A Distant Treasure
He couldn’t help but be cautious. He had heard too many stories of the creature that hid among the bushes and the leaves. He hastened his pace when he spotted dry land before then and urged the rest of his team to follow.
They had been walking for a while, but when they spotted the plane glistening in the distance, they didn’t mind the pain in their feet anymore. His eyes widened in awe and wonder. He couldn’t wait to see what secrets the plane held inside.
When Fred first heard about the sighting and the mystery surrounding it, he resolved that he would do whatever it took to find it.
As an archeologist, Fred was always searching for the next rare find that he could get his hands on. His thirst for exploration led him to many parts of the world, and to his partner in crime.
Fred Hagen and his colleague David Tallichet were known for pushing boundaries with the unknown. But nothing could have prepared them for this adventure.
They were flying over the Papua New Guinea jungle. For miles, all they could see were stretches of green. Suddenly, Fred spots it. The locals had been treating it as a deity, hailing it the ‘Swamp Ghost’.
The scene abruptly changed from scenic to mystic once the shiny white object that had been shrouded in mystery for decades came into view.
It bore a really odd shape but they couldn’t make out if that was the altitude or not. Wisdom would have told them to stop here, but they weren’t here to be wise. They wanted to go where few humans had gone before.
They asked their pilot to move the helicopter closer to the site, which was mostly composed of swampland. The closer they got, the faster their hearts pounded.
It was half submerged in the water while the rest was covered by the thick, tall grass. It was hard to see what it was at first, but soon they were certain they had found what they were here for.
A Mystery Awaits
The abandoned WWII plane was everything he’d imagined. Even from the air, it looked like it had a story or two to share.
They quickly contacted some locals to help them acquire the equipment they needed to put their project into fruition – ignoring all the warning signs that this wasn’t going to be a smooth operation.
A Cursed Place
There was a reason Fred and his colleague were receiving warnings. From all over the world, people flocked to witness the secret that haunted this dense marshland for decades.
Many had ventured towards the Swamp Ghost, never to return. Others contracted malaria and lost their mind. The locals kept themselves safe by staying away and worshipping the area as sacred land.
History And Legend
The Papua New Guinea villagers know of all the eerie blackened hulls of bombed-out debris from hundreds of crashed planes that lie camouflaged in the mountainous rainforests and lowland jungles of their land, steeped in horrifying history.
But none as terrifying as the Swamp Ghost. Even today, villagers report shapes rising up in the swamps, like mummies in a horror movie.
But Fred and David didn’t care. Where others saw danger, they saw adventure. If it was really cursed, they wanted to see that for themselves.
So the moment that all their equipment was ready, Fred and David brought their team out to the Papua New Guinea jungle to get started on their mission. Little did they know they were about to encounter much more than a wrecked plane.
Into The Unknown
Although Fred and David explored many kinds of land, they weren’t familiar with this particular swampy terrain. Their energy dwindled fast as they set out toward the mysterious aircraft.
However, the passion for exploring something that had been untouched for decades spurred them on. Little did they know, there were more dangers straight ahead of them than the ghosts and curses.
Heart Of The Jungle
As Fred stopped to take a drink from his flask, he saw something move in the water from the corner of his eye. He froze and slowly looked toward the movement.
His mind raced with the stories he heard of crocodiles and giant anacondas that roamed these parts of the jungle. He turned his head and saw nothing, but it was enough to have him shouting at his team to move forward to the dry land ahead. Suddenly, their hearts raced.
The mysterious plane was in sight. From the distance, it reflected the light of the sun so bright that it felt like it was calling their name, enticing them to come over.
Their clothes were wet and dirty from the waist down after trekking through the swamp, but the humidity and sun prevented them from being cold. Their pace quickened.
Fred, David, and their team had already conquered one of the most foreboding challenges of their mission. Now, all they had to do was keep walking toward the bright light.
They walked through the unforgiving landscape of the dense jungle for hours until they finally reached the site. Silence engulfed the team as everybody stood in awe at what they saw.
Face To Face With The Swamp Ghost
No one knew the story behind this plane. That’s why Fred and David were hell-bent on finding out more about its mysterious origins. Now, as they stood within arm’s length of it, they couldn’t soak in the details fast enough.
From its structure, they could tell it was a plane from World War II. This wasn’t a surprise as Papua New Guinea was a war hotbed and major conflict zone during the war.
Land Of War
Every year, war enthusiasts flocked to Papua New Guinea to see for themselves the wreckage that lay strewn over parts of the islands.
Because of its strategic location, it became the site of many clashes between the Australians, Japanese, and Americans, all of which had set up military bases in different areas. Fred and David expected to feel a deep sense of history here. But they never saw this coming.
What the swamp had been hiding for so many years was actually a huge WWII airplane in incredible condition, remaining largely intact.
Locals had been calling it the Swamp Ghost because it was so well hidden deep in the jungle and they believed it to be haunted. Why was such a massive plane in the middle of the jungle? Who flew it, what happened? They were about to find out.
The plane’s location was probably the major reason why it was largely unexplored. The deep swamplands also made it almost impossible to remove the aircraft from the site for further study.
But that wouldn’t stop Fred and David from trying to find a way to salvage and study the plane, move it out of there, and restore it to its old glory. First, they stepped inside.
Their bodies shook with excitement as they entered the aircraft. Their hopes were high that a lot of its interior would be preserved just like its exterior.
Unfortunately, when they stepped inside, it was ransacked. All of the mechanics and weaponry inside the aircraft had already been looted over the decades it lay here. Luckily, David was already able to identify pieces of its story.
As a World War II veteran, David had lots of experience in dealing with all types of aircraft. He even made a business out of collecting and restoring military aircraft. It was his main reason for coming on this mission.
His collection included amazing aircraft such as a B-25 Mitchell bomber and a P-40 Tomahawk. But this find would top them all.
The Flying Fortress
David quickly discovered that the type of plane stuck in the swamp was the exact same type of plane that he had piloted during WWII. It was a B-17E Flying Fortress.
Once they knew what they were dealing with, they began attempting to salvage the plane in the 1980s. But in true ‘Swamp Ghost’ fashion, they suffered setbacks, making it decades before they completed the extremely difficult task.
The Big Dream
According to Fred, the restoration of the plane was their greatest dream. “Because for some reason it captured the imagination of people from around the world…” he stated.
The plane was first nicknamed the Flying Fortress. This happened when a journalist saw the plane during a test flight back in 1935 and remarked that it looked like a flying fortress. But what about its backstory? How did the plane get stuck in the cursed swamp?
The Japanese Attack
Just one day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Swamp Ghost was sent out on a special mission. Instead of flying with the Kangaroo Squadron that day, it was sent out on one of the earliest bombing missions of the Second World War.
But then disaster struck. The Japanese invaded the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. Swamp Ghost would be the first to the scene and, with that, suffer disastrous consequences.
In February of 1942, the Swamp Ghost was dispatched to attack Japanese ships on New Britain Island. But the majestic Swamp Ghost would tragically never return from its mission.
The plane started experiencing problems when the bomb bay doors wouldn’t open. They made second passes at their target before they were able to finally get them open. But now, they’d attracted anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese troops. It was the beginning of the end for Swamp Ghost.
A dogfight ensued after the Swamp Ghost made its second pass on its target, which luckily was successful as they were able to get the bomb bay open finally. The Swamp Ghost managed to take down three enemy fighters out of a dozen.
Then suddenly, the Swamp Ghost was hit by the enemy. Thankfully, the plane didn’t explode, but one of its wings was majorly damaged. It was leaking fuel and crashing fast in the New Guinean wilderness.
The Swamp Ghost was due to return to the New Guinean capital city of Port Moresby, but the crew couldn’t make that happen with a punctured wing and the massive fuel leak. Then the pilot spotted a perfect place to make a crash landing.
He thought he saw a soft wheat field that would be a perfect place to make a crash landing. But what he thought was a large wheat field ended up being something far more treacherous.
The Middle Of Nowhere
It was a swamp that was inhabited by deadly and ferocious crocodiles. The Swamp Ghost made its crash landing in the swamp, and miraculously, none of the crew members were seriously injured.
However, the crew was now stranded in a dangerous swamp in the middle of nowhere. Not knowing where they were or where they were going, they set off to find civilization and help to get back to their base located in the capital.
A Brief Reunion
The entire crew devastatingly all caught malaria while attempting to traverse the dangerous swamps. Fortunately, they came across a native who helped them and took them back to his village.
The kind local nursed them back to health, and they were reunited with US forces in the New Guinean capital of Port Moresby. The crew was welcomed back as heroes, but their celebration didn’t last long. They were almost immediately sent out on a new mission.
Mike Oliver of Richmond was born while his father, Capt. Fred Eaton – the original pilot of the Swamp Ghost – was missing in action. “Often in my life the courage and the perseverance that Dad and his fellow crew members demonstrated gave me the courage to face some of the challenges we’ve all met in life,” he said.
It had taken the pilot and his crew six weeks to escape that steaming swamp and find help – they all had endured six weeks of fighting through the humidity, malaria, and crocodiles. But what of the plane they left behind?
Lost In Time
While the crew of the Swamp Ghost was redeployed on a new mission, their Flying Fortress was all but forgotten. As time went on and the war ended, no one thought twice about the Flying Fortress, and it was time to go home.
For decades, the plane was only known to a few locals in the nearby areas. US forces completely forgot about the plane, and no effort was made to recover it from the wreck site.
The Most Famous
Then, it was rediscovered in 1972 by Australian troops flying over the area. The news hit international media, and the Swamp Ghost became famous.
The Flying Fortress is one of only four other planes of its kind, and of all the wrecks that took place over Papua New Guinea, the Swamp Ghost is the most famous of them all.
In July 1992, a historian named Maclaren Hiari was “crusading to have his government relinquish the ‘swamp ghost,’ a historic U.S. B-17E bomber so well preserved in kunai grass and mire that there was still coffee in cockpit thermoses when it was discovered.”
But it wasn’t to be. The Swamp Ghost – untouched, intact, and true to its curse – languished in the mire for another six decades.
Located in the Agaiambo Swamp, the Swamp Ghost sat abandoned for 64 years. The Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii explains that the Flying Fortress is “arguably the world’s only intact and unretired World War II-era B-17E bomber.”
“It’s a one-of-a-kind example of an aircraft that played an indispensable role in winning WWII. And it is the only B-17 in the world that still bears its battle scars”. But this wasn’t all.
A World War II Favorite
Since its introduction in 1938, the B-17 was still the third-most massively produced bomber of all time. During the war in the Pacific, the B-17 bomber was used in raids against Japanese shipping and airfields.
The bomber was a strategic resource in the war and was responsible for dropping 640,000 tons of bombs (out of 1.5 million total) on Nazi Germany. But what did any of this mean for Fred and David?
A Vision Of Modernization
The B-17 bomber was part of President Roosevelt’s vision to modernize the US military. But after the end of the war, the B-17 bomber was quickly phased out of use by the US Air Force.
Most of the bombers were returned to the United States, where they were sold for scrap and melted down. Only a few bombers remained in use, mainly for secondary roles such as transport, air-sea rescue, and photo-reconnaissance.
Fred and David’s salvaging operation was finally completed in 2006, but only four years later would they receive permission to return the aircraft to American soil.
But to the local villagers, the bomber was a relic on holy land. They had to be persuaded to hand over the Swamp Ghost. They even performed a ceremony to appease the spirits in the swamp. Still, not everyone was happy with the chief’s decision to let Fred and David remove the relic.
Son Of A Local Chief
Augustin Begasi, who happened to be the son of a local chief, set out to make sure that the B-17 bomber wasn’t removed.
He even went as far as to organize a group of people to help him intercept the plane before it could be moved to a barge offshore. Would the Swamp Ghost make it out?
The salvagers, Fred and David, claimed that the villagers wanted to extract money because the barge was in their waters. In any case, Begasi and his posse were dispersed by police — who they believe were bribed to help get the plane out.
But Begasi couldn’t have stopped it anyway. The Swamp Ghost was lifted out by a Russian-built military helicopter. He could only watch helplessly as it was lifted out to the barge.
“They should have given us money, because it was our accustomed land,” Begasi said. “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.”
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. Speaking about the plane, he said: “It’s a ghost, and its spirit seems only to have grown.”
The first showing of the B-17 Flying Fortress was in Long Beach, California. Surprisingly, many of the people in attendance were friends and family of the original crew of the bomber.
Everyone in attendance was thrilled to see that the long-lost plane had finally returned to the United States. The bomber remains as a memorial for a horrific war that claimed millions of lives.
A Full Restoration
Now that the plane has been returned and is safely stored in the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, the owners of the B-17 bomber plan to fully restore the Flying Fortress back to its former glory.
In total, the cost to restore the World War II B-17 bomber might exceed $5 million. After the B-17 is fully restored it is due to be moved to Hangar 79 on Ford Island.
Today, many people of Papua New Guinea are still upset about the Swamp Ghost’s removal. The plane attracted tourists from far-off places and some local cultures even formed spiritual beliefs surrounding the plane, known as “cargo cults”.
This is a system of beliefs, generally formed in highly underdeveloped societies, in which its members hold superstitious beliefs about items that fall from the sky from more advanced civilizations, such as technology or cargo.
Papua New Guinea was a very important strategic territory in the South West Pacific during WWII. Over 600 US planes crashed over the country alone, not including other allied or enemy forces which would equal thousands of planes.
Due to the terrain in Papua New Guinea, many of the crash sites are located in near-impossible-to-reach areas due to its dangerous and impassable terrain such as tropical rainforests, rugged mountain chains, savannas, and swamps.
A Nation Divided
One of the challenges of finding anything in the area are the physical boundaries of the terrain and population. The topography of the country renders a singular national identity almost impossible to achieve.
Currently, there are about six million people who live in Papua New Guinea, most of whom live in remote and secluded areas and are loyal to their local clans only. They live a simplistic lifestyle of hunting wildlife and growing crops.
Caught In The Middle
When WWII came around, the people of New Guinea found themselves in the middle of the conflict due to their strategic location between the Japanese Empire and allied Australia.
The Papuans didn’t fight in the war, but they did help by acting as service bearers, mainly carrying supplies and the wounded across the rugged mountainous terrain and steaming treacherous jungles. The country quickly became a graveyard and a memorial for the war, as evident by the Swamp Ghost.
The three surviving crew members of the Swamp Ghost seem to be the only people who are totally uninterested in the plane’s future. “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.”
Final Resting Place
Having made its way back across the Pacific, the B-17E, one of the rarest World War II bombers in existence, was moved to the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island. Restoration is underway in Hangar 79, which guests can visit on a special “Swamp Ghost tour.
The Pacific Aviation Museum has more than 50 aircraft in its collection, including The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the Mitsubishi Zero, and The Stearman Biplane. Now, The Swamp Ghost, in its final resting place, is also on display. And the Swamp Ghost is just one tragic relic of the era.
More Out There
There are many incidents where the jungles have given up their secrets and relics – like the Swamp Ghost.
However, there are still over 200 American and Australian warplanes that languish, rust, and fall apart in the hard-to-reach places in the muggy jungles, still waiting to be rescued and returned home. The Liberator was one of them.
World War II B-24 Liberator
The Liberator left from Ward’s Field, Port Moresby, for the Nadzab Air Base, near Lae on the Pacific island’s east coast, at about 2:40 P.M. on March 22, 1944.
It was on a courier flight and packed with 19 soldiers – pilots, bombers, and medics. News came into headquarters that it had been shot down.
It was yet another crash that left families and friends without answers for years.
What made it worse is the location of where the plane had gone down was, at best, unbelievably vague. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and remaining that way for decades.
All the while, those left behind feared the worst. Had their sons or husbands been captured by the enemy or executed?
It wasn’t until a team from the army’s Central Identification Laboratory at Fort Shafer, and members of the Papua New Guinea museum staff got involved did the case finally make any headway.
Revisiting The Case
It started with a general review of all documents. Then, one staffer had to make the long, hot trek to the nearest village where the wreck might be located.
After all, the locals knew the jungle better than anyone. As the young assistant sat before the intimidating elder, he got the shock of his life.
The translation was jarring. They knew exactly what he was talking about. However, they didn’t want to disturb the resting spirits and bring bad fortune to their village.
They had already given rites to put them at peace and refused to let anyone touch the site. Tensions grew high as the New Guinea officials had to step in.
The plane could stay. The museum just wanted to take back the remains – remains which didn’t belong to the land.
There were grieving family members that were still alive and needed closure. Through an intense negotiation, they finally came to an agreement.
On The Mountain
The team would be led 8,856 feet up the slopes of Mount Thumb, where the rusting metal coffin waited.
The team would be allowed to piece together the bodies and take them away, but only as long as the elders could perform additional rites and rituals during the process. The scene unfolded into something quite surreal.
New Kind Of Rescue
The team had excavated under all sorts of conditions, but having smoke, chanting, and singing around them made the process take on an entirely new atmosphere.
It felt calming and honorable – a fitting way to save those 19 men that had perished. It also brought out a new fact.
The news reached the families and was bittersweet. There was no doubt, after so long, that their loved ones had perished. But now, at least they knew that they hadn’t been dragged away to endure a painful death. Empty coffins and blank gravestones could now be complete.
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.