Papua New Guinea is a treasure trove of war wrecks. Underwater photographer and diving writer Don Silcock explores four famous planes that lie at the bottom of the sea.
World War 2 came to Papua New Guinea in January 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Rabaul in East New Britain Province, turning the region into a major theatre of war in the battle for the Pacific.
There were many brutal encounters between the Japanese and the defending Allied forces. Conditions were often appalling, and the fighting was incredibly fierce with many young lives lost on both sides.
World War 2 was the first time that air power played a major role in combat, and both sides had formidable aircraft in action.
War, of course, is deadly but for aircraft pilots and crew the rate of attrition was particularly high. Many were shot out of the sky, others suffered mechanical failures, while others just got lost and simply ran out of fuel.
Most of those planes have never been found because they came down in remote jungle locations or far out at sea.
But some have and the story of the underwater wrecks offers a unique insight into a time long gone.
Lying in deep water, just off the fringing reef from Boga Boga village on the tip of Cape Vogel, is what many consider to be the best aircraft wreck in PNG.
The wreck is the B-17F ‘Black Jack’ Flying Fortress, which takes its name from the last two digits of its serial number 41-24521 (21 is a blackjack hand in the card game of pontoon).
Black Jack’s final flight was on 10 July 1943, when it left 7-Mile Aerodrome in Port Moresby on a mission to bomb the Japanese airfields at Rabaul.
The flight was troubled soon after take-off, with two of the four engines developing problems, however pilot Ralph De Loach and his crew of nine managed to reach Rabaul and drop their bombs.
‘Pearce found Black Jack as he made his way along the edge of the fringing reef at Boga Boga and, for someone who had dedicated his life to wreck diving, it was like finding the Holy Grail.’
On the return journey Black Jack ran into a violent storm on approach to the coast, a situation De Loach later described as ‘the blackest of black nights … the worst flying weather I’d ever seen in my life.’
Low on fuel and with two malfunctioning engines, De Loach decided to head south-east towards Milne Bay, but was forced to ditch the plane at Boga Boga.
The crew survived the landing and scrambled out of Black Jack before it sank down to the sandy seabed 50 metres below – where it lay for another 43 years.
The discovery of Black Jack reads like an adventure novel, with three Australians – Rod Pierce, Bruce Johnson and David Pennefather – stumbling on the wreck almost by accident in late December 1986, while searching for a another wreck.
The villagers had told Pennefather about a plane crashing near their reef during the war and he believed it might be the Australian Beaufort A9, which had crash-landed off Cape Vogel in November 1942.
Pierce, Johnson and Pennefather organised an exploration trip on Pierce’s liveaboard dive-boat MV Barbarian to search for the wreck.
Pearce found Black Jack as he made his way along the edge of the fringing reef at Boga Boga and, for someone who had dedicated his life to wreck diving, it was like finding the Holy Grail.
Over the next few days they dived the wreck as much as its depth of 50 metres would allow, entering the inside of the plane and finding the radio call plate and 24521 serial number, which allowed them to identify it.
Diving the wreck is a unique experience. The plane is so intact that it is almost like a set from a Hollywood movie. The nose is badly crumpled from the impact of the landing and the propellers on the four engines are twisted, but the rest of the plane is in remarkable condition after more than 70 years under water.
This is an excerpt of the article ‘Wreck heaven’, which was published in the November-December issue of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini.
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