Broken Wings of Ballale Island
 

THE LAST UNDISTURBED WWII AIRFIELD

Ballale Island wrecks have been largely forgotten by by time. This has served to both protect the island from post-war scrappers, but has also made the place a target for a series of 'salvagers' to remove relics without the knowledge of the larger outside world, or compensation to the local people or government of the Solomon Islands. This is the history of the salvages and activities on the last undisturbed World War II airfield in the world.

Pre-History
Ballale Island (also known as Ballalae or Ballalai) in the Shortland Islands, was considered sacu-sacu (haunted) by the local people, as war parties stopped there to feast and a strange blue light was observed over the place in pre-contact folklore. The place was always avoided, and no one lived there. It was not until the first European settler, Sam Atkinson purchased the island, and established a productive copra plantation on the in the early 1900s. His wife, Edith McDonald, a proud and independent woman ran the plantation until 1942. Waiting until the last possible moment, she fled just prior to the arrival of the Japanese. Her family's island would never be the same.

 

 

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Japanese Airbase
March 30, 1943

World War II
The Japanese arrived in early 1942 without resistance. They built a single crushed coral runway that spanned the length of the island. It was developed the island into a forward airbase, that was an important base for both their Navy and Army during early-mid 1943. Hundreds of Allied bombing missions were destroyed the base and littered the island with wreckage. Bypassed and left to 'wither on a vine', no Allied soldier set foot on the island until an Australian Army visit in November 1945. The Australians made a shocking discovery on the island: a mass grave of British POWs, captured at Singapore and brought to the island as laborers. All perished from Allied bombings and at the hands of their Japanese captors.

 

 

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November 10, 1945

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British POW Graves

Post War Years
Edith McDonald, the pre-war owner of the island had spent the war years in Australia. The war had been particularly cruel to her. The Japanese had leveled their plantation to build a runway that spanned the length of the island, and converted nearly every inch of its terrain into an airbase. More than a hundred Allied bombing missions left the place pot-marked with bomb craters, and everywhere were shattered remains of aircraft, equipment and munitions.

In the late 1940s and early 50s most other islands and former bases the war effected were promptly visited by scrappers, who methodically worked over a location for profit: melting down the copper, brass and aluminum left from the war. Some of these profiteers made huge fortunes.

Unlike planters in nearby Papua and New Guinea, which received hefty reparations for war damages, those in the Solomons received none. At Ballale, there was little hope of re-opening the copra plantation without startup funds. Edith McDonald, was proud, principled and cared deeply for the local people. Even though financial pressures mounted, she declined an offer to have the island's war material salvaged, probably in hopes of doing the work herself when the plantation re-opened.

McDonald's decision not to scrap the island resulted in the protection of its wartime wreckage for a quarter century. Instead, the island languished, only the jungle reclaimed it. No local people lived on the island, aside from occasional hunters who passed there, or spent the night during bad weather. Locals recalled how some of the planes were prefect - their lights and gauges still were intact, and some remembered flipping switches that caused lights to shine or radios to crackle. According to them, outsiders (white people) began to visit, and remove things from them.

 

 

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Diemert's 1968 Salvage

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Barge Loaded

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Barged to Port Moresby

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Awaiting RCAF Transport

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A6M2 5450 Pensacola

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A6M2 5356
with CAF

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D3A2 3178
at
Planes of Fame

First Salvage by Robert Diemert
Nearly a quarter century had passed since the war. Ballale's time-capsule was about to be broken. In the late 1960s, Canadian Robert Diemert arrived in the south Pacific. He was a pilot, mechanically minded, and later would proclaim himself to be the first 'restorer' of WWII aircraft in the early 1960s, before the warbird craze swept the world. In 1969, he had just finished working on the movie "The Battle of Britain" where he had restored and flown Hurricane fighter for the film. Flushed with confidence and cash from the film, he figured he would got to the Pacific and salvage a Zero and a Val, and get them flying for the next big Hollywood movie, "Tora Tora Tora!" Word of the island got to Australian Bill Chapman, a Pharmacist (Chemist) working in Port Moresby, New Guinea who was interested in war relics. In 1969, Diemert visited Chapman and befriended him, and suggested he go to Ballale to find a Zero and Val. Diemert made his way to Bougainville, and then by barge to Ballale.

There he, found the treasure trove he imagined: an island full of Japanese wrecks. He had to hurry, Ballale was actually over the border in the Solomon Islands - another country. In the late 1960s enforcement and laws in these pacific countries were lax. All there was to do was enlist the help of some locals, promise them some future compensation, and load as many planes aboard his barge as possible!

Diemert loaded a VAL and three Zeros aboard his barge. Since the planes were intact, their wings and tails would have to be cut off (not disassembled). In a move that makes today's preservationists cringe, he use an axes to cut the wings and tails off! His visit was cut short with a violent case of scrub typhus he contracted on the island and rush to the hospital. He left with only one barge load of booty, that sailed back to Port Moresby. After narrowly recovering from his illness, Diemert convinced the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) to pick up the relics in one of their transports flying via Port Moresby, and air lift them back to Canada for free... in exchange for one of the (the Val) for their museum.

One of the Zeros he recovered, the first he restored crashed at his workshop in Canada on its first flight, destroying it. The other two were restored: one to static condition, and sold to the USMC Museum. Today, this Zero is displayed at National Museum of Naval Aviation (NMNA). The other to (barely) flying condition, and sold to the CAF (Commemorative Air Force). The VAL dive bomber was also (barely) restored to flying condition, but later deemed unsafe for flight. It was donated to the Canadian National Aviation Museum, in 'payment' for the shipment. In 1991, it was traded to the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, who have been slowly re-restoring the plane since then.

Diemert was not involved with the movie Tora Tora Tora! that instead used AT-6 with cosmetic changes to make them look like Zeros and Vals. A documentary released in 1988 "The Defender" follows his strange exploits and includes some footage of his restoration of the Zero for the CAF. Diemert himself fell into obscurity following his adventures at Ballale, and he sold his remain bit of aircraft to another company in Canada, the Blayd Corporation. None the less, the salvaged Zeros and Val are considered 'priceless' by the organizations that own them today.


 

Ballale Reopens
Back in Australia, the McDonald decedents were unaware of the salvages from their island (until research for this article), and received no notification or compensation for them. Unrelated they took actions in the early 1970s related to their island. Lillian Dickes, the daughter of Edith acknowledged the family plantation would not be re-opened, and donated the runway and dock area to the government of the Solomon Islands, so that some infrastructure would be available to the people of the area. The remainder of the island went to the "Balalai Development Company, Ltd." to administer the island.

A group of British engineers, working with local laborers (school children from nearby Nila Mission School) cleared the overgrown runway, and moved unexploded munitions. For the first time in thirty years, aircraft could again take off and land on the island. During the 1970s, visitors made their way to the island, including including authors and historians Charles Darby, William Bartsch, Michael Claringbould. Published photos of wrecks on the island appeared in Pacific Aircraft Wrecks (Darby) and After The Battle Magazine (Bartsch). Like all photos of aircraft wrecks on distant tropical islands, the images inspired dreamers and salvagers alike.


 

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Sketch of the island
by logger J. Holmes 1970

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Caterpillar Bulldozer abandoned by Murphy

 

Reported Salvages
In the 1970s, Allardyce Lumber began logging on nearby Shortland Island. Expatriates managers were stationed in the area to work there. On weekends, they visited the island and collected bits and pieces for themselves. When someone completed their work, they often took a Japanese machine gun or other relic home as a souvenirs. During this period, another wreck reportedly went missing (unconfirmed) to aviation enthused logger before logging ceased.

An American, Patrick Murphy had become involved in the Solomon Islands and World War II when he moved there in the early 1990s. Winning the respect of the former prime minister, he imported weapons and self-defense system (antiquated Korean war radar) to the country. He began collecting WWII relics, and excavated the crash site of A6M2 Zero 3647. By the late 1990s, he had fallen out of favor with the government and was asked to leave the country. Around that same time, he traveled to Ballale, after befriending politician Dominic Otwana from the region.

Reportedly, when he arrived, he asked Faruo Islanders to assist in shipping a wreck (a Zero, identity unknown) to Bougainville for export. Lawrence Kibule, witnessed the happenings: "It is true, an American man named Patrick Murphy got three boys from Fauro Island, to have him take a fighter airplane from Ballale. He told them he would pay them $10,000 but only gave them one case of beer. When he left they knew he had lied. They never saw him again."

Today, the only traces of the crime is the abandoned bulldozer and another missing wreck that has not resurfaced [as far known] in any warbird collection or museums to date.

 

 

 

The Bougainville Crisis
During the decade long 'Bougainville Crisis' from 1990-2000 between the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF) and Bougainville rebels, Ballale had a small role. Desperate rebel forces visited the island in search of weapons and explosives to use against the PNGDF, armed with modern weapons. Most of the machine guns from the island's wrecks were spirited away, in hopes they would turn the tide of battle. What used were aerial bombs left on a portion of the island. These bombs were emptied of their cordite cores, to be used in homemade bombs. It is unclear if any of these explosives or weapons were actually used, or if they inflicted more casualties on the collectors than their enemies. Fifty years after WWII, the former weapons of war were used again!

 

 

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Wrecks on the move

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Wrecks collected for salvage

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Collected for salvage

Salvage of More Wrecks
Most recently, new faces have taken an interest in the relics on Ballale and hoped to export and sell some, or all of them.

In the late 1990s Canadian, Chris Cowx visited the area as a tourist. He was amazed at the relics in the Solomons, particularly at Ballale. He began to inquire about buying wrecks, and presented to the local people and politicians, an plan for a community development project funded by selling some of the aircraft from Ballale.

In 2003, Australian Craig Turner, a self-appointed advisor to the Solomon Islands National Museum was issued a permit to export war relics, in exchange for help he would offer to the museum. According to Cowx, he and Turner work together, even traveled to Ballale, but problems developed and Cowx left the agreement. A back and forth sparring in the form of letters to the editor between Cowx and Turner unfolded in the Solomon Island Star Newspaper about Ballale and its wrecks, between November 2005 - January 2006.

Proceeding solo, Turner tagged wrecks with red cloth for removal. Primarily A6M Zeros, a D3A2 Val and G4M1 Betty. Also engines, propellers and other smaller parts. Around December 2005, thirty or more locals were hired to man-handle the aircraft from a bone yard area over a cut path to the beach. There, the salvage halted. Locals were in disagreement about proposal and their end of the deal, particularly Farou Islanders who were the traditional landowners of the island, and against the salvage.

According to the Solomon Islands National Museum, the salvage from Ballale is is to help build a new "War Museum Wing" at the museum. The potential sale will benefit the museum, local people and Australian advisor, Craig Turner in equal thirds. Instead of selling relics, did the musuem contact aid donors to contribute to museum improvements? Such organizations and governments been generous with the museum, including the donation of a Youth Center at the musuem dedicated in 2003. Past museums include Myanmar Association, Sendai-Japan, Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel and the Japanese Government.

 

 
 

Tsunami
On April 2, 2007, an 8.1 earthquake caused a tsunami that hit the Western Province of Solomon Islands. Ballale Island's north-eastern coast was hit by a tidal wave of undetermined size or strength. Since no one lived on the island, no people were injured. Several wrecks in that portion of the island were effected by the wave.

 

 
 

The Future
It is yet to be seen if the moved relics will be returned to their former location, left to languish, or actually be sold as the museum and its advisor plan.

Meanwhile, new hopes immerge, with several tourist lodges open in the area, and several more planned. These developments making it easier for visitors to visit this island themselves, and make a possibility for these artifacts to have a life related to tourism. If the people choose to sell them, hopefully they will learn form the lessons of the past and get paid up front for their fair value on the warbird market.

The relics of Ballale are undoubtedly both priceless and worthless. They are priceless to history and as time capsules. They are worthless if destroyed or inaccessible to those who want to visit the island and study them.

 

 
 

References
Thanks to Allan Dickes for prewar information
Thanks to Robert Diemert, Ryan Toews, Alan Gaynor for 1969 salvage
Email correspondence with Chris Cowx, Craig Turner
Lawrence Foanaota (SINM director)

 

 
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