NEW GUINEA 1942
The Battle of Rabaul, fought from January to February 1942 on the island province of New Britain in New Guinea resulted in a resounding Allied defeat at the hands of the Japanese. Air raids against Australian military targets in Rabaul started on January 4th and continued until the Japanese troops landed nearby on January 22nd with the full invasion fleet arriving a day later. Around 8,000 to 9,000 Japanese troops were deployed against a garrison of 1,400 Australians known as the Lark Force.
Following limited fighting to try to repel the invasion, the city fell within just one day and the Aussies had to withdraw. Those who were not killed or captured remained at large in the jungle of New Britain for a number of weeks. They had no supplies though and retreat was cut off with the landing of more Japanese troops on the south coast of the island on February 9th, 1942. Eventually around 1,000 Australians were captured and had to surrender (150 of them were horrifically massacred at the Tol Rubber Plantation on February 4th 1942 and further tragedy struck when the Japanese transport ship Montevideo Maru bound for Japan was sunk by a US submarine, USS Sturgeon on July 1st, 1942 with the loss of over 1,000 Australians onboard – 849 POW’s and 209 civilians). Around 400 other Australians that had evaded capture managed to escape in the following months by boat. Some continued the fight though and conducted guerrilla operations against the Japanese and became invaluable coast watchers monitoring Japanese shipping activity.
The loss of Rabaul was a costly one and the Japanese quickly built up its defences making it their main stronghold in New Guinea. Over 100,000 Japanese Army and Navy troops were eventually based there. By February 1942 US and Australian air raids on the base began to try to limit its effectiveness. Rabaul was now the Allies primary bombing target in New Guinea.
ALLIED BOMBING OF RABAUL
9 US Army Air Force (USAAF) Boeing B-17E Flying Fortresses of the 22nd Bomb Squadron of the 7 Bombardment Group set off on a long and arduous flight from Townsville in Northern Australia at midnight on February 22nd, 1942 to bomb Japanese shipping in Simpson Harbour in Rabaul. This was the first long-range land based bombing mission conducted by the USAAF in the Pacific theatre. The mission was plagued with problems from the start with 2 aircraft colliding on the runway and a third have engine troubles. They were out of the mission. Another had to turn back due to mechanical problems. The remaining 5 B-17’s that made it to New Guinea were mostly separated from each other due to bad weather and upon arrival over the target area they soon experienced heavy anti-aircraft fire and came under attack from Japanese fighters. The bombing raid unfortunately caused little damage, but luckily all bar one bomber made it back to Garbutt Field in Townsville.
A BOMBER LOST
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress (Serial Number41-2446) was accepted into the USAAF in December 1941 following flight trials and armament she was sent to Hickham Field in Hawaii and then Wheeler Field where it operated in support of US Navy search missions. Then on February 11th, 1942 the aircraft was ferried to Australia via Christmas Island, Fiji and New Caledonia. Arriving in Queensland, Australia on February 20th, 1942 it was only a few days later that the B-17E headed off on its one and only combat mission.
Over Simpson Bay this particular B-17E was on its first attack run against a 10,000 tonne freighter but the bomb bay doors jammed. The pilot Captain Frederick “Fred” C. Eaton, Jr. brought the bomber around for a second run. Flak hit the wing putting big hole through it but the crew managed to drop their bombs. Then around 10 Japanese fighters (including Mitsubishi A6M Zero’s) pounced on them and all hell broke loose. Despite being under attack from the Japanese fighters for around 35 minutes and being riddled with shell holes from the flak and enemy fighters the gunners aboard the B-17 managed to bring down 3 Japanese fighters and they escaped!
Unfortunately there was a hole in the wing fuel tanks though and the bomber was not going to make it over the Owen Stanley Ranges to the safety of Port Moresby. They flew as far as possible away from the Japanese but fuel was running out and they were going to have to crash-land somewhere in the inhospitable jungle of Northern New Guinea below. Once again some luck was bestowed upon them when they spotted what they thought was a clear field below them. It turned out to be the Agaiambo Swamp but they still set the aircraft down in a wheels up forced landing.
The B-17 hit the swampy water and slid sideways before coming to a complete stop in the thick kunai grass. Amazingly the aircraft remained intact and despite the heavy enemy fire and a crash landing all 9 crew members survived their ordeal. They struggled through the deep swamp and 6 long weeks later after help from local villagers they made it safely back to Australia. The worst thing that happened to them was that they all caught malaria during their ordeal. 3 months later they were back flying in another B-17 (pilot Captain Frederick “Fred” C. Eaton, Jr. went on to complete 102 missions flying B-17’s – 54 in the Pacific and 48 in Europe)!
The B-17E then lay lost in the swamp for 30 years until it was spotted by a Royal Australian Air Force helicopter in 1972. After all those years it had remained pretty much untouched and suffered minimal corrosion or damage (apart from some broken windows and bent propeller blades). Following this discovery the aircraft was dubbed as the “Swamp Ghost” (it was not called this in World War Two) and unfortunately became a target for souvenir hunters who during the 1970’s removed instruments and guns from the wreck (the bomb sight had been removed and deliberately sabotaged and thrown into the swamp in 1942 by a crew member but pretty much everything else was left by them when they crashed).
In the 1980’s and 1990’s various groups planned to recover this mostly intact aircraft but nothing eventuated of these plans. By 2003 and 70 years after crashing the aircraft was starting to show signs of deterioration though and had to be removed if it was to be preserved. Finally in 2006 recovery was possible and the aircraft was cut into sections and airlifted out.
This is when a problem occurred with the aircraft being impounded and the salvage operation being declared illegal by the government of Papua New Guinea! It was not until 2010 following a negotiated deal involving around $115,000 USD and the building of facilities for the PNG Museum that the aircraft was able to be shipped to the USA where it was displayed at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino California.
“SWAMP GHOST” GOES HOME
In April 2013 “Swamp Ghost” was on the move again, this time back to Hawaii where its operational career with the USAAF had started in 1941. After 72 years she was home. This is where I saw her, at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii in November 2013.
I hope one day to see “Swamp Ghost” fully restored back to her former glory (it is estimated by the museum this will cost around $5,000,000). What a resurrection that would be!