The History of Aircraft Salvage in Papua New Guinea
 

by Justin Taylan Email

1970s: The Warbird Era Begins
The world was learning about wrecks in Papua New Guinea and going there to gather them.

Underwater Salvages
In the 1970's the first underwater aircraft salvage occurred in PNG. Bob Scott, a diver and salvager at Rabaul hoped to salvage an aircraft and sell it to a museum. In 1971, he salvaged an intact A6M5 4323 near Matupi Island, in Simpson Harbor. It was lifted from the sea with a cradle placed below it. The following year, a rare A6M2 two seat Zero was salvaged. Keeping the wrecks clean, to prevent their corrosion from contact with the air was a major challenge, and drained the Rabaul water reserve temporarily. Both were indeed sold to museums, the two-seater went to the Tokyo Science Museum where it is regarded as one of the best and most complete original aircraft. The other went to San Diego Museum, but was destroyed in an arson fire in 1978.

Rabaul Zeros Salvaged
Also, two other Zeros were salvaged from the Rabaul area: A6M5 Zero 4240 (incorrectly listed 4168 or 4240) and A6M5 Zero 4444. Both of these aircraft were salvaged previously B. A. Coran and sold to Ishikawa, who imported them to Japan.

A6M5 Zero 4168 was restored over twenty years, with parts of other Zeros recovered from Yap Island, and is today displayed statically restored at the Yasukuni Museum. The other Zero is privately owned, reportedly under slow restoration to this day.

A6M5 Zero 4444 was auctioned at Ryugasaki in 1978 and sold to Tsucasa Kai.

over twenty years, with parts of other Zeros recovered from Yap Island, and is today displayed statically restored at the Yasukuni Museum. The other Zero is privately owned, reportedly under slow restoration to this day.

 

 


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A6M5 4323
(destroyed in fire 1978)

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A6M2 Two Seat Zero
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A6M5 Zero 4168

 

Gasmata Salvages
In early 1973, American Douglas Hubbard, working on behalf of the Nimitz Museum (National Museum of the Pacific War) to collect relics began to remove tanks, guns and aircraft.

Going to Gasmata Airfield, Hubbard exported D3A2 Val 3105 that is displayed unrestored at the Museum, Also salvaged was a A6M2 Zero 5784. These recoveries were contested by the local people, who claimed the wrecks were stolen from them. The Val was exported to the United States, but the Zero was denied and languished at Jackson Airport until 1977, when it was

Pacific Aircraft Wrecks by Charles Darby page 58:
"...a group of people dismantled the aircraft with gas torches and carried it away for restoration, much to the indignation of the local islanders who had salvaged the fighter in the first place but apparently without settling the ownership question before doing so! ...the wreck was eventually taken to the RAAF Museum at Point Cook, Vic in 1977 with the hope of rebuilding it with parts of other Zekes."

The salvage, Douglas Hubbard, Jr. tells a very different story:
“I personally acquired title to this aircraft from the PNG government in the middle of 1973 and supervised the legal title transfer to the RAAF. It was formally deeded to the Australian people as a gesture of goodwill and appreciation for the assistance provided in recovery of the D3A2 Val 3105 I recommended that the Zero be donated to AWM, and was instructed to effect the transfer, which I did via the senior RAAF officer at Murray Barracks.  He elected not to take the Zero out at the time when shipped the Val, preferring he said, Their air frame fitters disassembled the plane and flew it out of Gasmata via RAAF Caribou.”

 

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D3A2 Val 3105

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A6M2 Zero 5784

 

More Salvages: Warhawk & Spitfires
Word was spreading about aircraft wrecks in PNG, and others started doing salvages. Australian 'Monty' Armstrong recovery P-40E 41-36166 from an emergency landing strip at Hula / Hood Point in 1974.

This aircraft was to be restored and returned to PNG, but never ended up being exported. Later, its wings were salvaged, and all of it was displayed at the PNG Museum. It remained there until it was taken in 2001 by Robert Greinert.

Another Australian, Langdon Badger, salvaged a Spitfire Mark Vc A58-146 from Vivigani August 24-25, 1972. Exported to to Adelaide, where it was has been static restored.

Spitfire "Tasmanian Devil" A58-178 was salvaged from Kiriwina in 1973 by Monty Armstrong. Sold to a New Zealander who began a restoration. Twenty-six years later, it was fully restored to flying status and today based at Duxford in RAF markings.

Also salvaged in the later 1970s were parts of Spitfire A58-213, that were used in the restoration of another Spitfire in Brisbane.

 

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P-40E 41-36166
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Spitfire A58-146PacificWrecks.com
Spitfire A58-178

 

Yesterday's Air Force Operation
Meanwhile in New Zealand, Charles Darby took an interest in old aircraft left at airfields around New Zealand. 

Charles Darby recalls:
"The story of the operation probably began with my father Jack Darby who worked in New Guinea in the 1930s (He and Erroll Flynn were mates, and fellow plantation managers, Errol in New Britain and Dad in the Ninigo Islands). His descriptions and obvious love of the place inspired me to go there to see for myself, which I was able to do in 1963. Obviously, in the course of that visit I saw many aircraft relics."

Unknown to me, in the late 1960s that well-known New Zealand aviator Stan Smith (who currently runs DH84 Dragon biplane airliner on scenic & charter flights around Auckland), had been talking about me and my New Guinea knowledge with Leo Gay (a senior engineer with Northrop). Leo had been chatting with David Tallichet, and Dave decided to call me.

The story continued late one night in 1972/73. I received a phone call from someone with an American accent who asked bluntly if I could get a P-39 for him. I confess that I replied quite rudely to the effect that I could get him a whole bloody squadron of P-39s if he could pay the bills, and he said "Well, why don't you do just that, sonny". After that exchange, it dawned on me that this fellow Tallichet may in fact be serious and the conversation improved greatly after that!

Ultimately, it was agreed that we would plan a reconnaissance trip through the Solomons and PNG with David present at least part of the time, and David said that he would assign one of his employees to work with me on the recovery of airframes selected during that visit or in the course of later work. That employee was Montgomery "Monty" Armstrong. My agreement with David provided that my direct costs would be paid, and in lieu of any salary or wages I would be entitled to select a P-40 of my choice as 'payment'. However, its shipment costs to New Zealand would be at my expense. That is how I got my second P-40N A29-448.

In summary, for the recon trip I went through the Solomons and PNG with my Father (who could speak pidgin and some Motu, and could serve as Project Manager while I did the aircraft technical stuff), and aviation colleague Ken Jacobs, with David accompanying us part-way, and selected a range of airframes to recover. David then sent Montgomery Armstrong to the Solomons to recover a Zero that we had found in about 30ft of water, and I returned to NZ to plan the rest of the operation. Before I returned to PNG, the Solomons operation had "turned to shit" in a big way and Armstrong had moved on to PNG to start work there.

Tsilli-Tsilli 'River Raft' Salvage
In 1973, Darby & Monty Armstrong, funded by Tallichet began at Tsilli-Tsilli Airfield, where several P-40s and P-39s remained. They were salvaged by floating them down a river in rafts made of bush materials. Salvaged were: P-39N 42-18403, P-39N 42-18811, P-39K 42-4351 (parts only) and P-40N 42-104961]."

 

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David Tallichet (right)

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P-40N A29-448

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P-40N 42-104961

 

Tadji Salvage
The largest portion of their work was at the former USAAF and RAAF base at Tadji. The salvage work was relatively easy, as all the aircraft were near the road and barge service was available to ship them to Lae for transport overseas. In exchange, the two paid village taxes and agreed to leave an externally complete B-25 Mitchell for display.

The intact aircraft salvaged from Tadji were:
A-20G 43-21627 | P-39N 42-8740 | P-39N 42-19027 | P-39Q 42-19991 | P-39Q 42-19993 | P-39Q 42-19995 | P-39Q 42-20339 | P-40N A29-405 | P-40N A29-448 | P-40N 42-105915 | P-40N 42-106101 | P-40N "Little Jeanne" 42-105951 | Beaufort A9-13 | Beaufort A9-557 | Beaufort A9-559

Today, three of these planes have been restored to flying condition, while the rest are unrestored in storage or displayed statically or unrestored at museums in Australia, USA and UK. The book "The Whole Nine Yards" was published in 2002 about the restoration of P-40N A29-448 to flying status, one of the three.

When the Tadji salvage was completed, all the aircraft were barged to Lae, where they were then transferred to another ship for shipment to the United States. While in the Lae area, Darby also recovered Boomerang A46-174 from Nadzab. Plans also included salvaging Japanese wrecks, but the components were never collected. Also salvaged was Beaufort A9-226 from Vivigani Airfield.

PNG Government Intervention & 'National Cultural Property':
Pacific Aircraft Wrecks by Charles Darby page 58:
"Confusion regarding salvage right generally, plus the administrative difficulties involved, were largely responsible for the total clamp down on the export of war relics imposed by the Papua New Guinea Government in 1974, all such material now being classed as 'national cultural property'

In September 1975, as these salvages were finishing, the Territory of New Guinea gained independence from Australian colonial control, becoming Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Charles Darby recalls:
"PNG Independence came into force during the time we were organising and carrying out the operation. However, as the entire operation was completed under the auspices of Bill Chapman and the Air Museum of PNG, all arrangements that had been made prior to independence were honoured by the new PNG Government. The only problems we encountered were from a couple of 'white trash' individuals who were trying to ingratiate themselves with the new authorities. I never had any problem whatsoever with local people during this operation."

At the end of the seventies, many of Charles Darby's New Guinea photographs were published in the first book  on the topic, Pacific Aircraft Wrecks.  When in went to press in 1979, the book sparked huge interest among the growing vintage aircraft movement worldwide, inspiring countless dreamers and to see these aircraft themselves. For others, it was a catalog of available wrecks left waiting to be salvaged.

In 1978, the PNG Museum opened a museum in Port Moresby. Its first curator was an enthusiastic Australian, Bruce Hoy, who had volunteered with Bill Chapman. On a limited budget, he succeeded in bringing many of the aircraft from Chapman's former Air Museum and Roy Worchester in Wewak had collected. His tenure lasted ten years. During that period created a superb museum display relics as the war left them. Also, he advised the museum on matters related to salvage until leaving the museum in 1988 to move back to Australia.

Read Review
The Whole Nine Yards
by John King
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A-20G 43-21627
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P-39Q 42-19993
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P-39 42-19995Click For Enlargement
P-40N 42-105915Click For Enlargement
Beaufort A9-13Click For Enlagement
Beaufort A9-557
Read Review
Pacific Aircraft Wrecks
by Charles Darby
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PNG Museum
in Port Moresby

 

 

The decade ended with the first helicopter salvage of a wartime aircraft as an exercise by the the RAAF. The fuselage of a a Ford 5-AT-C A45-1 that was abandoned upside down, was lifted from the landing ground known as Myola Lake, and brought to Port Moresby to the PNG Museum for display in 1979, where it remains to this day. The following year, the wings were recovered and brought to the museum. This aircraft was never exported out of the country, and remains statically displayed at the museum.

Next Decade: 1980s: Salvage Boom

Return to History of Aircraft Salvage in Papua New Guinea

 

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Fort Tri motor A45-1

 

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