issued with a permit to do so in June 1999 after Alfred Hagen had negotiated on his behalf, but delays saw the initial permit expire, but this was automatically renewed for a further five year period. Although Tallichet retained an interest, it was left to Hagen to pursue the matter further and an agreement to sign over ownership was concluded to Hagen’s Company, Aero Archaeology Limited (AAL) in late 2001. In 2003 Hagen sought the experience and expertise of Robert Greinert.
A further extension to the permit was granted and an experienced salvage team from both the U.S. and Australia began the complex recovery task in late April 2006. The tri-nation force dubbed the ‘Swamp Rats’ set up camp with 6,100kg of equipment 1km from the site. Within two days the ‘Ghost’ was rising up on airbags, which allowed the engineers to disconnect the engines, wings and tail plane, whilst the cleaning team set about removing 64 years of silt and vegetation, ensuring minimum weight for the helicopter lift. A detailed structural survey was then undertaken and although the diagnosis is that ‘the girl is not well’, the ‘Ghost’ will be able to handle the short Mil-8 helicopter ride to the waiting barge off the coast. After a short farewell ceremony performed by the local ‘Chief’, the ‘Ghost’ rose from the clutches of the swamp and ‘flew’ once again.
Unfortunately a media storm was generated by individuals determined to derail the export of the relic to the U.S. Consequently the aircraft had to await a final clearance to leave the docks at Lae while an investigation was undertaken to check whether all the paper work was in order. Those involved in saving the ‘Ghost’ were confident that it was, and this being the case, the aircraft was soon on its way back ‘home’.
By Dave McDonald, Classic Wings (Issue 56)
In the last weeks of May 2006 reports coming out of Papua New Guinea suggested that one of the great aircraft legends had been recovered. The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress dubbed ‘Swamp Ghost’ had been the subject of much controversy and several failed recovery attempts, but has finally made it to dry land!
The bomber would eventually arrive by ship 'Stateside' and was stored at Chino, California until making its way to the Pacific Air Museum (PAM) , Hawaii in April 2013. It is currently undergoing stabilization treatment and the long term goal of PAM is to place the bomber indoors in what may include a swamp simulation setting.