Swamp Ghosts

In Papua New Guinea, a journalist investigates the controversy over a World War II bomber

(Eric Jaffe)
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Papua New Guinea—or PNG as it's called, sometimes with affection, sometimes in exasperation—is the kind of place tourist brochures describe as "the land that time forgot." It would be just as accurate to call it "the land that forgot time." Schedules are not rigidly adhered to. In the capital, Port Moresby, young men with no visible means of support hang out along the roads and markets, giving the place a laid-back feel but making it dangerous at night. The topography of mountains and jungle, beautiful but almost impassable, renders national identity elusive. The six million-plus people—80 percent of whom live in remote villages—speak about 850 languages, owe allegiance largely to local clans and eke out a subsistence existence hunting wild pigs and growing papaw and yams and other foods. Many lives have hardly changed from past centuries, except that cannibalism all but petered out in the mid-1970s, and, with the blessings of missionaries, a lot of people now wear castoff Western shirts and shorts. (It's not unusual to encounter a fisherman paddling a dugout canoe wearing, say, a Bucky Badger T-shirt from the University of Wisconsin.)

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This past May, I visited PNG because I was eager to see the country where my father was killed in World War II. He was a war correspondent for the New York Times—Byron Darnton was his byline—and the troopship he was on was bombed as it was about to disembark soldiers onto a sandy beach in October 1942. I was 11 months old at the time and so have no memory of him. But of course New Guinea was always more than a dot on the map for me. In our living room we had a patriotic globe with stars to mark major American battlefields. In my childhood naiveté, I thought the manufacturer of the globe had put the one on Buna, on the northern coast of what was then called Papua, to commemorate the spot where my father fell.

New Guinea was conscripted into war, caught between the Japanese and the Allied counteroffensive from the south. For the most part Papuans did not fight, but both sides pressed many into service as bearers, carrying supplies and stretchers of wounded men across mountains and through miles of steaming jungle. (Their nickname, unthinkable today, was Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.) Almost all of them have died by now. Yet the war seems anything but remote, largely because its rusting relics are so much a part of the landscape. Sunken freighters, submarines and troopships rest on the bottoms of harbors and hidden bays. The blackened hulls of bombed-out planes sit beside old airstrips, and debris from hundreds of crashed planes lies camouflaged in the mountainous rain forests and lowland jungles. So many soldiers died—including many thousands of Japanese never accounted for—that even today, after heavy rains, villagers report an occasional skeleton rising up in the mangrove swamps like a mummy in a horror movie.

It's not surprising, then, that PNG has become favored terrain for war buffs. (Last year, an estimated 4,000 people made the grueling weeklong trek on the Kokoda Trail across the Owen Stanley Mountains, where Australian soldiers pushed back the Japanese; as recently as ten years ago only about 100 made the hike.) Poking around the pillboxes and overgrown ruins of the Japanese bases at Buna and Gona, Australian, American and Japanese tourists bump into one another, sometimes in awkward silence. Perhaps more than anything else, PNG has become a hunting ground for "warbird" enthusiasts looking for missing plane wrecks. Passionate treasure hunters, they like nothing better than to hop into helicopters for spotting missions, hack through the baking, merciless jungle, debrief villagers and hire local guides, all for that magical moment when they might uncover a Kittyhawk or Bristol Beaufighter that dropped out of the sky more than 60 years ago. Among them are a special breed, the salvagers, who not only locate the planes but also extract them, or pieces of them, for export, usually selling them to museums or to private collectors.

Of all the wrecks on PNG, none is as fabled as the "Swamp Ghost," a B-17E Flying Fortress that ran out of fuel on an ill-fated bombing mission in early 1942 and was ditched in the Agaiambo Swamp about eight miles inland on the northern coast. There the plane rested, intact and more or less unmolested, in soggy splendor for 64 years—that is, until May 2006, when an American salvager took it apart and removed it. This caused such a controversy that the plane was stopped from leaving the country. It sits crated in a warehouse near the coastal town of Lae. The episode raises what has become a burning issue: Who has the right to sell war surplus and what should be done with it in the face of a burgeoning international market? The debate, which taps into anger over the growing realization that the island's natural resources are being exploited by illegal loggers and rapacious mining companies, has roiled Parliament and the government of Sir Michael Somare, the imposing leader who has served, off and on, as prime minister ever since he led the country to independence from Australia in 1975.

The salvagers claim that the villagers near the crash site were persuaded to give up the relic and that a local chief even performed a ceremony to appease the spirits of the swamp. But other Papuans, who have a deep attachment to ancestral land and are apt to extract money from strangers just to set foot on it, clearly feel different. Augustin Begasi, the 39-year-old son of a chief of the coastal village of Bendoroda, organized a group to try to intercept the plane before it reached a barge offshore. The salvagers claim the posse wanted to extract money because the barge was in their waters. In any case, Begasi and company were dispersed by police, who they believe were paid by the salvagers or someone else to help get the plane out. Begasi couldn't have stopped it anyway, since the plane was ferried out overhead by a Russian-built military helicopter; he could only watch as it was lifted out to the barge.

"They should have given us money, because it was our accustomed land," Begasi told me. "The plane would bring tourists, but now there is nothing. That village has no name now. If they left it there, it would have a name by now."

Something about the Swamp Ghost, I came to learn, drives people around the bend.

I first learned about the plane from Justin Taylan, a 29-year-old bachelor from Hyde Park, New York, whose consuming interest in the Pacific theater dates back to a particular day in 1992. An eighth grader then, he had asked his grandfather, Carl Thien, who had served as a combat photographer there, to help him with a school report about the B-29 bombing campaign of Japan. "He became furious with me and said: ‘We were fighting in New Guinea long before there were any B-29s.'" Thien took him aside and gave him a firsthand education in the horrors of hand-to-hand jungle fighting. Later that year, the two visited PNG; Justin climbed all over a wrecked Japanese bomber and was hooked. Today, after seven more visits to PNG, Taylan pursues a hobby that is all-consuming. He searches out wrecks, returns dog tags and other artifacts to surprised owners, produces DVDs and runs a Web site (PacificWrecks.com) that draws 45,000 hits a month.

The law on ownership of salvaged wrecks has evolved over the years. Basically, the U.S. Navy does not relinquish claims to ships or aircraft, whether sunken or above water. The Air Force, under a decision from its general counsel, regards any plane that crashed on land before November 1961 as abandoned, and hence fair game for salvagers. That is not true, however, for a plane that crashed and sank in water, which presumably means at sea, not in a swamp. (Though who knows? A sharp lawyer might have fun trying to parse that.)


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