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(Eric Jaffe)

Swamp Ghosts

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

Taylan said the name Swamp Ghost was coined when Australian troops "rediscovered" the plane on maneuvers 35 years ago. Spotting it from a helicopter, they landed on the plane's wing and found the semi-submerged aircraft eerily untouched. The machine guns were in place, fully loaded, and in the cabin there was a thermos with what used to be coffee inside. Some claim there was even an ashtray with cigarette butts. The nickname stuck, and over the years missionary pilots and others used the wreck as a navigational reference point. Sometimes, with the coating of camouflage olive paint burned off the roof by the sun, its aluminum skin gleamed in the sunlight like a giant silver dagger, visible for miles around. Other times, when the kunai grass grew 12 feet high and engulfed it, the Swamp Ghost dropped from sight, making the nickname all the more appropriate.

"On my first visit, in 2003, I'll never forget clearing away the kunai grass," Taylan told me, speaking rapidly in his excitement. "It revealed the sides, and I saw the U.S. Army Air Forces markings, a white star with a large red dot in the center—they called it a ‘meatball' in those days, and it was later phased out because it was thought it might be confused with the Japanese rising sun. And the sides were in perfect condition. It was just spectacular. It was like stepping back in time, back to 1942, to see the plane and the ‘meatball' and the door on it, the waist door, still propped open 45 degrees. You could imagine the crew leaving it."

The crew's fate, in fact, is part of the plane's mystique. On the first long-range bombing mission against the Japanese, the B-17 took off from Australia just before midnight on February 22 with the aim of attacking ships at Rabaul on Japanese-held New Britain at dawn. From the outset the mission was plagued by mishaps. With bad weather, incomplete maps, novice pilots and mechanical problems, four of the nine bombers never even got off the ground. "It was dark as hell at night," recalled Clarence LeMieux, the engineer, now 90 years old and living in Spokane, Washington. "By the time we got there, we lost all the other planes but ours and one more. We ran into tornadoes—three or four of them—and we couldn't even see the harbor." What happened next is debated—some say the bomb bay doors didn't open—but in any case the plane made a wide circle and came in for a second run before it dropped its load. Then it fought off half a dozen Japanese Zeros, had its right wing shot through by an antiaircraft shell that didn't explode, climbed to shake off pursuers and headed off. All of this took a toll on fuel. Capt. Fred Eaton hoped to make it to Port Moresby, which meant flying over the mountains. "I looked over at the fuel gauges, and they were pretty damn low," said LeMieux. "I said: ‘We're not going to make it with this fuel.' We saw what looked like a wheat field—all this pretty grass—and Fred says, ‘Let's put her down here.' "

The belly landing was perfect; only the propellers were bent. But when the doors were opened, the crew men realized they had set down in four to eight feet of water. "We jumped off, and the damned stuff was up to our neck," said LeMieux. Only one of the nine was injured, the navigator, George Munroe, and only slightly. "We had these two thin sheets of wood in the bomb bay to keep the wind out of the compartment," Munroe, age 89, recalled from his home in Falls Church, Virginia. "And I stuck my head between them and got stuck there when the plane stopped. They pulled me out, and someone said: ‘My God, your throat's cut.' That kind of shakes you up. But they had a flask, and they poured water on me, and it turned out I had little scalp cuts."

For two days, the crew members hacked their way through razor-sharp kunai grass, trying to rest at night on makeshift mounds of it, which kept sinking. They were exhausted and famished. (Their emergency rations had sunk.) When they finally reached dry land, they were so badly bitten by mosquitoes they couldn't sleep. Several began to hallucinate. "A friend and I suddenly saw a mess hall," said Richard Oliver, the bombardier, at 87 long retired and living in Tiburon, California. "So we decided to get some ice-cold canned tomatoes. We could see the lights up ahead, and we headed off down the path to reach it, when, luckily, somebody yelled at us and woke us up."

The crew ran into some Papuans chopping wood. "They didn't seem threatening," said Munroe, "but I carried my .45 the whole time." In fact, the Papuans were friendly. They took the airmen to their village for the night, then put them in outrigger canoes and took them downriver to the coast, where they were handed over to an Australian resident magistrate. By now, most of the airmen had been stricken by malaria. After they made several abortive attempts to depart, a boat finally picked them up and took them to Port Moresby, arriving there on April 1—thirty-six days after the crash. They were given a week in a hospital and returned to combat. On many of his 60 subsequent missions, the pilot, Eaton, would often fly over the wreck, and whenever he did, he would circle it and regale his new crew members with the story of how all nine men had made it back to base alive. The Swamp Ghost's formidable legend was born.

After the war, the plane slipped into an oblivion that lasted almost three decades, until the Australian soldiers spotted it in 1972. They provided the tail number to the Americans, who traced it to the lost B-17. The crew was told about the discovery. Word began to get around, especially after 1979, when Charles Darby, an early "warbird" collector and chronicler, printed dozens of photos of it in his seminal book, Pacific Aircraft Wrecks. Bit by bit, as the fad to recover World War II aircraft took off, trekkers made it to the site. Over time the plane was stripped of its instruments, guns and even its steering assemblies (called flight yokes), though the structure itself, resting in fresh water, remained remarkably intact.

Among others, the young Taylan was inspired by the Darby photographs. "Some people set goals to become doctors or lawyers, but when I saw those pictures, I said to myself: ‘My God, this is like looking back in time. If I do anything with my life, I've got to get to this airplane.'" He managed to do just that, many times, and each trip fed his attachment to the plane. He began, as many visitors do, to feel protective about it, convinced that it should remain where it was, like a found art object that takes its meaning from its surroundings. In 2005, to support his contention that the wreck could attract adventurous souls and that this would be a boon to the nearby villages, he led 15 people on a hike to the plane. Then he joined up with a colorful local Australian expatriate, Dale McCarthy, who trucks palm oil and, on the side, runs a handsome fishermen's lodge at Bendoroda. Together they hatched a dream: bring in tourists who go in for rough travel; let them trek the Kokoda, fish for black bass at Bendoroda and hike through the swamp to lay eyes on one of the most famous war relics in all the Pacific.

Meanwhile, Alfred Hagen had set his sights on the Swamp Ghost. A 49-year-old aviator and commercial builder from Bucks County, he describes himself as "a carpenter from Pennsylvania with grandiose delusions." For more than a decade he has been plying the jungles of PNG in search of downed aircraft. His consuming preoccupation began in 1995 with a mission: to locate the site of the B-25 crash that killed his great-uncle, Maj. William Benn, a decorated flier and squadron leader. (Benn pioneered low-altitude "skip bombing," a way of releasing a bomb so that it skips across the water to its target.) Hagen succeeded in June 1998. The wreck was 500 feet from a mountain divide. Hagen surmised that an engine had failed and that the pilot had been searching for an uncharted pass. Two years earlier, in the course of Hagen's search, something happened that fixated him on the Swamp Ghost. He spotted its tail in the grass and jotted down the GPS coordinates. Then his plane, which had hit the top of a coconut palm, became disabled. It barely made it over the mountains. "We flew through a pass and could see all the stars and the Southern Cross and in the distance the lights of Port Moresby. In those moments, it was the closest I came to living my uncle's experience. I felt a connection."

Over the years, Hagen has found parts of seven other World War II aircraft in PNG, including a P-47 Thunderbolt, and in so doing has helped experts identify the bones of some 18 MIA American fliers, even attending burials back home for some of them. In one controversial instance, convinced that the bureaucratic wheels of the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii were likely to move too slowly, he took it upon himself to call a family in Massachusetts and inform them that he had found the remains of the 22-year-old pilot whose loss they had been mourning for 51 years. He acknowledges that his call was "a gross violation of protocol," for which military authorities "called me a renegade, a loose cannon and everything else," but he is not a man to shy away from a confrontation—or a challenge. "One of the extraordinary things about what I've done is I wasn't qualified to do any of it," he said. "In life you don't have to be qualified. You just have to have audacity. I have audacity."

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