Even as wars end and treaties are signed, brutal reminders of the conflict remain everywhere. Many of these relics deserve to fade into oblivion, but a few of them are monuments to the bravery and sacrifice of past heroes. Of course, saving them is easier said than done.
Decades after one of the bloodiest wars in history, an epic reminder of the fighting lay in shambles until one team dared to take it back. However, these adventurers had time, the elements, and the law against them, and the further they trekked, the more it looked like they were destined for a crash of their own?
The jungles of Papua New Guinea aren’t too friendly to outsiders. One group of men learned that fact the hard way, and they never forgot the experience. However, it all came rushing back to them decades later.
In early 1942, the United States had recently entered World War II. The Air Force sent a B-17 Flying Fortress on a bombing run across the Japan-controlled Pacific. That mission, unfortunately for everyone aboard, didn’t go quite as planned.
Due to a critical miscalculation, the aircraft ran out of fuel over Papua New Guinea. Everyone aboard knew that, in foreign territories like this, there were no friendly airstrips. They had to brace for a crash landing.
The plane dipped toward the island and slammed into the ground. Miraculously, barely any of the crew members were injured by the impact, and they soon found out why: instead of landing on solid earth, they careened straight into a swamp.
With the help of some local tribesmen, the Air Force squad made it out of Papua New Guinea alive. Though they escaped, the crew did have to leave their precious plane behind. They figured it would simply become part of the island landscape.
For about 30 years, that’s exactly what happened. Few people wanted to search for a crashed airplane, and any prospective treasure hunters immediately turned around when faced with a swamp full of dangerous predators and disease-ridden mosquitoes.
One routine Australian military exercise in 1972, however, brought the Flying Fortress back to life. The soldiers stumbled upon the tail jutting out of the feral swamp and confirmed with their American allies that it was the lost plane from all those years ago.
The Air Force was relieved to learn the final destination of the famous plane, which earned the nickname “Swamp Ghost.” They couldn’t do anything with it, though local Papuans made a decent amount of money showing tour groups around the crash site.
One man, however, wouldn’t let it rest. Alfred Hagen’s obsession with World War II-era aircraft began back in his childhood, when he learned his great-uncle was shot down. As an adult, he devoted his spare time to tracking down and collecting aviation artifacts.
Alfred wasn’t alone in his mission either. He gained the financial backing of Dave Tallichet. Known as the “Father of the Theme Restaurant,” the entrepreneur collected classic planes and couldn’t help but be intoxicated by the call of the Swamp Ghost.
Together, Alfred and David organized an expedition to locate and possibly seize the legendary plane. When local authorities bristled at their bold objective, they realized they’d have to find it on their own.
Since the Swamp Ghost became somewhat of a regional attraction, Alfred didn’t take too long to find the crash site. He had a full team of salvagers and cameramen to oversee the process. But that’s where the encouraging news stopped.
After generations in the swamp, the Flying Fortress was in sorry shape. Its metal hull had badly decayed, plus a number of wild species made the plane into their home. Even a diehard like Alfred wondered if this was a lost cause.
Still, Alfred stuck to his goal of rescuing the plane. Of course, it would be immensely difficult to airlift any bomber, let alone one that was falling apart. But maybe, he figured, they didn’t have to do all the work at once.
In order to relocate the “holy grail of military aviation,” Alfred ordered his 43-man crew to raise the wreck out of the swamp and cut it into pieces. This alone would take them weeks.
The scavengers worked quickly, as to give as little time as possible for other parties to interfere. They also rented a Russian military helicopter to airlift the various pieces of a plane to a nearby barge.
After thousands of man-hours of backbreaking labor, the Swamp Ghost was ready for the big move back to the U.S.A. Hagen had shelled out $100,000 for an excavation license, but not everybody was thrilled about his success.
Many Papua New Guineans lamented that one bureaucrat had given up their local treasure. Especially since the U.S. Air Force gave up the salvage rights for any crafts lost prior to 1961, they believed they had legal ownership over the plane.
Aviation enthusiast and blogger Justin Taylan said that the removal of the Swamp Ghost was a huge blow for the area. It meshed itself into the island landscape until treasure hunters tore it away for profit, he claimed.