Planes Flying Formation WWII
United States Army Military History Institute via Wikimedia

How a Lost WWII Plane Hidden Among Swampland Transformed Into a Treasured Relic

History

| LAST UPDATE 10/13/2022

By Amie Alfaro

Deep within the swamplands of Papua New Guinea was a lost relic from World War II. It became a religious symbol to many and a memorial of tragedy for others. Here is the story of the Swamp Ghost.

A Mysterious Discovery

The Royal Australian Air Force was completing a routine flight. They were flying over Papua New Guinea in 1972. At this point in history, the breathtaking region was still part of the Australian Commonwealth.

Papua New Guinea DiscoveryPapua New Guinea Discovery
Marc Dozier via Getty Images

During this flight, the crew noticed something strange - it was a white and oddly shaped figure in the middle of nowhere. They were not exactly sure what it could be since it was located in such a remote area. Everything else was ridden in green... except for this mysterious figure.

Something's in the Water

The Royal Australian Air Force decided they would take a closer look. So, they flew in to see what this mysterious thing was. They realized the land was a swamp when they got closer to the ground. The item in question was halfway submerged underneath water.

swamp wwII mysterious discoveryswamp wwII mysterious discovery
Discovery UK via YouTube

The swamps in Papua New Guinea are dangerous territories. They are filled with haunting predators, like crocodiles and snakes. Since traveling to and through these swamps is a challenging and hazardous task, many unidentified items are lost to the world. In particular, there are many relics from World War II.

Advertisement

Infatuated by History

Thanks to its location, Japanese, Australian, and American airbases were scattered throughout the country during World War II. Due to the amount of activity that occurred during the war, there are many wreckages still left over today. This has inspired war tourism.

Map Papua New GuineaMap Papua New Guinea
Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of people travel from near and far to learn more about the Second World War and see firsthand its impact. Tourists can explore the bases that belonged to the Japanese or Allied forces. Upon the discovery by the Australian Air Force in 1972, two people were interested in more than simply visiting the country...

Advertisement

Intrigued by a Daring Quest

The two men wanted to know more about the discovery in the swamps. These brave individuals were Fred Hagen and David Tallichet. Hagen's skills as an aircraft historian and recovery expert would be helpful in such an endeavor. Not to mention, both shared a love for restoring old war relics.

War Wreckage WWII HistoryWar Wreckage WWII History
Unknown Photographer via Wikimedia Commons

And so, about a decade after the Australians spotted the mysterious object in the wilderness, Hagen and Tallichet decided to uncover what it could be. They would have to trek through dangerous swamps and face many challenges along the way, but they were determined.

Advertisement

Scouting a Team

But Hagen and Tallichet could not dare do this alone. Trekking into the swamps was challenging, and they were unfamiliar with the land. They needed the assistance of locals to help guide them through the treacherous terrain. They gathered equipment and hired villagers to assist them.

Papua New Guinea HistoryPapua New Guinea History
Jack Dickman via Getty Images

With the help graciously given by the locals, they were ready to embark on their big adventure: Hagen and Tallichet were finally one step closer to figuring out what this mysterious figure could be. Though, the path would not be easy to complete. Many dangers were waiting for them...

Advertisement

Dangerous Waters

The swamps of Papua New Guinea are not the most welcoming places for people to visit. Crocodiles infest the waters, and the air is teeming with mosquitos. The heat is also overpowering. Locals refer to the swamp Hagen and Tallichet were traveling to as Agaimbo.

New Guinea swamp discoveryNew Guinea swamp discovery
Discovery UK via YouTube

Few people have willingly stepped into the waters of the Agaimbo. They fear for their safety and lives. Also, the intriguing destination is hard to reach because of its remote location. And it doesn't stop there. Once one reaches the site, they will have to venture into the waters because it is halfway submerged underneath them.

Advertisement

The Swamp Ghost

Sure enough, once they finally arrived and began inspecting the mysterious object, they quickly solved the case. Hagen and Tallichet discovered that it was a plane this entire time - remarkably in decent condition. The dangerous waters ended up contributing to how well-preserved the relic was.

Pearl Harbor Aviation MuseumPearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

Due to its location, the plane was nicknamed "The Swamp Ghost." And it soon gained international fame thanks to media coverage. Everyone in the world wanted to know more about the Swamp Ghost - and so did Hagen and Tallichet. So, they set out to discover even more about the plane and how it ended up in the middle of nowhere...

Advertisement

Upon Further Inspection

As they began to further investigate the aircraft, they made a fascinating discovery: the plane was not just any old plane. It was a fighter plane from World War II. This discovery marked a critical moment for historians and war buffs because the weapon was well-preserved.

World War II PlanewreckWorld War II Planewreck
Unknown US Air Force Airman via Wikimedia Commons

Though it also wasn't too surprising that it was a military aircraft from the Second World War. After all, Papua New Guinea was a conflict zone between the Allied forces and the Japanese Empire at the time. Soon enough, the plane became a memorial symbol for all the lives lost in battle.

Advertisement

Mission Impossible

Making it to the plane was a difficult task to undertake, and they somehow managed it. Now Hagen and Tallichet had another impossible mission waiting for them: They had to figure out how to get to the plane and, maybe one day, figure out how to move it.

WWII Plane Wreckage DiscoveryWWII Plane Wreckage Discovery
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

They wanted to salvage it, despite it being "widely considered that it was impossible to salvage," as Hagen put it. Nevertheless, he and Tallichet were undeterred in their mission: if anyone was going to be able to pull off this challenging task, it was going to be the two of them.

Advertisement

An Avid Aviator

David Tallichet was extremely passionate about restoring airplanes. At one point in his life, he owned 120 planes. His collection included aircrafts like the B-25 Mitchell and the P-40 Tomahawk fighter. Additionally, he was a World War II veteran and spent his time as a pilot during the war.

David Tallichet WWII AirplaneDavid Tallichet WWII Airplane
Colin Crawford via Getty Images

Tallichet made his money as a restauranteur. His niche was creating restaurants that revolved around specific themes. He even took his love for planes into his business! The WWII veteran made a few aviation-themed restaurants. One of them was called 94th Aero Squadron and was located in Denver, Colorado.

Advertisement

A Miraculous Coincidence

As the team continued investigating the plane, they learned of an incredible coincidence. The Swamp Ghost was the same type of plane that Tallichet flew during the war! It was the B-17E Flying Fortress. This discovery gave them even more reason and vigor to salvage the aircraft.

WWII Planes Flying OverheadWWII Planes Flying Overhead
Unknown US Air Force Airman via Wikimedia Commons

And so, their salvaging efforts kicked off in the 1980s - 10 years after the Australian Air Force first spotted the plane. But it would take years before this mission was complete. Luckily, the magnitude of restoring the aircraft never scared or stopped Hagen and Tallichet. They were determined to finish what they started...

Advertisement

What Is in a Name?

Before it was the Swamp Ghost, the lost plane had a different nickname that it went by for years. Its original nickname was the Flying Fortress. The B-17E was called this by a Seattle Times reporter who witnessed the plane flying during a test flight. 

Flying Fortress Aviation MuseumFlying Fortress Aviation Museum
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

The name stuck afterward. The Flying Fortress was an amazing piece of aviation that inspired minds back in the 1930s as well as in the 1980s. Yet many questions remained: how did a bomber plane from the United States end up stranded in Papua New Guinea?

Advertisement

How Did It Get There?

A day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Swamp Ghost was sent out separately from the Kangaroo Squadron. This was a special mission specifically for the Flying Fortress. It was to go on one of the earliest explosive missions of the Second World War.

Pearl Harbor WWII WreckagePearl Harbor WWII Wreckage
Unknown Navy Photographer via Wikimedia Commons

A few months later, the Japanese invaded Rabaul, located on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. This attack threatened all the allied troops in the country. So, the Flying Fortress was given a new mission to complete. It was going to go after the Japanese forces in Rabaul.

Advertisement

Houston, We Have a Problem

The plan seemed to be simple enough. The B-17E was meant to attack the Japanese ships that were stationed in Rabaul Harbor along the coast of New Britain. However, things did not go according to plan. Suddenly, the plane began to malfunction. Their weapons bay doors would not open.

Papua New Guinea HistoryPapua New Guinea History
Paul Barnett via Wikimedia Commons

In order to complete their mission, they had to make a second pass at the target. Since the B-17E crew was forced into making a second pass, it allotted extra time for the Japanese troops to prepare for battle. This additional time ultimately did not bode well for the Flying Fortress.

Advertisement

The Fateful Battle

The Flying Fortress was in a full-out battle with the Japanese troops. Eventually, the aircraft's doors managed to open, and the American forces were able to fight back. They took down three enemy fighters out of a dozen. However, the fateful second pass gave enemy troops the time needed to come up with a counterattack.

Flying Fortress WWII AircraftFlying Fortress WWII Aircraft
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

A Japanese anti-aircraft flak hit the Flying Fortress. This hit caused devastating damage to the aircraft. It caught one of its wings, causing a chain effect, which made the plane leak fuel and look like it was heading straight for a crash landing.

Advertisement

A Missed Flight Home

The Swamp Ghost was supposed to return to the new Guinean capital city of Port Moresby once it completed its mission. However, with the damage to the wing and the devastating fuel leak, it was looking like the plane's pilot would have to devise a backup plan.

Planes Flying WWII BattlePlanes Flying WWII Battle
United States Army Military History Institute via Wikimedia Commons

They were running out of fuel and needed to land - fast. The pilot spotted a place he believed would be a good site for a crash landing. They were coming up on the Own Stanley Mountains, and he thought he had founded a wheat field. Except it turned out to be something far worse than that.

Advertisement

The Aftermath

Instead of the intended landing destination being a wheat field like the pilot had hoped for, it turned out to be a swamp. And there was no choice but to continue with the crash landing. The pilot landed the plane, and thankfully, none of the crew members were seriously injured.

Bullet Hole Plane WarcraftBullet Hole Plane Warcraft
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

But now, they were stranded in the swamplands of Papua New Guinea with no way to return home or contact anyone. They were utterly alone. With no other option left to them, the crew of nine journeyed into the wilderness to find a way back to civilization.

Advertisement

Sick & Stranded

The pilot and his crew set out to find their way back to their base. Only during this dangerous trek, all nine of them caught malaria and had to deal with heat exhaustion. It was with a tremendous amount of luck that they ended up stumbling across a local Papua New Guinean.

Papua New Guinean ArmyPapua New Guinean Army
Wikimedia Commons

The local villager took them back to his village. There the crew was tended to and nursed back to health. Thankfully, the local was able to help them heal and make their journey back home. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened if they had been stuck in the wilderness any longer?

Advertisement

A Forgotten Friend

The B-17E's crew was reunited with United States forces in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. They were greeted as heroes returning from their treacherous trek through the swamps. However, almost instantly, the crew was given a new mission... and their old friend, the Flying Fortress, was forgotten.

US Military Troops WWII US Military Troops WWII
Lt. Ken Rooks via Wikimedia Commons

The war continued and eventually ended, and no one thought again about the plane half-submerged in the swamps. Only a few locals remembered the aircraft. It wasn't until that fateful day in 1972, when the Australian troops rediscovered the aircraft, that the Swamp Ghost piqued international interest.

Advertisement

Destination Reached

When Tallichet and Hagen finally made it to the plane, they were amazed to see how well-preserved the Swamp Ghost was. Since it was so difficult to get to and the fact it was partially submerged for all those decades, the plane was kept in excellent shape.

Inside Flying Fortress PlaneInside Flying Fortress Plane
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

However, that did not stop locals from looting the insides of the plane. When they arrived, they discovered that all of the mechanics and weaponry that should have been inside the aircraft were no longer there. Though, these minor setbacks do not dampen the discovery.

Advertisement

Exploring the Aircraft

The Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii commented that the aircraft is "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."

Swamp Ghost Aviation MuseumSwamp Ghost Aviation Museum
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

It is a pretty big deal that Hagen and Tallichet were able to find it. In fact, the Swamp Ghost is only one of four of its kind. Its uniqueness makes it even more remarkable that the aircraft was so well-preserved. The rediscovery of it has allowed historians to learn from the Flying Fortress.

Advertisement

A Wartime Production

During the 1930s, the Boeing Company began to produce the B-17 heavy bomber. It was initially introduced to the world in 1938. Boeing had built approximately 12,731 bombers and was responsible for making 28% of America's aircraft force during World War II.

Planes Parked Airfield WWIIPlanes Parked Airfield WWII
Unknown Author via Wikimedia Commons

To this day, the B-17 Flying Fortress is still the third-most massively produced bomber aircraft of all time. The B-17 was primarily used against German forces in Europe and Japanese forces in the Pacific. Throughout the war, these planes dropped around 640,000 tons of explosives.

Advertisement

A Method for Modernization

The B-17 bomber not only played a leading role in the war effort but also was part of President Roosevelt's vision to modernize the United States military. It was a new style of aircraft that could carry more and serve on remote bases worldwide. The plane's engineering was also continually being worked on by Boeing.

President Roosevelt WWII HistoryPresident Roosevelt WWII History
Wikimedia Commons

However, the vision was not carried out as planned. After the war ended, the bomber was promptly phased out by the United States Air Force. They were sold for scraps or melted down. If any remaining planes were still being utilized, it was for roles such as transport, air-sea rescue, and photoreconnaissance.

Advertisement

Mission Impossible: Achieved

In 2006, about twenty years after they began their impossible mission, Hagen and Tallichet completed what they set out to do. They had finished their salvaging operation. It may have taken a long time, but they had learned so much and unraveled the mystery of the Swamp Ghost.

WWII B-17 Bomber WreckageWWII B-17 Bomber Wreckage
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

Now they had another seemingly impossible task to complete. The two men had to figure out how they would get the plane out of the swamps of Papua New Guinea. They had more than just the force of nature to contend with for this difficult assignment.

Advertisement

A Holy Sight

Locals viewed the plane as a religious relic. They believed that the land it was sitting on was holy. Therefore, they did not want the B-17 aircraft to leave the area. There was an internal fight within a local tribe when a local chief agreed to let Hagen and Tallichet remove the plane and take it back to America.

Swamp Ghost Aviation MuseumSwamp Ghost Aviation Museum
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

The chief's son spearheaded the campaign to have the Swamp Ghost remain. He organized a group of people to try and prevent the plane from being transported to a barge offshore. In the end, though, he was unsuccessful in his efforts: The Swamp Ghost eventually made its way out of the swamp.

Advertisement

Coming Home

They finally got permission to bring it back home four years after they finished their mission. The bomber was eventually lifted out by a Russian-made military helicopter. From there, it was airlifted to a barge and taken back to the United States of America.

Swamp Ghost WWII ArtifactsSwamp Ghost WWII Artifacts
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

The first viewing of the craft in the States occurred in Long Beach, California. Many of the people who attended the event were friends and family of the original crew members. Now the airplane calls the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor its home. The plane was moved there in 2013.

Advertisement

A Costly Restoration

Today, the owners of the B-17 bomber plane want to restore the aircraft to its original state. Except that is not going to be that easy of a feat. The estimated cost to restore the Flying Fortress could be up to $5 million. That is one heck of a price tag!

Flying Fortress Aviation MuseumFlying Fortress Aviation Museum
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

After the proposed restoration is fully completed, the plan would be to move the aircraft to Hangar 79 on Ford Island. The native Hawaiian name of the island is Moku'ume'ume, and it is actually an islet in the center of Pearl Harbor. For the time being, the aircraft remains at the museum.

Advertisement

Breaking the Chain

While American citizens may be happy to have the aircraft back on U.S. soil, local villagers in Papua New Guinea are still disturbed over the plane's removal. Not only did it attract tourists to come to visit their country, but there were local cultures that developed an extreme reverence for the craft.

Flying Fortress War RelicsFlying Fortress War Relics
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum via YouTube

They developed spiritual beliefs surrounding the plane. These beliefs are called a "cargo cult." It is defined as a system of beliefs where members of a society, typically an underdeveloped one, hold superstitious beliefs surrounding items that have fallen out of the sky, usually technology from an advanced civilization.

Advertisement

Sitting on History

While the Swamp Ghost gained international fame, many other wreckages are strewn across the vast terrain of Papua New Guinea to this day. Just from the United States alone, there were over 600 planes that crashed in the country during the Second World War.

Papua New Guinea AttractionsPapua New Guinea Attractions
Kaijankoski via Wikimedia Commons

When counting planes from other allied forces or the axis forces, there are most likely thousands of plane wreckages throughout the country. Most wreckages go completely unnoticed due to the country's rugged terrain. It is full of tropical rainforests, dangerous swamps, and rugged mountains.

Advertisement

A Lasting Impact

When World War II began, Papua New Guinea was strategically located. It was perched between the Japanese Empire and Australia. While the country did not participate in battle, it did offer assistance. Locals worked as service bearers, carrying supplies and wounded through their complicated terrain.

Papua New Guinean SitesPapua New Guinean Sites
Ianknabel66 via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it's morphed into a tourist destination for people interested in the Second World War. There was so much wreckage there that people from around the world come to see it for themselves. To this day, people flock to the region for the sights and sounds of the war...

Advertisement