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Discovery of P-38H "Japanese Sandman II" 42-66905
by David Pennefather

I went to Popondetta in 1985 to buy coffee. In my first two years there I visited about 24 different air wrecks many of them B-25s. I did not keep a diary but I did keep a map of where everything was that I came across. The natives became accustomed to my weekend wanderings around the old airfields and the battlefields of Kokoda, Buna, Gona and Sanananda. This was rich country for someone like me. In the course of my travels I became befriended by a local man named Frank Egiembari who lived just near the Girua airport. Frank and I became good friends. (Initially I think Frank saw me as a potential son-in-law but we got past that) It was he who, in about 1987/88, told me that a relative of his had the wreck of an aircraft on his land. So we investigated.

The wreck was in wooded country not far off the Popondetta to Oro Bay road but what really took my fancy was that it was a P-38 and in very good condition. I had always wanted to find a P-38 but there are not many of them around. We set to and cleaned up around the wreck site and then gathered the broken booms and tail of the aircraft and laid them out to make the aircraft look as complete as possible. There were no guns in the aircraft. These had most probably been salvaged at the time of it's crash back in the 1940’s. My first thoughts went to my friend Richard Leahy who loves to photograph everything.

The following weekend Richard flew down to Popondetta and together we visited the crash site. As Richard was taking photographs I set about making the wreckage just a little more photogenic. On the port side of the cockpit a piece of metal had been cut away and folded down and this I folded back up into it’s original position. Richard saw what I was doing and suggested to me that I get something and wipe away the forty odd years of mud that had built up on that part of the cockpit as pilots were known to write their names in that area. With the remains of an old bag I began wiping away and behold, not only did we have a pilots name: Capt R. E. Smith, but we also had 7 kill flags. An air ace. Things moved quickly after that.

Bruce Hoy, the then PNG Museum modern history curator, has the most detailed knowledge of all things ‘Air Force’ in WW2 PNG. Through him Richard was able to acquire an address for Gene Smith. I then wrote a letter to Gene sent the letter to Richard who enclosed photo’s that he had taken. Richard then sealed the letter and sent it off to Florida in the USA. In the meantime, unbeknown to any of us, Mr and Mrs Richard Eugene Smith of Florida were making final preparations for a trip down-under to visit all the places where Gene had served during WW2. With the most exquisite timing our letter arrived just prior to their departure and so they altered their itinerary to include a trip to Popondetta.

Richard E. Smith's Visit to his former aircraft
They duly arrived at Popondetta on the wettest day of the year. Then to complicate matters some village elders decided to make Genes visit a reason to claim for war damage compensation and so deny him access to the wreck site. This situation overcome we went to the wreck site in the midst of a tropical down pour. Poor Mrs Smith, she looked a wreck but she was determined to make it, and she did. Fortunately the walk to the wreck was only short and over flat ground. The encounter between Gene and The Japanese Sandman was one of the most emotional scenes I have ever witnessed. According to Gene he was the only person who ever piloted this P-38 and that it was one hot aircraft to fly. It also must be understood that Gene did not crash it. That event occurred after he had rotated back State side. He began half talking to himself, half talking to his wife. “This is ma baby honey, this is ma baby. You see honey she wouldn’t fly for no one else, she’d only fly for me honey.” These words were spoken softly and with deep emotion. How many other aces are there who can be matched with their original ace aircraft? I suggest that there are probably none, which makes this encounter all the more unique and I feel privileged to have played a part and been a witness. The Smiths stayed in Popondetta that night and flew out the following day. A lovely couple. Gene Smith, like so many of his generation who looked down the barrel of a gun, and survived, was soft spoken, modest and a gentleman.

I really wanted Gene to have a souvenir from his aircraft. I had no qualms about this, and who deserves it more. At this vital moment my friend Frank found himself owing me a very big favor – I knew just how it could be repaid. I told him what I wanted and then departed for a short trip to Australia. Shortly after my return to Popondetta Frank appeared at my doorstep with a large sack. Inside, just as I had requested, were the instrument panel and the control wheel from out of the Sandmans cockpit. The instrument panel is most significant because it has riveted to it the aircraft’s Radio Call sign which is made up from the aircraft’s serial number. This makes the instrument panel unique to one aircraft. These two items I dispatched to the USA where they were duly received. All in all this was a most enjoyable and rewarding experience.

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Original camoflage paint


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Intact Cockpit Interior

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Nose 50 caliber ammunition

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Nose of P-38

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Original camoflage paint

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Smith and his wife on wing

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Smith and Serial Number

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