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The Nelson Flack Incident
A Failed Rescue Attempt, Daring Escape and Rediscovery of the Crash Site
by John Douglas

February 14, 1944 Mission Over Wewak
In February 1944 the Allies in New Guinea were fighting Japanese Forces on the ground along the Rai Coast to the east of Madang; and in the mountains behind the Rai Coast as well. Madang was finally occupied by Allied forces on 15th April 1944. The Ramu River valley behind Madang was in Japanese hands throughout all of February and March 1944.

On 14th February 1944, the 49th Fighter Group took off from Gusap Airfield to attack enemy forces at Wewak. in the Ramu/Markham Valley. The 49th Fighter Group consisted of 3 Fighter Squadrons, the 7th, 8th and 9th. Nelson Flack was a Lieutenant in the 8th Fighter Squadrons; and that day he claimed a Ki-61 Tony shot down into the sea. Other 49th FG claims that day totaled (8 – 1 Tony and 7 Oscars). However, Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) records acknowledged losses (of pilots) for that day total only 2 (1 Tony and 1 Oscar). The Tony was flown by Sgt. Major Rokusaburo Nakamura of the 68th Hiko Sentai. However, Japanese records indicate that he was killed in a accident, not in combat.

Crash Landing
During the aerial dual Nelson Flack's P-40 was damaged. On the return from Wewak to Gusap he lost power and was forced to put down in a kunai (grass) patch near the Ramu River, in enemy held territory. His report indicates that as he attempted to land in the kunai, but his plane stalled in the approach, hit a tree, lost the propeller and, slid across the kunai before hitting a small hill. He was knocked out by the impact. When he recovered, he found that he had a broken arm and a severe gash on his forehead, caused by hitting the cockpit fittings. After he escaped from his plane, he set it on fire, to prevent it falling into Japanese hands (another version is that the plane exploded from petrol fumes coming in contact with the hot engine).

Click For EnlargementL-5 To the Rescue, Also Crashes
The same day a 25th Liaison Squadron pilot Sgt. Eugene Salternik, attempted to land his small observation plane a Stinson L-5 in a nearby kunai patch, but the L-5 somersaulted on landing in the rough, long grass. Salternik was not hurt. The 25th Liaison Squadron had only arrived in Nadzab three days earlier and this was their first full frontal taste of operations. It took him a further day to reach the P-40 wreck.

Australian Commando Parachuted To Site
Click For EnlargementNelson Flack had been seen to land by his colleagues and the resultant smoke from his wreck served to provide a guide to both allies and to the enemy. At Gusap his crash was reported to the Commanding Officer, and it was quickly decided, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, its remoteness, and because it was behind enemy lines; that an Australian Commando Hector Henstridge, would parachute into the site and help Nelson walk out. Henstridge had only flown once before in his life, and certainly had never parachuted before. Still, this was a time of war and emergencies call for special solutions. Hector landed near the wreck on day 2 and found Nelson missing from the site. He had wandered off.

"Flack Field"
The three of them then set out to create a small, landing strip near the P-40, but without tools it proved to be quite difficult. They achieved a small partially prepared area by the expedient of rolling their bodies in the grass. Gradually a small strip was created. It was the custom in New Guinea at that time by the allied airforces command to name airstrips after well known (and usually deceased) aviators. The strip become known to these men as "Flack Field".

Another L-5 Attempts To Land
Six days after Nelson Flack went in, a second L-5 piloted by Sgt. James Nichols, attempted to land at Flack Field. This rough landing he broke his propeller, and the wheel gear struts were bent as well. 3 wrecks! The next day a third L5 pilot – Tom Stallone – successfully landed at Flack Field. It was judged impractical for him to recover anybody, so he took off successfully and returned to Gusap by himself. Back at Gusap a decision was taken not to invest any more planes and pilots in this particular recovery.

Trek To Rescue Themselves
Click For EnlargementThe four men now had no option but to walk out. This they did successfully, taking 21 days in all. Their friends were able for a short period to follow the men on their expedition to freedom but eventually lost contact. After a few days they were declared missing in action, presumed captured by the enemy forces present in the area. The trip out to freedom took a real toll on all of the men, Nichols wasting away to 90 pounds. All of their shoes rotted and Nichols had to be stretchered the last 20 miles. After recovery and rest they all eventually returned to duty. There is a photograph of the men when they reached Faita. It clearly shows the strain that they have been exposed to. No smiles there. Then, the were returned to Gusap.

RAAF Visit Wrecks in 1946
Click For EnlargementThis is a great survival story from the war years in PNG; and there are many other great stories as well that can be recounted. What made this story so interesting to me was the loss of 3 planes in the same incident. One of several follow up reports on the incident was subsequently filed by the RAAF in 1946; when they were searching the area; looking for the remains of missing Australian airmen.

At that time their report noted that “the tail of the P-40 was marked in green and white checkerboard pattern, the right side of the fin bore the numbers 986 and the left side 210. (Flacks aircraft was P-40N Warhawk 42-104986). Although burnt around the engine and cockpit the aircraft appeared to have made a good crash landing. About 80 yards away is a Vultee Stinson L-5”. The RAAF did not locate the second Stinson L-5 was a mile away (Salternik's).

Over the past 60 years a number of semi - official histories have been written up of the combat record of the 49th Fighter Group and also of the activities of the 25th Liaison Sq. (of the 71st Technical Recon Group) and each of these – inevitably – deals at some length – on this incident. These histories are all “good yarns” but are short on the specifics of the location, and any subsequent history of the planes involved.

Search For The Aircraft Wrecks
Click For Enlargement
I have been interested in the war history in Papua New Guinea since I arrived in country in 1989. This interest; sometimes a compulsion, always a passion has taken me to many of the aircraft wrecks that still remain in the country, nearly 60 years after the end of the combat. I have also dived on plane and ship wrecks in the sea, interviewed and recorded the reminisces of Papua New Guineans who recall those times and visited battlefield sites as well. I have become an amateur expert on these times and places and am often consulted by others who seek information on particular circumstances from that era.

The “Flack incident” is one of about 40-50 stories that I keep an eye on. As far as I can tell from my inquiries and research; no one had been to the site since 1946 when the RAAF searchers visited briefly, apart from the local villagers. I have access to, or own copies of most of the records and histories of the various forces: American, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese. I also have a number of lists, complied by myself and others of various wreck locations throughout PNG that is constantly scrutinized and added to.

Flacks P-40 appeared to have been unvisited because of its considerable remoteness. With literally thousands of wrecks in the country there are plenty of other options for the curious to visit should they wish to seek out plane wrecks. This wreck is one of many that I would like to visit, but to get to it requires helicopter time that I can normally not easily afford; so for several years I have been waiting for the chance. That chance came in early 2004 that I was able to visit the scene of the “Flack Incident”.

Visiting Nearby Villages
Click For EnlargementThe visit was actually made twice. The first trip was to locate the village near where the wreck was reported in 1946 and if possible to locate and inspect the wreckage. This goal proved somewhat optimistic. The village had relocated itself by some three kilometers from its last reported position and took considerable time to locate even with a helicopter.

We visited three other villages in the general area before successful in locating villagers who claimed to know of aircraft wrecks that seemed to fit the particular description I was able to provide.

Further discussion in pidgin with the villagers indicated “Yes we have three plane wrecks, but one was burnt and is of no value; all three have only one engine each and no, they did not know what had happened to the pilots." This all seemed to good to be true. A bit of faith was called for. They were asked to clear a space for a helicopter to land near the wreckage and were given a date of return. I advised that we would be back in three weeks time.

As we left, we were given a list of vital community needs, from school books and medicines to a guitar and watches that we should bring on our return. It was certainly an act of faith (or foolishness) that we committed ourselves to return, as the planes may not have existed (villagers sometimes give positive responses to any query), or they may not have cleared the landing areas (the chopper couldn't’t land in the kunai, as the grass was to long for the tail rotor) on this first visit.

I had a few anxious moments over the next three weeks. Would it all work out? Was my research accurate (often these records are general only as to location, or the historic observer was not skilled at map reading); or perhaps the wrecks been destroyed or damaged in the last 60 years. The truth is rarely as expected or predicted. I kept these natural doubts to myself.

Eventually the day for our return arrived. The number of curious was down this time from 5 to 3. This gave more space for us inside on the journey. We returned to the village and landed in the garden again. Anxious queries from me soon produced the claim that the landing pads had been cleared and that most of the small village population was on site (it was a good days walk away); waiting for us. I handed the guitar and school supplies over to the “stay behinds”, and we helicoptered off with a local guide, his first ride in a helicopter. A few minutes flight across the dense heavy forest took us to a kunai patch and a smudge fire. The pipe framework of a small plane was visible in the middle of a recently burnt kunai patch. The chopper landed; I and the guide got out, and the chopper returned for my colleagues.

L-5 Serial Number 42-98066

Click For EnlargementI inspected the wreckage. It was clearly an upside down L5, with all that remained being the body and tail frame of piping, and an engine, still with its cowl present The wings had disintegrated. This looked very much like Salterniks plane, which was recorded as being capsized, in a clearing about a mile away from the other planes. No serial numbers were obvious. The expedition was looking good. Questioning the local people who had gathered there for the fun and entertainment, they said the other plane wrecks were several hours walk away, and that an area had also been cleared at that place for the helicopter to land. After a period for photography and contemplation, I returned to the helicopter which had now arrived and flew to the second location.

This took some time as the local guide could not initially identify the site. Eventually, after a change of guide I arrived at a small clearing in light forest. The clearing had left several foot high stumps which the pilot had to avoid in a very skilled landing. I got out with two local guides and while the pilot returned for my colleagues we tried to make the pad safer for follow up landings. Considerable debris was removed (mainly logs and branches) and several stumps cut down to ground level. After half an hour of frantic activity the site was much cleaner and I could relax while waiting the chopper’s return. I was sweating freely. As soon as I slowed down the dreaded “sweat bees” arrived. These bees are not toxic or poisonous, but do enjoy a good drink of sweat in the hot humid climate that we were in. They are a local pest – known and dreaded throughout the Ramu Valley. In the mid morning they were a minor pest but became a real bother as the day wore on, with literally hundreds on my body and clothes at any one time.

L-5 "Termite" Serial Number 42-98085

On the other side of the clearing was a second pipe frame plane wreck. This one was upright, with the wings gone (made of timber and canvas). The landing gear was buried in the soil but the body was in much better condition than the first wreck. It had been under forest cover for several decades as the forest succession had replaced the kunai and had consequently avoided the occasional grass fire that had affected the first wreck.

The expedition was looking more and more successful. The wrecks were exactly where the official records made them out to be. They had been practically undisturbed. I had not yet seen the P-40 wreck, but I felt relief that my research proved I had been accurate as to description and to location (at least for the two L5s). I also felt excitement and pleasure that goes with such adventures of effort and success; of anticipation fulfilled.

The helicopter returned with my companions and after some maneuvering made a successful landing. It was a long way to walk out, and we didn’t want to repeat the trials of the airmen of 1944. My companions were anxious to see the P-40, and the guides told us it was a short walk through the forest. The forest appeared to have grown up since the war years and consisted mainly of light trees, no more than 50-60’ high, with a leaf covered forest floor, which made walking easy.

P-40N Warhawk Serial Number 42-104986

Click For EnlargementSubsequent research has revealed that Sgt. Stallone died in New Guinea during the War whilst the rest survived. Nelson Flack was killed in Korea. Both Sgt. Nelson and Lt. Hestridge have since departed this life, but Eugene Salternik is a sporty 92 year old living in Southern California.

References
Eugene Salternik interview
Additional research by Justin Taylan and Phil Bradley
Ghost Wings Magazine Issue 12 "Skeletons in the Grass - An Epic WWII Rescue" by John Douglas & Justin Taylan

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Last Updated
May 22, 2017

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