Miller Sharpshooters

Flight of the Swamp Ghost

Swamp GhostMidnight, Townsville, February 22nd 1942: Nine American B17 aircraft take off and steer north out over the Coral Sea towards Japanese held Rabaul in northern PNG.

Dawn finds them over target, and maelstrom of fierce Japanese resistance. One aircraft encountering mechanical trouble with its bomb doors is forced to double back and make a return pass into the thick antiaircraft fire. A Japanese shell strikes their right wing passing all the way through but miraculously fails to detonate. The aircraft is further damaged by the glancing fire from Japanese fighter aircraft, the finger sized projectiles passing just centimetres above the crews heads. Her load released, ruffled B17 bomber turns and begins the long flight back south. In order to make the distance back to Australia, the aircraft is scheduled to refuel at allied held Port Moresby at the other end of PNG.

Shooting the aircraftBetween them and sanctuary though lie the rugged and altitudinous Owen Stanley Mountains. By this time its afternoon and heavy clouds have been brewing over the ranges and gathering in thick afternoon tropical storms typical of the region. With fuel low and the weather and mountains between them and safety the pilot makes the difficult decision to make an emergency landing in swamp on PNG’s remote north coast, than take their chances crossing the precipitous ranges. Choosing a relatively open area the big aircraft lumbers in belly-landing into 5 metre high Kunai grass.

54 years later I’m standing by the up to my waist in swamp water next to the remarkably well preserved aircraft wrecks of the Pacific war, The Swamp Ghost as the aircraft has become known. Her metallic aluminium skin once painted olive green is now baked bare silver by the elements and the unrelenting tropical sun, but generally the wreck is remarkably well preserved largely by the fact that the swamp is fresh water.

Shooting the aircraftWe're a team of 21. Film crew of 5 and 16 aircraft and recovery experts assembled from the US and Australia. We're here with the ambitious aim to see the Swamp Ghost after 50 years dormant in the swamp, fly out of here once again.

First step, permission to recover the aircraft. To cut short a very long and involved story, this involved eight years of negotiations between the aircraft recoverers and PNG Government, the countries National Museum and local natives or customary landowners of the area of the swamp where the aircraft put down.

However, with all respect, a contract is a different notion when applied to affairs in a Melanesian swamp. Despite this lengthy and meticulous preparation the team assembled for the costly, ambitious recovery and documentary with very little certainty or guarantee that events would unfold in our favour.

Our location or jungle security was galvanised with the addition of a small team of PNG Police. Headed up by a tough sergeant with respected or feared reputation for taking no cheek and single-handed breaking up rough neck pirate and bandit gangs. Despite the uncertainty and an endless warnings though, general diplomatic and political events played out remarkably smoothly and we moved onto location after an inevitably delay of only some weeks.

Shooting the aircraftAt the wreck site, over five decades vegetation had of course by this time well and truly embraced the aircraft as permanent swamp fixture. A small army of machete wheeling locals made quick work of clearing this, in the process unleashing a steady stream of very upset scorpions and spiders seeking revenge at their disturbance. Fortunately their bites didn’t prove anymore problematic than a painful sting. To enable lifting, the B17 Flying Fortress had its four engines, tail plane and wings removed, then each section floated clear of the bed of mud and water with industrial air bags. This process took some two weeks of sweat and mixed fortunes, then finally the crux with the amazing spectacle and footage as the Swamp Ghost again flew out the same jungle and swamp that it had ploughed into fifty years earlier.

A huge Russian helicopter on charter in PNG to that countries extensive mining industry was brought on site and with lifting gear carefully rigged, the Swamp Ghost was lifted free of the mud and elephant grass, making an incongruous site as it took to the air again skimming over jungle to a barge waiting off shore.

The Swamp Ghost complete with all it’s parts is now containered ready for shipment and will be repatriated to the US and eventually completely restored to where it will take to the skies again and fly independently under it’s own power. All of the Swamp Ghost’s crew survived the crash landing into the swamp in 1942. They then made an epic walk out of the swamp with assistance from natives.

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