|Pilot Lt. John H. Fitzgerald (survived)
Ditched May 30, 1943
Built by Bell in Buffalo, New York. Delivered to the U.S. Army, serial number unknown. Disassembled and shipped overseas and reassembled.
Assigned to the 13th Air Force, 347th Fighter Group, 68th Fighter Squadron. No known nose art or nickname.
On May 30, 1943 took off piloted by Lt. John H. Fitzgerald ditched into shallow water in a lagoon off Naviti Island near Suva on Fiji. The pilot survived the ditching unhurt.
Fitzgerald was rescued by a PBY Catalina from Saweni Bay.
The wreckage of this Airacobra remains on a sandy bottom in shallow water. The area where this fighter ditched has become known as "Spitfire Lagoon".
A myth propagated about the history of this aircraft, incorrectly claiming that a Spitfire ditched out of fuel during 1943. The pilot waited for rescue, and none came. He then integrated with the local Fijian tribe and was posted as missing in action. Some years after the war, his brother came to look for his body, to hopefully find, and take it home. To his great surprise, he found his brother alive and well, enjoying the hospitality of the village. He now had a Fijian wife and children. He thanked his brother for his effort in finding him, and informing him that the war was over, and the news that the USA had won. However he was happy where he was and didn't need his service pay check, and remained there for the rest of his life.
Trevor Schoenfisch adds:
"We initially came looking for a missing WWII Spitfire in 2003. We had found the applicable island group, the secret was in which island to call number one. The shallow lagoon is between island 4 and 5, if you count correctly. There is a S dent in through the reef. At the end of the S, we found the aircraft. Still pretty much intact after 60 years. At low tide, I could stand on the top of the cockpit and the water was only chest deep.
I found 3 people who could remember witnessing the event. The pilot was cared for by the mother of Losana. They all told the same story. The third Fijian ( Jim ), was a boy at the time, and he clearly remembers it circling and landing on the dried reef in his lagoon. It was a Sunday. (Everyone said that it was a Sunday). The people rushed excitedly to it and milled around, making a lot of noise.
He said that word spread quickly, and all the islands population arrived. Even the other tribe from the other side of the island came. ( The two tribes still don't trust one another ). He said that at first the pilot was sitting in the plane with the door open. As the people gathered the pilot became nervous and closed himself inside the aircraft, and they could see that he appeared to be talking to someone, but he was alone.
After a while, the chief had control of the crowd and the situation, and got the pilot to get out of the aircraft. He was made welcome in the village. The chief placed a guard on the aircraft. A day or two later, a Catalina from Saweni Bay arrived with some men. He was most positive about the kind of rescue aircraft. They removed the bullets from the plane and took the pilot away with them. As to children, he didn't think that the pilot had time for that.
In 2003 I completed research on the aircraft and proved it to be an American P-39 Airacobra. I think that Spitfire Lagoon sounds much nicer than reality. Let the myth and romance live on !. As for the rest of the story. Well, I liked the original best, but then life's a little bit like that."
The villagers claim that several years ago the granddaughter of the pilot arrived by helicopter, unannounced to the village people. She said who she was, snorkeled over the wreck, stayed an hour or so and got back in her helicopter and flew away. The village people would have loved her to stay a while so that they could put on a Meke in her honour.
Possibly, this aircraft was P-39D-BE Airacobra 41-7057 converted to P-39D-1.
Thanks to Al Grant and Trevor Schoenfisch for additional information
YouTube "Diving P-39 Airacobra" by Al Grant May 21, 2009
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January 5, 2018