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Swamp Ghosts

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

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Like many others, Hagen has fallen under the spell of the Swamp Ghost. But unlike most, he feels the need to own it. Why? "It's the holy grail of military aviation." To leave it in the swamp, he asserts, would have been "obscene," because it was slowly but surely disintegrating. Hagen's company, Aero Archaeology, obtained an export permit for the Swamp Ghost from New Guinea's National Museum and Art Gallery in November 2005 in return for $100,000.

Earlier attempts to raise the plane, including one by the Travis Air Force Museum in California, which would have provided PNG's National War Museum with several restored planes, had dragged on in fruitless negotiations for more than ten years. But Hagen, armed with ample money and working with Rob Greinert, an Australian who has salvaged more than a dozen aircraft from PNG, was determined to press ahead. He assembled a crew of 43 people, including a B-17 mechanic, a specialty towing company from Penndel, Pennsylvania, and a five-man documentary film crew. The group labored for close to four weeks, raising the craft with weighted air bags, severing the wings, dismounting the four engines, removing the tail and lifting the fuselage. The operation was arduous—they had to contend with everything from crocodiles in their base camp to scorpions in their wading boots—but successful. Their Russian-built military helicopter hoisted out the various parts and placed them on the barge, waiting nearby. The left wing dropped from its sling half a mile from the site but was recovered and, according to the salvagers, suffered only minor damage. Some of the locals who worked with the salvagers—and who were paid handsomely—are content. "We heard a lot from our fathers about what it was like working with the Americans in the war," said Luke Nunisa, relaxing in the lounge of the luxurious Tufi Dive resort. "So it was a real opportunity to see them work. They treated us fairly."

But by the time the barge reached the coastal town of Lae and the plane was crated for shipping to the United States, the controversy over its removal—on New Guinea TV and in the main newspaper, the Post-Courier—had reached deep into the government. A special committee of Parliament found that the National Museum had no right to sell war surplus (only to document and monitor it) and insisted that the Swamp Ghost, belonging to the state, should not be permitted to leave the country. The committee said the plane was worth $3 million to $5 million and demanded that Hagen and Greinert be investigated by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary for their roles in salvaging it. "The trade in war surplus materials is clearly big business," the committee concluded, and it said the museum, under "the improper influence of foreigners," had colluded in the illegal sale abroad of 89 planes or parts of planes, of which 85 ended up in the hands of private individuals, not museums.

The museum director, under pressure, asked the director of customs to hold off allowing the plane to be exported until a top government body, the National Executive Council, sorted out the mess. Hagen is sticking to his guns. His side claims that the parliamentary committee had an ax to grind and no jurisdiction in the matter. "I bought it legally, I salvaged it legally, I own it legally," he told me. "If they don't allow me to have it, how can any international corporation possibly do business with PNG?" He blames the media. "They drummed it up that I was raping New Guinea....Because I'm a businessman from America, [they say] I must have been involved in corruption because how else would I have gotten it." Hagen has launched a lawsuit, claiming upward of $15 million in expenses and damages, according to his local attorney, Camillus Narakobi. "We insist the board of trustees of the museum clearly has authority to execute salvages of this nature," Narakobi said.

If, as seems likely, Hagen does succeed in exporting the Swamp Ghost, it's not clear what will happen to it. His original plan was to restore it and fly it himself, but this would be costly. He has been talking with the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, and would like to lease it to that institution for display if he can take it up for a spin every so often. The museum is dubious, to say the least, about such an arrangement. This model of B-17 is relatively rare, the only one equipped with a remotely operated "belly turret." (The gunner lay on the floor and used a periscope to fire the machine gun.) Meanwhile, as the lawyers and politicians argue its fate, the Swamp Ghost remains crated in Lae. Every other week or so, a new rumor emerges that it's been smuggled out of the country.

Justin Taylan, whom Hagen accuses of fanning the flames of controversy, says he's devastated that the plane was removed from the swamp. He maintains that it had achieved an "equilibrium" there that would have more or less preserved it for years.

Some months back, he chartered a boat to grab a glimpse of it on the docks. "It was sad," he said, recalling the sight of the fuselage without wings or tail. "It was like seeing a classical statue missing its arms and legs." But he took consolation in one thing: "It's a ghost, and its spirit seems only to have grown."

The only people who seem totally uninterested in the plane's future are the three surviving crew members. "After so many years and so much discussion, I've got sick and tired of talking about it," said George Munroe. "A lot of people got taken with that plane, which baffles me. I'm just not very interested. To me, it's just trivia. We certainly weren't that heroic. None of us saved a maiden in a burning building."

A week after returning from PNG, I encountered a ghost of my own. I came across the name of the Swamp Ghost's pilot, Fred Eaton, who died in March 1994. It had been written on June 9, 1942, in a notebook of my father's that my family kept for more than six decades. He must have run across Eaton at one of the aerodromes where he went interviewing pilots looking for human-interest stories to send to the Times. His handwriting was slanted and, from the looks of it, hurried. After the pilot's name he wrote simply: "brought ship down into breast high water. 2 days cutting way thru high grass." Nothing else. My father apparently moved on to interview others. What a story he missed.

John Darnton was a foreign correspondent and editor at the New York Times for 39 years. He has also written four novels.

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