By Angela KershnerFebruary 20, 2016
OAHU, Hawaii - U.S. Army Pacific commander Gen. Vincent K. Brooks visited the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Feb. 11, to tour the wreckage of a Boeing B-17E heavy bomber recovered from the swamps of Papua New Guinea and hear the story of the nine U.S. Army Air Corps Soldiers who survived the crash and evaded capture for more than a month before being rescued.
Museum Director Kenneth DeHoff and museum docent Eric Pradel led Brooks around and through the wreckage as they recounted the history of the plane, its crew, and the long journey to the museum.
"This B-17 sat in the swamps of Papua New Guinea for 60 years before making its way back to Hawaii where it started in December 1941," said DeHoff. "Walking the General through the interior of the aircraft brought to life what it was like to be a World War II Army aviator."
The aircraft, named the 41-2446, was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Its permanent flight crew included Capt. Fred Eaton, Co-Pilot Capt. Henry M. "Hotfoot" Harlow, Navigator 1st Lt. George B. Munroe, Jr., Bombardier Sgt. Richard Oliver, Flight Engineer Tech. Sgt. Clarence A. LeMieux, Radio Operator/Gunner Sgt. Howard A. Sorensen, Waist Gunner Sgt. William E. Schwartz, Waist Gunner Tech. Sgt. Russell Crawford, and Tail Gunner Staff Sgt. John V. Hall. They arrived on Oahu Dec. 17, 1941 and were based at Wheeler Army Airfield.
Following the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on New Britain, the 41-2446 was ordered to the 19th Bombing Group at Garbutt Field, Townsville, in Queensland, Australia. On Feb. 22, 1942, five B-17Es took flight on a raid targeting Japanese shipping in Rabaul's Simpson Harbor.
The 41-2446 suffered heavy anti-aircraft fire during two runs over their target, including a flak round that punched a hole through the starboard wing.
Fortunately the round did not detonate. Despite the damage sustained by the aircraft, the crew was miraculously uninjured. The 41-2446 headed to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea were the B-17Es were directed to refuel before returning to Australia.
Without enough fuel to reach Port Moresby, Capt. Eaton was forced to make an emergency landing in what he believed to be a large wheat field. Instead, the 41-2446 was bogged down in five feet of water in the middle of Agaiambo Swamp. Several days later the crew was led by a local Papuan to his village where they stayed until being picked up by the Australian Resident Magistrate, 36 days after their initial takeoff.
The crew was transported to Australia where they were treated for malaria for three months before they all returned to active status.
"Having visited Townsville where this flight originated and, having very recently visited Papua New Guinea where this mission terminated, it was fascinating to me to see the B-17 in such good condition," said Brooks. "That speaks volumes to the skill of those Army airmen who flew the mission and successfully crash landed it after taking numerous bullet holes, pierced fuel tanks, broken windows in the cockpit -- yet, the courage of the crew to hold their stations all the way through."
The 41-2446 was all but forgotten until 1972 when she was spotted by Australian Soldiers on a training exercise, earning the nickname "Swamp Ghost." Efforts to recover it began in 2006 and, despite the exposure to water for almost 70 years, the aircraft is remarkably intact. A close look reveals 121 bullet and shrapnel strikes from ground fire and the dozens of Japanese fighters that contributed to its demise. After years of legal issues the aircraft was transported to California where she was displayed in various locations until the Pacific Aviation Museum entered into negotiations to obtain the wreckage. She arrived back in Honolulu on April 2, 2013 and is currently undergoing preservation and restoration at the museum.
"What a fitting final resting place for this Army Air Corps B-17, on Ford Island where Army aviation in the Pacific began in 1917," said Brooks.
As you see the original oil still slowly seeping from one of the American-made engines, you can't help but reflect on its journey, the proud history of the Army Air Corps and the overall history of the U.S. Army in the Asia-Pacific region.
"This aircraft…is a historic artifact preserved in the museum so all can see it and experience the story it tells," said DeHoff. "Today's Army, with leaders like General Brooks taking time to honor those that sacrificed so much in another war, is a better Army because we remember the past …"
During his time in command, Brooks' engagements in the region have taken him to many countries. Among them are Philippines, China, Australia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Attu (Alaska), Wake Island, Guam, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia -- places where the Army earned campaign streamers over the last 117 years of continuous presence in the Asia Pacific region and where our presence and relationships are still important today.
In January, Brooks visited the Philippines, American Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, all of which played an integral role in the U.S. Army involvement in World War II. Brooks visited war memorials, battle grounds and local cemeteries between meetings with prime ministers, secretaries of defense and senior military leaders.
Prior to his visit to Papua New Guinea, Brooks had the opportunity to tour the battle field where the 25th Infantry Division and Americal Division landed and seized ridge upon ridge at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Ultimately, a joint team that included 2nd Marine Division formed under an Army Corps to expel the Japanese ground forces -- the first ground victory, which began the rolling back of the Japanese Empire.
Army Air Corps B-17E support to Australian ground troops during the war was pivotal in the defense of Australia and in the U.S. Army-led island campaign through several islands in Southeast Asia. Papua New Guinea is less than 100 miles from Australia. Control of the airfields on the south side of the island would have enabled the Japanese to directly bomb the allied sanctuary.
Under the senior U.S. Army leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Brisbane, Australia, the allies ultimately prevailed on the ground, while the U.S. Army Air Corps bombed Japanese ships, ports, airfields, supplies and ground forces. Brooks and the Australian Senior Defense Official in Papua New Guinea laid a wreath at the Bomana Commonwealth Cemetery, Papua New Guinea, Jan. 13 to honor the Soldiers interned there after World War II. The allies suffered 8,500 casualties in the campaign.
The U.S. Army's long, shared history with Papua New Guinea continues today. U.S. Army Pacific support to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force ranges from medical capabilities, engineering and civil affairs. USARPAC's annual Oceania Disaster Relief Exercise and Exchange was held in Papua New Guinea last May to improve disaster readiness in the wake of major natural disasters.
Brooks also met with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill during his visit to discuss the strengthening relationship between the two nation's armies and preparations for the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader's summit and. APEC will be held in Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby in 2018.
For more information on the Swamp Ghost's history, recovery and restoration, please visit the Pacific Aviation Museum blog http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/boeing-b-17e-flying-fortress-swamp-ghost2.