The squelch of stinking mud on my boots
distracts me as my native guide yells and points. I peer over
the gap in the tall kunai grass he has pushed aside for me with
his bushknife. I then notice that his teeth the whitest are I
have ever seen. He is sweating, but not as much as I. There, about
300 yards away, are the unmistakable twin tails of a B-25. At
last, for I am almost too tired to care. I smile, for this lifetime
passion has led me to yet another intact Pacific ghost. Here I
am, still pursuing my childhood passion in the new millennium
as a grown man. As Ayamisibi picks up the pace I decide I really
do need a new hobby, one which won't put me in malaria-infested
swamp. I try to follow Ayamisibi, now almost at a run, and suddenly
we have both clambered onto a wing.
We shake each other's hand. It has been worth
it, for the forlorn bomber is another marvelous wreck worthy of
documenting in our Pacific
Ghosts series. My guide waits patiently whilst I explore and
photograph the wreck. He is bored as I meticulously note the remnants
of the last three stenciled digits of the serial number - 099
- which appear on the starboard fin, barely discernible. The hot,
hot sun is low in the West, and we have only a few hours of daylight
to make it back to the helicopter where an edgy pilot has been
waiting since 0630 hours. Enough. I urge Ayamisbi that we should
move. His response is the grin of his flashing white teeth. I
take one last look behind me at the twin fins, and pause. I tell
Ayamisbi in Pidgin that New Guinea's vast jungles are graveyards
for hundreds of such aircraft wrecks. Many from my culture who
have visited the region feel that the unknown fate of lost and
unconsecrated WWII souls haunts New Guinea's jungles. Ayamisbi
smiles and nods. His culture is comfortable with such observations.
He agrees that ghosts inhabit many wrecks, but not this one. I
wonder where he gets wisdom. We move off.
After my return to Australia, and working closely
Taylan, with whom I share the same passion, it took six months
of research to obtain the true history of the aircraft. Sure,
the official records were easy enough to obtain, but they do not
provide the complete story. For that, I was lucky enough to come
across the personal recollections of the former co-pilot.
The airplane lies in the vast swampy area behind
Wewak, but how did it come to be there? The trail of clues starts
in 1948 when during one of his frequent surveys of crashed wartime
aircraft, RAAF Squadron Leader Keith Rundle was led to this intact
Mitchell bomber. He mistakenly declared that the crew were still
missing, and entered the co-ordinates into the records of the
Colonial government of the time. I have those records, and so
this is how I came to travel to the site, probably the first European
to return since Rundle. Interestingly, he recorded in 1948 that
the aircraft's Bombay was full of military uniforms. I had often
wondered why Rundle wrote that. I was about to find out.
It did not take long to establish that the aircraft
was definitely B-25-D "The Wolf Pack" 41-30099. On 11th September 1944 the bomber forced-landed near the village
of Angisi by 1/Lt John L. Fabale, and co-pilot F/O Harrison T.
Beardsley. On the morning of its last flight the weather was hot
at Mokmer Drome on Biak. Beardsley pre-flighted the ship, noting
with alacrity how worn out it was, whilst Fabale was delayed at
the Operations hut. The flight was hardly one with a glorious
mission, for the bomb-bay was laden not with bombs, but with dirty
laundry. Furthermore, with eight passengers aboard in addition
to the two crew, the aircraft was not lightly-loaded. Their destination
was Nadzab where the nearest washing machines of any kind were
in operation. Two Mitchells were to fly in formation to Nadzab
that day, but after a precarious takeoff the flaps kept dropping
and Fabale red-lined both engines to try and catch up with the
lead Mitchell. Just when matters could not get worse, they did.
The radio went out, so they could not ask lead to slow down. Two
hours into the flight Fabale started maneuvering The Wolf Pack
around a thunderhead. Then, with no warning, both engines quit.
The crew wrestled to keep the bomber airborne as it descended
earthwards at a high sink rate. There was no flat area around
and it seemed as if a mountainous grave was to be their epitaph.
Beardsley desperately fiddled with the fuel cross-feed, and both
roared back to life. The startling recovery was brief, but sufficiently
long to carry them over a vast swampy plain area. Then the starboard
engine caught fire and rough, black smoke streamed from under
its cowl. The old stager would not keep airborne and the crew
decided it was prudent to put down. Fabale set it up for a forced
landing in the swamp. As Beardsley would later write, "the
B-25 slashed through the swamp grasses like a big sickle. Landing
with wheels up, it banged into the slimy muck and then slid like
a toboggan for nearly 80 yards before jerking abruptly to a rest.
A wisp of gray smoke swept across the windshield and the smoldering
engines sizzled, but when they did not explode - when we all realized
that were still alive - we were amazed."
The surroundings were hostile, just hot fetid
swamp. Some of the crew tried to find a path to walk out, but
could not, and became bogged down in the mud. I know how they
must have felt. Without a guide to find the way it is impossible.
In the end they found friendly natives and it took another six
days before the ten American survivors would walk into safety.
They were led to an Australian Army outpost at Annenberg village,
then flown out individually by L-5 Sentinel aircraft, back to
Nadzab and safety. It was an arduous return and worthy of better
coverage than afforded by this brief article. A year later co-pilot
Beardsley would spend time in a luxurious R & R center. It
was Uncle Sam's way of rewarding him for his time in the jungle.
There he would briefly meet 'Hap' Arnold, the Commander in Chief
of the U.S Army Air Forces.
The old bomber is still there. Here and there,
natives have cut pieces of aluminum from here to make pots and
other implements. The instruments and Perspex canopy are gone,
but inside the complete combat fittings of a D model Mitchell
are all there, well-preserved. It is a remarkable site, a piece
of history kept alive by geographical isolation as real today
as it was the day two sweating young American pilots wrested the
bomber here. They put down not far from the Japanese stronghold
of Wewak. Many others in a similar situation did not survive,
and were summarily executed. I know, for I have visited several
other Mitchells in the same area where this is exactly what happened.
The Wolf Pack was not on a do-or-die mission
the day she was lost. However, it enjoyed an arduous yet productive
combat history. Assigned to the 501st Bombardment Squadron of
the 345th Bombardment Group in April 1943, the aircraft flew over
one hundred combat missions against Japanese airfields and troops
in places such as Wewak, Rabaul and Alexishafen. By mid-1944 the
bomber was tired and was reassigned as a squadron hack, with many
routine duties, including carrying laundry.
As we departed in the helicopter I asked the
pilot to hover near the wreck in the late afternoon sun. I wondered
how much longer it would be there. The main rotor whined as we
moved upwards and left for Wewak. How easy was my return to safety
compared to the ten men some sixty years ago whose fate might
have so been otherwise.