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Bill Thomson
RAAF Helicopter Pilot in PNG & Australia

I was a RAAF pilot in the late 70s and early 80s flying UH1s for a large part of that time and had the good fortune to visit several aircraft wreck sites in some very remote places in Australia and PNG. These photos were taken with a Pentax 35 mm camera and unfortunately due to time, heat and an often poor camera platform (read a Huey!)

We were supporting the first real census of the then new nation of PNG. It was called Operation Sambai Long Census. We flew over a much of PNG and in the process I was able to fly over, if not visit, several wrecks. We had some extra flying hours to be used for “training” so we could go off and explore a bit if need be to find some of the wrecks.

September 26, 1980. One mile east of Alotau, on the north shore of Milne Bay.
This wreck was in a small gully off a dirt road just a mile east from the town of Alotau. A few of us walked down there based on the report of the relic from a local man. It appears to be a P-40 due to the rear retracting right main landing gear and the way the two wings are bolted together. The wreck is the inverted center section and there is little left short of the spars and the right main gear plus the lower part of the cockpit.

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September 27, 1980. Gurney Airfield, western end on Milne Bay.
While we were refueling the UH-1s I went wandering around the field and found this wreck. It appears to be the center section of a B-24, located on the field but exactly where I have no recollection.

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Girua Airport September 28, 1980
The relics at Girua Airport were an unexpected treat. I had no idea they were there and was quite excited to get to have a good look around them as we refueled the helicopters. We were told at the time that these aircraft and various pieces like the engines and wings were found when the runway had been extended into the surrounding jungle. As this was one of the many wartime fields in the area I could well imagine this story to be somewhat accurate. It also occurred to me that there must be a whole lot more hidden near the many strips now overgrown and near forgotten.

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You probably know a whole lot more about the items in these pictures than I do. That is me standing by the B-25 in picture 15.A much lighter, fitter, and 28 years younger Bill than now. The pile of wings and also had a P-47D 42-27609 tail with the number “227609” on it. Unfortunately I do not have a picture of this item.

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Some notes I made up after getting back to RAAF Amberley. I think you might be a little interested, as was I, in the markings I could see on the nose of the B-25. There seemed to be 3 different markings. The B25 seemed to have a different nose placed on it at some stage as there was the “dragon” mouth that seemed to abruptly stop at the end of the glazed section while the “Jim Lynn” markings seemed to start aft of the glazed area. Then there appeared to be the “Bar Fly” lettering visible on/over/under the “dragon” mouth on the port side but I not could tell if it was applied before or after the dragon mouth. Perhaps you have more information on these markings.

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Black Cat Gap B-17E 41-2446 aka 'Swamp Ghost' Sunday afternoon Sept 28, 1980
"This day was to be the most rewarding and “wreck filled” day I have ever experienced. I got to visit the Swamp Ghost, check out the aircraft at Girua Airfield, and momentarily visiting the B17 above Wau, all in one day. [ Read complete account via TheSwampGhost.com ]

Black Cat Gap B-17E 41-9234 Sunday afternoon Sept 28, 1980
After visiting B-17E "Swamp Ghost" and refueling at Girua Aifield we loaded up and headed to Wau to find the other B-17. We had no trouble locating the a/c and landed at Wau to stop and conserve fuel. There were only a couple of us interested in seeing the B-17 so we took off gear from one UH1 to make it much lighter so that hoisting down to the B-17 would be safer and easier.

With performance an issue (we could not land anywhere close so a hoist operation was needed and thus a high out of ground effect hover was needed) we had to know the winds so a smoke grenade was tossed out near the B-17 once we were over the relic. With the prevailing wind known we hoisted two guys down to the B-17. I was the third and last one down. As I came down I noticed that there was a lot more smoke around than your average smoke grenade puts out, plus it was getting markedly warmer the closer I got to the B-17’s wing. As I arrived on the wing I saw the 2 previous "hoistees" making a hasty retreat up the wing towards me, followed by what looked like a lot of flame. I was hoisted back up as were the other 2 in short order. I managed to take the 2 pics you see with all the smoke once back in the Huey, and I think in one picture you can see some flame.

Well there would be no visit to the B17 that day! We flew away hoping we had not caused undue damage. When we got back down to Wau we could see up in the Gap that the fire was dying out. However, daylight was also beginning to die out and everyone was eager to get to the hotel, bar, and an SP lager. We loaded up again and all three Hueys headed out the final leg to Lae. It had been, for me, one very special day.

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Monday, Sept 29, 1980
Not to be deterred a couple of us still wanted to see the B-17 if possible. We had one chance and that would be if we got up at first light and used some currency flying hours to go back to the B-17 for a quick look, get back to Lae then set off to our next location along the coast. The others were happy to sleep in a bit while we few adventurers set out to see the B17. This time there was only two of us to go down on the hoist cable and a minimum crew operated the UH1.

As you can see the area around the B-17 has been nicely cleared by our little fire. That the area had been burnt out periodically could be seen on the parts of the B17 that were not touched by our effort of the previous day. Actually the fire hardly singed the a/c seeming to burn only the dryer grass and bushes not actually in the shadow of the wreck.

The gent in one photo is Paul “PC” Carter. He, I believe was killed in a RAAF flying accident some years later. You can see the props were cut off quite neatly by some sort of powered equipment and the leading edge seems to have a very straight/machine cut line where it was removed. You can see the RAF roundel and the fin flash plus the torn off engine. You can see that the fire left vegetation intact close to the a/c as shown by the small tree next to the waist window.

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October 8, 1980. Far southwest area of PNG in the Fly River area.
P-38 Lightning. There were no GPS units available at all back then. Time, distance and heading were our prime navigation method. I found it tough to nav around the area with the flat featureless terrain and the very limited visibility in the humidity and the smoke. Photos were taken from the open cockpit windows. We never landed.

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October 8, 1980. Far southwest area of PNG in the Fly River area
P-38H Lightning 42-66538, not far from the Arufi Mission. Pics were taken from the open cockpit windows. We never landed.

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September and October 1980
Some general shots of the areas over which we flew. Pic 34 was taken west of Mendi in the highlands with the mid afternoon cloud starting to come down on the ridge lines. Soon the valley gaps would close and us VFR types would be stuck in whatever valley we happened to be in. With careful planning and by keeping a weather eye out one could prevent oneself from being stranded with no where to go or land. No hovering at these altitudes…we were the same as a fixed wing...slower but just as vulnerable. Pic 35 was over the Strickland Gorge. The maps up in PNG, especially the highlands, even then in 1980 were still not too good. I can only imagine the WW2 maps as being really bad. One river in this area, according to our map, had a hump in the middle if the contour lines were true. In reality the river sure looked like it flowed only downhill but the map clearly showed it had to flow up over a hill. Pic 36 shows 14,000foot Mt Gilawae, with its year round snow, on this particularly clear day, Sept 20, 1980.

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October 8, 1980 Duifken Point, north of Weipa
I have only a picture of one P-47 though I seem to remember as there being two P47s just off the beach on this west side of Cape York Peninsula. It could be that this was the best of the 2 with more metal still to be seen. The a/c was pointing north. It had, as per my notes, the number “223249” on the tail. [P-47D "Tojo Special" 42-23249]. The story went that these were just two of the many a/c sent north from Brisbane etc to PNG but for one reason or another ( weather, no/ poor compasses, lousy / no maps etc) got lost along the way and put down on the Cape. It certainly looked that the a/c had been stripped of military bits like the guns and a charge exploded in the cockpit / fuselage to render it useless. This relic was photographed from the cockpit door while we hovered off to one side.

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Vultee Vengance A27-208 ditched near Dum In Mirrie Island, approximately 25 miles on the 240 radial from Darwin.

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P-40E 41-5543 ditched approximately 25 miles on the 240 radial from Darwin.

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Last Updated
May 22, 2017

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