In 1972 a group of soldiers on board a Royal Australian Air Force helicopter were flying over a remote part of Papua New Guinea. Suddenly, they detected a large, partially submerged object in a stretch of wetlands, and when they flew closer, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing…
Encompassing a plethora of Pacific islands just north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is home to some of the world’s most exotic wilderness. Its many varied ecosystems include lush tropical rainforests, rugged mountain chains, volcanoes, savannahs and swamps.
And the object that the Australian soldiers had spotted was in a particularly remote, crocodile-infested swamp known as Agaimbo. Indeed, one of the reasons why the object in question was so incredibly well-preserved is that it was in such an inaccessible location.
The mystery object was a World War II bomber, and thanks to coverage in the media, it earned the nickname “Swamp Ghost.” What’s more, over the years it came to be regarded as a kind of holy grail of military aviation history – romantic, well-preserved and inaccessible. “It was widely considered that it was impossible to salvage this airplane,” aviation archaeologist Fred Hagen told Southern California Public Radio in 2010.
Enter David Tallichet Jr., a Dallas-born World War II veteran and entrepreneur. Aside from having built dozens of aviation-themed restaurants, Tallichet had a side business collecting and restoring military aircraft. In fact, at one stage he owned more than 120 planes, including a B-25 Mitchell bomber and a P-40 Tomahawk.
By coincidence, Tallichet’s military career had included co-piloting the same type of four-engine bomber as the one discovered in Papua New Guinea. And so in the 1980s Hagen and Tallichet began a salvage operation that would take decades to complete. “It was our greatest dream,” Hagen told South California Public Radio. “Because for some reason it captured the imagination of people from around the world…”
The behemoth plane was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force B-17E Flying Fortress. According to lore, its name was chosen by Boeing after remarks made by a Seattle Times journalist on the day of an early test flight in July 1935. “Why, it’s a flying fortress,” he had reportedly declared.
Despite spending decades in the open air, Swamp Ghost had been remarkably well preserved at the crash site. And when Tallichet and Hagen eventually excavated it, they became the proud owners of a piece of aviation history. Indeed, it was one of just four B-17Es in the world to have been recovered.
The Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii actually later described it as “arguably the world’s only intact and unretired World War II-era B-17E bomber, a one-of-a-kind example of an aircraft that played an indispensable role in winning WWII. And it is the only B-17 in the world that still bears its battle scars.”
The history of the B-17 dates to the early 1930s. Roosevelt’s drive to modernize the U.S. military included commissioning a new generation of bombers that could carry sizeable payloads and service remote bases in Hawaii, Panama and Alaska. As a result, the prototype B-17 was designed by Boeing for a competition in 1935.
Over the years, the design of the plane evolved to incorporate engineering improvements. Finally, in September 1941 the first B-17Es became operational. And by the end of the war, a total of some 12,731 B-17 planes had served, including 8,600 of the final B-17G model.
Swamp Ghost had been assigned to fly into Pearl Harbor from San Francisco just one day before the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. But as fate would have it, the aircraft did not fly with the Kangaroo Squadron on that day. Instead, it went on to serve in some of the earliest American bombing missions of WWII. Then disaster struck.
On January 23, 1942, the Japanese invaded Rabaul, a township on New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea, threatening Allied bases in the area. A month later, on February 23, Swamp Ghost was dispatched to bomb Japanese ships in Rabaul’s harbour. However, things did not go to plan.
Piloted by Captain Frederick “Fred” C. Eaton Jr., the plane began experiencing problems when its crew attempted to open the bomb bay doors. The doors became stuck, and Eaton was forced to circle the enormous Japanese freighter that was their target. They managed to drop the bombs on the second pass, but by then they’d drawn fire from Japanese fighter planes and anti-aircraft batteries.
A skirmish ensued in which the Flying Fortress claimed three out of a dozen enemy fighters. However, its port wing was then punctured by a round of flak. Fortunately, the flak did not explode, but by now the plane was leaking fuel and would be forced to make a crash landing.
Unable to reach the Papua New Guinean capital at Port Moresby, Eaton was approaching the Owen Stanley Mountains when he saw what he thought was a large wheat field in the lowlands of Oro Province. In fact, though, the “wheat” was ten-foot-high swamp grass.
Miraculously, the plane landed without the crew sustaining any major injuries. However, they were now stranded in the middle of nowhere. So, for days they wandered, starving and exhausted, through the remote wilderness of Papua New Guinea, ravaged by mosquitos and cooked by the sun.
All of them eventually contracted malaria. Fortunately, though, a helpful native eventually guided them to the safety of his village. The crew were nursed back to health, and after being reunited with U.S. forces, they were almost immediately dispatched on a new tour of duty. Meanwhile, the downed Flying Fortress was forgotten… until the helicopter flyover in 1972.
Hagen’s salvage operation was eventually completed in 2006. What’s more, four years later permission was finally granted to allow Swamp Ghost to return to the United States. It subsequently received its first public viewing in Long Beach, California, and among the guests were family of the original crew.
Since 2013 the plane has been in the hands of the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The museum plans to restore the bomber and display it in a hangar on Ford Island, an islet within the harbor. And while the costs may exceed $5 million, that is a modest price for preserving a national treasure.
It seems, however, that even to this day WWII relics are dotted across different parts of the world. For instance, when this explorer and his wife were hiking through one of the remotest parts of the world, they, too, stumbled across a haunting reminder of this not-so-distant past.
Imgur user CanadaSpeedoMan and his wife were on a backcountry hiking trip in Greenland. For days, they trekked through the fjords, getting farther and farther from anything resembling civilization. Then they came upon piles of old barrels and the twisted frames of long-collapsed buildings.
East Greenland is a remote and lonely part of the world. Its landscape is one of mountains and lakes, and for much of the year it’s locked in pack ice. But in this great wilderness the hikers discovered the rusting remains of a facility – one that dates from a time when the area played a very important strategic role.
Amid the rocky peaks, on a shelf of land close to an Eskimo encampment known as Ikateq, the United States had built an airstrip. It was designed to be a refueling station for military aircraft flying from America to Europe during the Second World War. And it’s still there, slowly collapsing into the dirt.
Work began on the airstrip, known as Bluie East Two, in 1942. A year earlier America had taken over the defense of Greenland and began looking for sites on which to place a 5,000-foot runway. Eventually, they found the best location, 35 miles northeast of Tasiilaq. So it was that a supply flotilla arrived on July 26, 1942, and building work began.
The airfield remained open from 1942 until 1947. After the war came to an end in 1945, though, the importance of Bluie East Two began to wane. In fact, like other American bases in Greenland, it was vacated two years later. But the site’s inaccessibility is largely responsible for the fact that its legacy remains visible for anyone lucky enough to find it.
You see, everything that the Americans used to build Bluie East Two had to be shipped in. There are few, if any, trees in East Greenland, so the timber needed to be ferried over. But this also meant that when it was time to leave, there was no desire to take anything from the site.
It wasn’t just the buildings that were left, though. Almost everything was abandoned to the elements. And now, hundreds of barrels litter the area. These containers were used to refuel the planes, and some of them still hold fuel in their rusting shells. All told, it’s certainly a strange thing to stumble across in the middle of nowhere.
Nowadays, alongside the barrels are huge pieces of machinery. These would have been used to build the runway that was the heart of Bluie East Two. Completed in 1943, the landing strip was made out of gravel, and you can still see it cut into the cold earth today.
Most of the useful things that were left behind at Bluie East Two have, though, been removed over the past 70 years by the native Inuit people. However, anything that couldn’t be taken away by foot or in small fishing boats remains where it was left.
Interestingly, too, old photos from when the facility was being built show that it wasn’t just machinery that was needed to create the airstrip. Huge crates of explosives were also used. East Greenland isn’t, after all, the sort of place that makes building, or maintaining, large complexes easy.
In its day, every season, when it was possible, the base was resupplied by the American coastguard. And when the area was in the grip of winter and the snow couldn’t be cleared from the runway, provisions were dropped from the air. Then, once the Americans had left, the Danish government had no interest in Bluie East Two.
Yet while the Americans no longer used Bluie East Two, it did still offer the occasional benefit. In 1958 the facility served a vital supply role during the building of an early-warning radar system farther south at Kulusk. However, once the war had finished, the site never regained its former importance.
Now, amid the twisted metal, there are other interesting items left behind from when the Americans departed. Littering the ground are shards of glass marked with the telltale logo of the Coca-Cola company – a clear reminder of the airfield’s short-lived occupation by U.S. airmen.
Meanwhile, alongside the earth-moving machines, other static pieces of machinery remain. Boilers and furnaces that once heated and powered the base are largely still intact. One even bears the mark of the company in New York that built it. The buildings around them, however, have long since collapsed.
Other pieces of equipment can be seen as well. A radio mast lies collapsed, its frame pointing to a body of water where icebergs drift eerily by. And radios themselves are still there, too. They’re mainly just decaying metal boxes now, though, stood in the middle of a frigid plain.
It isn’t just metal that remains, either. Thick black tires sit among the wreckage. Some of them are still wrapped in the snow chains that would have helped them during the coldest parts of the year. The tires are marked “United States Rubber Company.”
The site has, then, stood abandoned for more than half a century, and yet there’s a chance that it may not be around much longer. For some time, cleaning up Bluie East Two has been a point of political contention between the governments of Greenland and Denmark. But it seems that the two have finally settled on what to do.
In 2017 the two governments concluded that it was time to do away with all of the detritus left at the abandoned airstrip. Efforts will therefore soon be made to rid the area of this strange, rusting relic of the Second World War. The clean-up operation is scheduled to begin in 2018.
If that’s the case, then CanadaSpeedoMan and his wife might conceivably be the last people to visually document the remains of the airstrip. Once the huge tidy-up is finished, it’s entirely possible that there’ll be nothing left whatsoever of the American base. The wilderness of East Greenland will be all but empty once again.
That, of course, makes these photos all the more important. Bluie East Two played a role in one of the biggest conflicts in human history. And even though it’s been left to fall into rot and ruin, it’s still an intriguing, bizarre place – and one that’s made even stranger by its incredible surroundings.