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Discovery of P-39F Airacobra 41-7191
by John Douglas
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John Douglas with "Wreck 'Tec" Wilkinson Egimbari at P-39F 41-7191 crash site
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I came cautiously down the hillside, through the bush, in response to the call of my guide, who was searching for the wreck far faster than I could. I moved along the contour through the vines and undergrowth towards him and came into a small clearing. There she was; P-39F Airacobra 41-7191, mushed into the hillside, facing uphill. I had come on this minor expedition to check out his story of a recently located aircraft wreck in the hills behind Port Moresby, that his friends had told him about. A hunter, moving through the forests in pursuit of some food had only recently discovered this plane.

We moved into the clearing to inspect the wreckage. The plane had apparently flat spun into the hillside and had a badly squashed appearance to it; as if a giant had trod on it. It had not entered nose first, as is quite common for most aircraft wrecks. The propeller was quite straight, as well as the surrounding front covers. The plane was obviously American, as the white stars on the wings attested, and some large yellow faded numbers still existed on the tail. 17 on the one side and 91 on the other. More numbers were stenciled on the side panels near the front and the serial number. gradually emerged after careful examination: 41-7191. Only one engine was present and the fuselage stencils proclaimed it to be a P39F. The P-39 aircraft was unusual in its layout, with the engine behind the cockpit, and equipped with doors, similar to a car, for pilot entrance and exit. Despite the relative completeness, the pilot's doors were both missing and there had been a small fire in the rear of the cockpit engine area. There was no sign of the pilot.

With the plane ID known it was relatively easy to research the history. The pilot had been from the 36th Fighter Squadron, Lt. Charles Chapman, Jr., and he was reported missing on 18th May 1942 when his plane either collided with; or was to close to a Japanese Betty that had exploded over the Owen Stanley Ranges. His Squadron colleagues had seen the explosion, 41-7191 had never returned home to its airfield at Port Moresby and Lt. Charles Chapman is still missing.

The engine of the P39 had a cylinder blown out, but little other engine damage is obvious other than from 60 years of corrosion. Obviously the plane was damaged in the explosion, or from combat and Lt. Chapman was either blown out or parachuted from his plane. The P39 as they were occasionally prone to do had entered into a flat spin and crashed to the forest floor below.

Nearly 60 years had passed before I came on the scene. The wreckage has not been reported before, and while badly broken, is relatively intact. The local villagers had removed the ammunition and guns, but the rest still remains, as it came to rest all those years ago. Lt. Chapman is not with his aircraft, and is still missing, but a small tragedy from past years has now been partially revealed.

May 1942 was a desperate time for the Allied Forces in the South West Pacific. The 36th Fighter Squadron (along with the 35th F.S) were the first American fighters into Papua New Guinea on the 28th of April 1942. Lt. Chapman was lost barely 3 weeks later. In the first week of combat the two Squadrons lost at least 14 Airacobras shot down by the Japanese forces, based at Lae in a number of running gun fights. Eighteen Airacobras remained, and a further 6 were lost up to the 18th May, when 41-7191 met its fate; along with Charles Chapman.

The Owen Stanley Ranges between Port Moresby and Kokoda is littered with aircraft wreckage Allied and Japanese Forces fought each other furiously with their respective bases in Port Moresby and Lae. Port Moresby suffered in excess of 150 air raids in this phase of the war. The foot battles over the Kokoda track were replicated in the skies above: and in later years of World War II, the aerial route between Port Moresby and Kokoda was heavily used for transport and as routes to and from more distant raids. Inevitably further accidents occurred, given the variable weather conditions, the inexperience of pilots and the misfortunes of war. Wrecks such as 41-7191 are regularly reported to the authorities and where circumstances dictate, remains are recovered for a more final interment.

One American pilot, Edward Parks wrote in Nanette: "Of all the fighters, two could really excite a flier. One was the P-51, Mustang, lovely to look at honest, efficient, hardworking and dependable. In those days she was thought of as a wife and I know men who married her, back then, and are still in love with her. The other was the P-39, Aiarcobra. It was slim, with a gently covered tail section, a smoothly faired air intake and a perfectly rounded nose cone with its ugly projecting cannon. But the Aiarcobra was lazy and slovenly and given to fits of vicious temper. It was a sexy machine, and rotten. Nanette was like that, and I was a little queer for her".

After an examination, and a quite period of reflection, I left slowly for the long climb back to the modern era.

Em Tasol
John Douglas

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