Lost Planes - Lost Men

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Lost Planes - Lost Men

Post by West-Front » Mon Feb 18, 2008 3:36 am

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbrie ... 149496.htm

3 February 2008

Hundreds of Australian war planes crashed in Queensland, PNG, and the Pacific during WW2. Many haven't been found, and the remains of their crew still lie where they crashed. There's a global trade in souveniring these wrecks, and surprising things are found in the jungles, the mountains and the seas. Reporter Ian Townsend.


Chester Wilmot: Still, there go those tracers ... You hear those light ack-ack guns? There goes the lead from the 31st, but they're well below the level of this plane.

Chester Wilmot: Hit by tracers from one of our fighters - red and yellow tracers went steaming past them and there's one hit the tail of the plane. I can see a burst of light from it ...
Ian Townsend: What you're listening is a remarkable report from 1942, of a Japanese air raid on the city of Townsville.

The ABC's war correspondent, Chester Wilmot happened to be in Townsville and recorded an enemy plane dropping its bombs and being shot by American fighters.This recording is from the ABC's archives, and like the planes you can hear, it's precious now because it's so rare.Today, Background Briefing looks at what's happening to the last of the Pacific warplanes, and the men who flew them.

Ian Townsend: Sixty-six years after that air raid and we're 50 kilometres as the crow flies down the coast from Townsville, in a thick forest of mangroves. Everything's thick here; the mud, the air, the mosquitoes. We're near the town of Giru, and it's taken us the best part of a day to get to this spot, by boat through a maze of creeks, and then we've walked across saltpans and through a tangle of mangrove roots. And suddenly we're tripping over the wreckage of a plane, a wartime RAAF bomber that crashed here in 1942. The light's dim inside this forest, until we stumble into a clearing, a perfect circle. This is bomb crater. It's also a grave.

Men: Here it is. See this? How it's a neat circle? This is where your bomb crater is. This is where your remains are underneath this. A lot of remains in here, eh. You'll find bullets through here, all sorts of things. There you go, the pipe's got the details on it.

Ian Townsend: Here, beneath the wings of a Hudson bomber, are the remains of four men. They died at this spot in May of 1942, just before that Townsville air raid and just after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Their Hudson bomber collided with another bomber as they searched for enemy submarines. The second Hudson crash-landed not that far from here, and the crew survived. But this bomber exploded before it hit the ground. The plane and the men were blown to pieces. Here on the ground, bits of metal gleam as if it happened yesterday. Despite the tropical heat, the thought that there are four men still buried here makes you shiver.

Each is listed as missing, with no known grave.

But this is their grave. And it's not a muddy battlefield in France or Germany, or Vietnam or New Guinea. This is Australian soil. we've been brought to this spot by a local, Kevin Whelan, who was last here 40 years ago.


Kevin Whelan: That's where they put them. They couldn't get them out, it was impossible. Bone.

Ian Townsend: There's actually little evidence of human remains on the surface. The white streaks in the mud may be bone, or they may be slivers of soft corroded metal. In any case, we're not going to disturb anything here because the records show that this is a grave. After the explosion the plane's tail fluttered down in one piece onto a salt pan a few hundred metres away. When a search party reached the site two days after the crash, they put all the body parts they could find into this crater, which is now full of water.They dragged a section of the wing over the top, and that's the way it's been left for 66 years. When you were here last Kevin, you said you saw some human remains?

Kevin Whelan: Yes, not at this site here, over there, about half a mile over. I mean toe bones, in a boot, and a part of skull, the top part of the skull.

Ian Townsend: What happened to those, did you leave them?

Kevin Whelan: I never touched them, left them as they were. A tragedy all right, all these young lives lost, and just left there, and no-one seems to worry about them. I reckon they should be given a decent burial myself. Why can't we exhume the bones and take them back to the War Cemetery in Townsville and bury them?

Ian Townsend: Kevin Whelan's asking the obvious question. Why shouldn't the bones of Sergeant Maurice Cooper, Sergeant Herbert Gillam, Sergeant Jim Herman and Pilot Officer John Jewell be dug up and reburied in a cemetery?It seems like the right thing to do, but there are good reasons why these men should stay where they are.

Sergeant Jim Herman, the plane's wireless operator and gunner, was 28 when he died here. His parents lived in the suburb of Woodville in Adelaide, and it was only two months earlier that Jim's brother, Ron, was killed in a similar plane crash in Malta. This was a family disaster.

Background Briefing has tracked down Sergeant Jim Herman's niece, Jill Sheppard.

Jill Sheppard: It was devastating. The younger boy Ronald had died in March of 1942. As you could understand they were reeling from that and two months later, had the telegram to say that Jim was believed dead, and that was then confirmed by letter, I think within a week or so, that Jim died on his younger sister's birthday and it really devastated the family, and my surviving aunt, who's often said that her mother, my grandmother, never again played the piano or sang around the piano, and that had been one of the favourite things in the family, that she would play, and they all played, but she would play and all the children would sing. And the children had friends and partners, and it was a great family occasion, but my grandmother never again played or sang, and she died very young in 1951.

Ian Townsend: The crash site is sacred for this family and there are people still alive who remember the day the terrible news arrived. The memory's still raw for Jim Herman's surviving sister and brother. His niece, Jill Sheppard, is speaking here on behalf of his family.

Jill Sheppard: It took two days for a search party to reach the wreckage and on investigation they found that the aircraft was totally wrecked, that the bodies of the crew had all died on impact and that the remains of the bodies were badly smashed up, I think were the words used in the letters to Jim's parents, and that the Senior Medical Officer had been with the search party and had made the decision that it was not possible to retrieve any remains for burial. And I think the final letter in one of the letters to Jim's parents was along the lines that they could be proud perhaps that his final resting place was with his aircraft.

Ian Townsend: And Sergeant Herman's remains have never been recovered. The family knows that they're still at the crash site near Giru, and they've always believed that the site was so hard to find that no-one would ever go there. But we've been there. And there's evidence that others have been there too, because parts of this plane are missing. This site is no longer as inaccessible as it once was. And there are people out there searching for sites just like this. There aren't many Lockheed Hudson bombers left in the world. What is left is being restored and there's a big demand for original plane parts. Even a small piece of pipe in a mangrove swamp could be just what a restorer's looking for. And if it can't be used itself for the plane, it can be copied. Every part of these rare planes is now worth something.

There are now so few parts and so few planes out in the field that the competition for what's left is cut-throat and there's big money in it.

The warbird restoration industry makes many Second World War historians shudder, because the evidence of the war where it was fought is vanishing, often into the hands of private collectors. One Australian has been working on a database of crashed planes and missing servicemen from the Pacific war. Daniel Leahy runs a website called Pacific Ghosts.

Daniel Leahy: It's almost ruthless nowadays.

Ian Townsend: There's competition?

Daniel Leahy: That there is. People trying to get hold of a, for example, the Swamp Ghost, there were numerous bids to try and get that out of a swamp up in Papua-New Guinea.

Ian Townsend: So is it collectors or museums, or mainly collectors?

Daniel Leahy: A lot of museums try and do it, a lot of collectors do it for museums. A lot of collectors pose as museums.

Ian Townsend: They'd have to be fairly rich to do this sort of hobby.

Daniel Leahy: Oh, they are.

Ian Townsend: How rich are some of these people?

Daniel Leahy: Oh, millions I'd say.

Ian Townsend: Daniel Leahy mentions a plane called the 'Swamp Ghost'. Two years ago, an American B-17 bomber dubbed the 'Swamp Ghost' was removed from a swamp in New Guinea after someone paid $US100,000 for the salvage rights. It's been seized by the New Guinea government and it's still being fought over by people who want to restore it.

Daniel Leahy: Well, basically a B17 like the Swamp Ghost is always been sought after, and now it seems that some of the rarer things, say an early P40 or something like that, or a P47 pulled out of the swamp or out of a jungle, they're the ones that seem to be sought after.

Ian Townsend: What's a P47?

Daniel Leahy: A P47 was a single engine American fighter.

Ian Townsend: It's not just rich private collectors who want to own their own warplane. There are aviation and military museums everywhere. There are dozens of them in Australia, and a restored warplane is a big drawcard.There are of course, good reasons for salvaging, restoring and displaying these old warplanes. Out in the bush or under the sea, they're rotting. Preserved, they're a piece of history that thousands of people can see. It's actually the job of the Australian War Memorial to collect and display examples of warplanes and other military equipment. A senior curator at the War Memorial with a special interest in warplanes is John White.

John White: Those wrecks, or the parts, offer tremendous opportunities for a place like the War Memorial, which say, for instance, might want to put together an example of the unique aircraft like the Beaufort. There were certain parts we needed that could only have come from New Guinea. As the result of our work, we now have a pretty intact example of that really important aircraft to show the public. I think that's worth doing.

Ian Townsend: Are there many wreck sites still to be found, do you think?

John White: I thought a bit about this question. It's very, very difficult to come up with an estimate for this. There are still some dozens of RAAF aircraft whose location is unknown. The locations of hundreds of American aircraft are unknown. Now where exactly they are is difficult: aircraft might be out to sea, probably most of them are. Quite a number of aircraft vanished, travelling between Australia and Papua-New Guinea. The weather conditions and navigation being very difficult there; no indication of where they are. But some of those sites produce interesting results. An American bomber, a Liberator bomber which vanished right at the top of the north of Australia, was subsequently found far down into Queensland; it had got lost and flown to the limit of its range and then crashed with the loss of all aboard, and wasn't found until just a few years ago. So the wildness of Australia's terrain, the isolation of many places, makes it possible that someone will one day just walk in a particular area and trip over a wreck that no-one has seen before.

Ian Townsend: In fact, on the day I spoke to John White, he told me that someone had phoned to report the wreck of a Japanese warplane. Now the War Memorial gets these reports all the time, but imagine a Japanese plane found in the bush after 65 years. If it's a genuine new find, the remains of the pilot could still be there. We'd all like to know the story about that plane and its pilot. As a crash site it'd be fascinating. But around the Pacific, such wreck sites are vanishing and their stories are being lost, says Daniel Leahy.

Daniel Leahy: You go visiting a site and you go to a village and you'll always get the story of 'My Dad's Dad told me of when this crashed', or you'll get a witness there that says, 'I helped the pilot', or something like that. And that kind of adds to the whole mystery and the story of this one piece of equipment or this one aircraft that's sitting there, which you can't have back in Australia or in America in a museum, or wherever.

Ian Townsend: and this is the hot debate at the moment. Should what's left be removed to be protected and restored, or should it be left as it is? There are good arguments for both sides.

John White from the Australian War Memorial.

John White: It does get some people's blood up, and the War Memorial, for instance, when we're involved in the salvage of material, which we have done, perhaps not in recent years but five or six years ago we had done several recoveries. We put a lot of effort into making certain that landowners, local government and national governments involved in these recoveries, people who owned the places where the aircraft were, or even owned the wrecks themselves, were fully satisfied and dealt with in the process of the recovery. So that when we brought the material back to Australia and incorporated it in our displays or our collection, that we knew that there were no problems in the long term, that's really important. It's important to be respectful and to stay within the law even though it might take a long time to work through the obstacles.

Ian Townsend: But it can also cost a lot of money to overcome the obstacles. Simply recovering a plane is expensive, and then it might cost a million dollars to restore it, if you can find the parts. Once restored, a plan can sell for several million dollars. People have been collecting warbirds since the late 1960s, but today interest is soaring and they're also much harder to find.

John White: And I think that that's prompted people to do some of the most extraordinary recoveries. People have been doing a lot of work in the former USSR, Russia, occupied territories, places where there were crashes in Europe during the war, the Pacific is another area. We've seen aircraft being pulled out of freshwater lakes in places like Northern Europe. Aircraft have been located and recovered from under the sea. In some cases these are just such rare machines that the big effort is justifiable.

Ian Townsend: John White.

Ian Townsend: We're heading back to the crash site of that Hudson bomber near Townsville. This is one of the more inaccessible wrecks from the Second World War.

Right, we're dragging the boat over a sandbar. What creek's this, Kevin?

Kevin Whelan: Salty Creek.

Ian Townsend: Why is it called Salty Creek?

Kevin Whelan: Saltwater crocodile in it.

Ian townsend: To get here, you need to spend a couple of hours in a boat, find the right creek, pull the boat over sandbars and avoid crocodiles. Back in 1962, Kevin Whelan, who owned a local zoo, was the first to find this site since the war.

Kevin Whelan: I swore black and blue I'd never come back here.

Ian Townsend: Why?

Kevin Whelan: Well, when we came it was absolutely full of mosquitoes and sandflies and mud up to your knees, up to your waist in some places.

Ian Townsend: What did you see when you first came to this area? We haven't quite reached the crash site yet. What do you remember?

Kevin Whelan: Oh, we saw the tail section of a plane still intact with the bullseye on it, and the camouflage paint. Inside the tail section there's a flying shoe with a flying boot with the bones, toe bones in it. And then we went through the mangrove swamp with a lot of trouble and we got to the bomb crater, hundreds of rounds of .303 ammo lying on the ground. The bomb crater was full of water. A part of one of the crew members, part of his skull laying on the ground, and there was a machine gun, all rusted.

Ian Townsend: So there were still some remains here?

Kevin Whelan: They were buried underneath the wing of the plane, apparently, from what we understand. That's what Arthur told me. Said they couldn't carry him out, couldn't get him. He told me that the crabs were actually eating him when they got to him.

Ian Townsend: That was back in 1942?

Kevin Whelan: 24th May, 1942, when the planes went down. But I think it was a couple of days before they got in here.

Ian Townsend: I'm here also with Rod Burgess from the North Queensland Military Museum, who's worried about how best to preserve this site. I see what you mean by bits of wreckage scattered all over the place. Just as we're walking through here, there's pipes, bits of rubber.

Rod Burgess: You can see this is the engine cowling. That's the exhaust ring.

Kevin Whelan: Just over there, this corroded bit of steel was the exhaust ring.

Ian Townsend: Over here is the wheel of the plane, with the rubber still on it. A plane wing is wedged between trees, and beneath it you can see the blue and red circles of the Royal Australian Air Force. If you'd like to see exactly what it looks like, there's a photograph of the wing and other parts of the crash on the Background Briefing website. But what's not here is the plane's tail section and the boot with the toe bones in it, that Kevin described, has gone. The tail section was salvaged ten years ago. It's been used to restore another warplane, a Lockheed Ventura, a sister plane to the Hudson, and it's now on display at the Queensland Air Museum on the Sunshine Coast. Warplanes are being restored everywhere, it seems. It's often a labour of love by enthusiasts and even the men who flew them, who'd like to see them fly again.

Down the road from the Queensland Air Museum, in a hanger at the Caboolture airport, an RAAF Beaufort bomber is being painstakingly pieced together from the parts of more than 80 different planes from all over Australia and New Guinea. Like the Hudson bomber, there aren't that many Beauforts left to see. Before Australia produced the Holden car, we made 700 Beaufort bombers for the war. The early ones had a design fault that made many dive inexplicably and crash. Others were later shot down, some crash landed, and after the war, those that were left were sold for scrap metal.
You flew the Beauforts?

John Lemke: Yes.

Wally Dalitz: He's a DFC man.

Ian Townsend: Right. Really?

Wally Dalitz: For years, helped physically on this rebuild, and tried to organise funds for it. But finally got so discouraged.

Ian Townsend: Yes, big project and it would be frustrating.

Helping to put this plane back together are veteran Beaufort pilots, Wally Dalitz and John Lemke. They were among hundreds of young men who were rushed into training and then into battle over New Guinea during the war. Many didn't come back and in New Guinea alone, there are still about 500 American, Australian and Japanese warplanes missing in action. But in Australia, most crashes were training accidents. At the hangar where the Beaufort bomber's being restored, Wally Dalitz recalls one colleague who didn't come back.

Wally Dalitz: And he just disappeared one night, because you know, John, we did a lot of flying across Bass Strait. I remember this night, there was no cloud, a full moon, and a glassy sea, and without the instruments you'd have been history because it was just like being inside a large silver sphere.

John Lemke: We had quite a few off our course which was at Bairnsdale, in the early days of Beaufort when they first came off the production line. And I'm quite sure there's a number of our guys who disappeared, just went to sleep.

Ian Townsend: Were they ever found?

John Lemke: No, not in every case. Some were over the ocean, so they were never found.

Ian Townsend: World War II pilot John Lemke.

One of the popular tunes from 1942 was this song, A Brown Slouch Hat.

Ian Townsend: In 1942, everyone thought that the Japanese were about to invade. Historians still argue about the true threat of invasion, but at the time Americans were pouring into the country, Singapore had fallen, Japanese soldiers were advancing along the Kokoda track, submarines torpedoed ships in Sydney Harbour. The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought in May of 1942, just two weeks before Jim Herman's Hudson bomber crashed, looking for subs near Townsville. And Japanese planes were bombing towns across Australia's north, including Broome, Darwin and Townsville.

Chester Wilmot: The sounds as though the bombs are coming down, I don't know, but there they go. Yes, they're falling in the water. Dead above us now ...

Ian Townsend: This is the report we heard earlier from the ABC's war correspondent describing an air raid on Townsville as it happened.

Chester Wilmot: You hear those light ack-ack guns, pumping out the lead of the 31st, but they're well below the level of this plane. You can hear the drone of our fighter as it turns around to get another attack. The first fighter's still holding it in its bead and seems to me to be losing height.

Ian Townsend: Standing beside Chester Wilmot and watching the Japanese bomber caught in the searchlights is an American fighter pilot. He's watching one of his buddies in a fighter plane shoot the enemy bomber and kill the rear gunner.

Chester Wilmot: What did you think of that then?

Pilot: Good shooting.

Chester Wilmot: Did you think, as I did, that he put one burst right into the tail of the plane?

Pilot: I believe he got his 20mm shell in there, looks like one exploded there at the end of it.

Chester Wilmot: It looked very good, didn't it?

Pilot: It sure did.

Ian Townsend: A number of American fighter planes known as P-39s, Airacobras, went up to defend the city. The P-39 Airacobra is now a highly collectable plane. Whether you fly or drive up the North Queensland coast nowadays, you probably wouldn't realise that a fierce air war had been fought from here. You might see a bent plane propeller at a war memorial in one of the towns. There are signs in the scrub that mark the site of what was an air base or a barracks. One man who's spent most of his life collecting the relics of this war is retired farmer Syd Beck, who runs a war museum at Mareeba, west of Cairns.

Gidday Syd is it? Ian Townsend ABC Radio National.

Syd Beck: How are you?

Syd Beck: I guess you don't want to go to the house, I guess you want to come to here.

Ian Townsend: Syd Beck has found some amazing things in the bush and along the coast, and he's built an enormous shed in his backyard to house them. Here you can find a tank, personnel carriers, chemical bombs and ammunition, bits and pieces of all sorts of planes. The pride of his collection is an American Airacobra, one of several that crash landed in a swamp on Cape York in 1942. The pilot of this plane was Charles Falletta, who just happened to be one of the pilots defending Townsville during that air raid we heard earlier. Falletta's fighter plane was salvaged from the swamp in the mid-1970s, and Syd Beck has held onto it, despite being offered a lot of money.

Syd Beck: It is worth a heck of a lot of money in the US.

Ian Townsend: How much?

Syd Beck: Well from nothing to, say $5-million. The chances of getting $5-million are quite slender but that figure has been offered 25, 30 years ago when the aircraft first came out of Cape York.

Ian Townsend: To you?

Syd Beck: To me, yes.

Ian Townsend: Have you had any offers since?

Syd Beck: Not of latter time, because I made it quite clear that there was no market.

Ian Townsend: Syd Beck.

When you drive from Mareeba down the mountains to Cairns, and then beside the Coral Sea up to Port Douglas, you're actually driving past warplane wrecks just off the coast.

Port Douglas is also the home of Ben Cropp.

Ben Cropp's made a name for himself finding and filming shipwrecks over the years, but lately he's turned his attention to warplanes. There are just so many of them. And there are so many interesting things still to be found on these wrecks.

The first thing you see when you walk into Ben Cropp's living room is the muzzle of a machine gun that he raised from a wreck not far from here. The incredible thing is that even though this gun is steel, there's hardly any rust on it. The magazine that contained the bullets still opens and closes.

Ben Cropp: Yes, 65 years and when we actually first pulled it up, you could open up that magazine cover, you could open it up. It was quite incredible.

Ian Townsend: Which wreck was that from?

Ben Cropp: That was a Mitchell bomber that we found just north of Cooktown, and we worked it quite a bit, in fact we were there only about two weeks ago. It's quite dirty water, it's quite spooky, and she's flipped upside down. But my sons love it, they love going down and digging around. We found a lot of ammunition, a pistol, and the remarkable thing about the pistol that my son Dean found, we had a photo of this plane a week before it crashed, and in the cockpit you could see this pistol in a holster, hanging in the cockpit. And Dean went down and found that exact pistol. But even just around here there's a Mitchell bomber just six miles away from where we are at Port. There's another one at Ruby Reef which is probably 30 miles away, up on the reef in very shallow water. You know, there's quite a number. And there's still a couple that I've been looking for. I know they're out there, but I haven't found them yet. This is just near Port Douglas.

Ian Townsend: Ben Cropp lives on the water with a magnificent view up the coast. His dive boat is anchored at his front door. He spends much of his time diving on plane wrecks because it's illegal now to disturb most shipwrecks. Warplanes don't have that legal protection, in fact it seems to be enthusiasts who do most of the work finding, documenting and even protecting these sites.

A year ago, Ben Cropp found a plane wreck that might turn out to be one of the most extraordinary every found. Near the tip of Cape York he believes he's discovered an American B-17 bomber that was flown by a U.S. General. General Howard Ramey vanished after leaving New Guinea in 1943.

Ben Cropp's convinced that he's found General Ramey's bomber, the 'Pluto'. If it is Ramey's plane, there are ten bodies with this wreck.

Ben Cropp: There are ten dog tags there, but it takes a lot of digging because the dog tags sink down to the bottom of the plane, or the bodies float away and the dog tags go with them, so either way it's difficult. But we will, we're determined, we've done three trips to this plane, we're going back again this year, but we'll be financed by America this year. An American group has taken a lot of interest. They're called Moore's Marauders, and for them it's 'bring them back home'.

Ian Townsend: Moore's Marauders is one of the groups actively searching for the remains of America's war dead. Even 65 years after the end of the Second World War, there are 78,000 American servicemen still missing in action and perhaps 10,000 around the Solomons, New Guinea and Australia.

Moore's Marauders is a private group. If they find evidence of remains, the American military comes in to recover the bones and take them back to the U.S.

Moore's Marauders is trying to find if Ben Cropp really has found General Ramey's B-17. The group's founder, Kenneth Moore, is on the phone from Arizona.

Kenneth Moore: It would bed a major find. There were only two US Generals lost during World War II and General Ramey was one of them. A very colourful figure too, by the way.

Ian Townsend: How difficult is it to find remains in the sea of airmen who crashed and died?

Kenneth Moore: You know, it is so bizarre. For example, when I found my uncle's aircraft, the remains were not there, we somewhat knew that that was going to be the case, based upon the research that we had done. But one of his machine guns off the rear of the B-29, it was pristine. All the chrome, the chrome feeding device on the side and the chrome nipple on the front of the 50-calibre weapon looked as good as it does on my brand new car outside. It's phenomenal. We found a P-51 in the Marianas and the gentlemen's remains were still in it. So it's difficult to say how the ocean treats some of these things, the same with the jungle.

Ian Townsend: There must be hundreds of planes still out there.

Kenneth Moore: I would put it well over the thousand mark.

Ian Townsend: And many of America's men missing in action, or M.I.A.s, are in plane wrecks. They're the easiest remains to recover, too, because the planes mark where these men died. The bones sieved from these sites can be matched to the crew by DNA and dental records.

Increasingly though, when Moore's Marauders gets to an M.I.A. plane wreck, bits of it have already been removed. Sometimes the whole plane's gone. And as you heard, Kenneth Moore says even though they're getting harder to find, there are more than a thousand planes still out there.

Many were left behind as the Japanese retreated through the Pacific.

This ABC news report is from 1944 and describes the American advance.

Newsreader: Here is the news. American marines and troops have fought their way inland from the beaches of Guam Island. General MacArthur's Liberators helped in the operations by bombing airfields in the Carolines.

General MacArthur's headquarters reports that the heaviest of these attacks was against Yap on Wednesday. One bomber was lost. Other raids were directed against Ballale, Walleai, Sorol, and Ngulu.

Ian Townsend: In that report, the newsreader mentions an island called Ballale. It's also pronounced Ballalae (BAL-uh-lye), and it's one of the most remarkable warplane graveyards left in the Pacific.

Lately though, Ballalae has become a battleground between warbird salvagers and the people who want to see the last of these warplanes left where they are.

Ballalae is in the Solomons, in the Shortland Islands group near the border with Papua New Guinea.

At the end of the war, the Japanese fled this island. The surviving British prisoners who'd built its airstrip were executed. Hundreds of them. The Japanese left behind almost everything: guns, beer bottles, bodies, and warplanes. For decades it's remained largely untouched.

In November last year, an American who's been recording the island's many plane wrecks happened to arrive just as the wrecks were being loaded onto a boat.

Justin Taylan had arrived by yacht with three friends and started filming. But he was arrested by the Solomons police.

The day before he was tried for illegally entering the country, I spoke to Justin Taylan. He's speaking to me by mobile phone from the yacht off the town of Gizo in the Solomons.

Justin Taylan: Well Ballalae Island is a location that doesn't just captivate myself and my colleagues who are studying the history, and trying to document the physical remains of the war that remain there, it's also caught the attention of many people who hope to remove the airplane wrecks from the islands and sell them. And specifically, during our visit to the island in November, we had the unfortunate timing of arriving precisely when an Australian salvager was there to collect the relics that he had moved close to the shore previously, and export them overseas. I should add that according to him this project was done in co-ordination with Solomon Island National Museum and the terms of that agreement are not publicly known, and as soon as we observed this salvage, we were immediately taken into custody by the police and held without charges for 18 days, our passports confiscated and even the film footage and video that we had shot on the island was confiscated from us. No charges were filed and it became very obvious to my friends and I that we had observed something that we were not supposed to see and something that obviously the people involved wanted to make sure the rest of the world didn't know about.

Ian Townsend: Justin Taylan was convicted of illegally entering the country the day after I spoke to him. He and his friends had faced three years jail, but instead they were fined.

This is a big story for the people of the Solomons. Tourism is the major industry and increasingly, tourists want to see war wrecks.

Background Briefing understands that some warplanes salvaged from Ballalae were to be sent to a warbird collector in the UK. The salvaging of these wrecks is causing a lot of anxiety.

The previous Solomons Government apparently struck a deal last November with local chiefs to export every warplane wreck in the Shortland Islands group. It agreed to pay chiefs from a group of islands known as FAMOA 50,000 Solomon Island dollars for the wrecks. That's about 7-thousand Australian dollars. Many locals are very unhappy with the deal, and a Solomon Islands television station called One News sent a reporter to the Shortland Islands to investigate.

Newsreader: Two weeks ago, with the approval of government, the chiefs of FAMOA were paid 50,000 dollars and signed off on a deal with an overseas buyer to sell their relics overseas. Owen Taylor with more.

Owen Taylor: One News camera and this time ...

Man: We believe that there are a lot of people behind this deal, people that we don't know about, people that we've never seen before, we'd never meet. There's a lot of money changing hands. We as chiefs don't even know when we're going to get our bit that they've promised out of $US220,000 to move 11 planes, priceless and both worthless. Priceless in the form of history and important coming in of tourists to see it. And worthless at the same time, it's just a piece of metal. But the pricelessness to us is it's our treasure as well.

Ian Townsend: That report is from the television station One News in the Solomon Islands.

This isn't happening just in the Pacific, it's happening around Australia as well. Whole planes have vanished from crash sites near Darwin, and the Northern Territory Government's now cracking down on the salvagers.

Darwin was bombed 64 times during the war, and had more bombs dropped on it than Pearl Harbour. During the biggest raid in 1942, 188 Japanese planes dropped 300 bombs and killed 243 people. The evidence of that air war can still be found in the bush.

But it's been disappearing, bit by bit.

The President of the Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory is Peter Radtke.

Peter Radtke: We've had people come up here and load stuff onto trucks to take it away and they've been intercepted by police and/or government and we've managed to save a lot of the stuff.

Ian Townsend: Have you managed to prosecute anybody?

Peter Radtke: Not really, no, that always gets too difficult, so it never really happens.

Ian Townsend: But if there is a law there, there is potentially a deterrence I suppose?

Peter Radtke: Oh yes, there is potentially.

Ian Townsend: The Northern Territory has started putting its warplane wrecks on a heritage list. It's illegal to take things from these sites, which are being roped off. It's one of the few places where there's a law specifically protecting warplanes.

In Queensland, diver and documentary maker, Ben Cropp says no government official even raised an eyebrow when he reported finding that American B-17.

Ben Cropp: On the official side, no. Maybe we don't want the official side because they'll bring all their bureaucracy in and stop it anyway.

Ian Townsend: But it sounds like a significant site, whatever it is. If it's not a B-17, for instance, it must be another wreck and possibly from World War II.

Ben Cropp: It is a B-17. That's what I keep saying to these guys, it is a B-17, don't try and make it another plane, there's no doubt about it.

Ian Townsend: It's important though then to find out as much as possible about it and to find out whether it can be preserved and what should or shouldn't be taken from the site. Are you surprised there isn't more official interest?

Ben Cropp: I am surprised, yes, I'm, quite surprised. I thought the bureaucracy was lot stronger, but it seems with the planes it's not, they just let us - basically they've let us have a free go, which is good, they haven't interfered at all.

Ian Townsend: It's a legally grey area. Some planes are automatically protected if they've crashed in a National Park, say, or within three miles of the coast of New South Wales.

In Queensland, the government does have a heritage register that could also protect crash sites, but there are no planes listed on it yet.

It's been suggested that plane wrecks should be included in the National Historic Shipwrecks Act. But really, these rare World War Two aircraft wrecks and crash sites are falling through the cracks in our heritage laws.

The maritime archaeologist with the New South Wales Office of Heritage is Tim Smith.

Tim Smith: Aircraft traditionally have not been the focus of archaeological study in Australia because of the number of shipwrecks and the sheer volume of work to identify, locate, protect and manage those sites. But over the last five to ten years there's been a growing acceptance there's another whole class of archaeological site out there around our coastal waterways and that is historic aircraft, largely related to World War Two activity. An area of discussion now is how best to preserve aircraft at sea, because they're not typically protected as items in their own right.

Ian Townsend: Another thing that's changed in the last five to ten years is the amount of public interest in the wars fought close to Australia.

Three of the last six remaining Australians from Vietnam were found last year, and brought home. The remains of Lance Corporal John Gillespie were flown back to Australia for burial just before Christmas.

Like the Americans, the search for the missing Australians is left to private groups. In Australia's case, it's a group called Operation Aussies Home. Its founder is Jim Bourke.

Jim Bourke: I think we have a moral responsibility to do our best to fully account for missing servicemen. In some cases this is an extremely difficult task.

Ian Townsend: How active is the Defence Department still in trying to trace remains, or is it really up to people like you?

Jim Bourke: Oh, unfortunately, the current defence policy is a little bit lacking, in my humble opinion. It simply says that we will come and collect the remains if they are likely to be those of an Australian serviceman. They don't have any capability for active investigation, or any designated capability. They do put that capability together if the need arises. For example, in the case of Gillespie they assembled a small group of people to do some investigation along with us, and they produced a very favourable result there, primarily based on our research, but that's beside the point. They don't have that capability; we don't have an organisation that's set aside to go around investigating these cases.

Ian Townsend: It's a big job. There are still 3,000 Australians who fought in the Pacific in the Second World War, and who have no known grave.

We heard from Sergeant Herman's niece, Jill Sheppard, earlier. After being contacted by Background Briefing, she spoke to the rest of her family, about what they'd like to see done with the remains that still lie at the crash site.

Jill Sheppard: The family has always regarded the crash site as being a grave, being Jim's grave and the grave and final resting place of the other three boys. And although we can only speak on behalf of Jim, we would not wish him to be disturbed. So the Herman family would not want anything to be done about removing any personal remains that might be found at the crash site, while acknowledging that we're not the only people entitled to have a view, and we certainly aren't the owners of the site.

Ian Townsend: Have you had any contact with at all with members of the other families?

Jill Sheppard: No. No, I don't know that the Herman family ever had contact with the families of the other crew members. I can't say that they didn't, but there's no-one in our generation, or my uncle and aunt, who as far as I'm aware, knows of any contact.

Ian Townsend: Background Briefing was unable to trace the family members of the other three men killed in this crash. If you are related to Sergeant Maurice Cooper, Sergeant Herbert Gillam, or Pilot Officer John Jewell, or you want to make a comment, you can contact us by going to the Background Briefing website.

The grave near Townsville is unmarked, but there's a memorial in Sydney for those missing in the war, and the names of these men are on it. Their names are also on a memorial to the crash at the nearby town of Giru, and at the War Memorial in Canberra. And in Jim Herman's case, his name appears on two memorials on Kangaroo Island, where he was a teacher, and on his parents' grave in Adelaide. And his family feels that it's also fitting that he lies with his mates, with the wreckage of their plane, a powerful memorial in itself to what happened here. And if this site can be better protected somehow, so it won't be disturbed, then this is where Jim Herman's family would like him to stay.

Jill Sheppard: If most people were confronted with a sign saying that this was the grave and final resting place of four servicemen, they would be less likely to take souvenirs, or scratch around, than if they just thought it was a bit of wreckage that they might find something to take home and put on the mantelpiece.

Ian Townsend: Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Research from Anna Whitfeld; Technical Operator is Mark Don; and our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I'm Ian Townsend and you're with ABC Radio National.

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