Posted on April 19 2017
The earth has a way of swallowing things up. Flood deposits, growing vegetation, landslides, tsunamis—plenty of ways to bury the past. Life moves on, people forget, mysteries are formed. This was especially true of some events of World War II. Massive scenes of destruction were played out worldwide, and when it was over, many of the participants went back to their homes thousands of miles away, never to return. They had too many bad memories, a need to move on, and had other places to see. Those left living near the battlefields cleaned up what they could and tried to forget the horror. Preserving the evidence of a nightmare was not a high priority.
One obscure corner of the world where that war came calling was the island of New Guinea, north of Australia. The native peoples of New Guinea had no stake in the conflict—the largely tribal groups there had their own mini-wars to mind, and were probably astonished at the Japanese, American and Australian forces fighting over their island. As a foothold on their way toward liberating the Philippines from Japanese occupaton, the Allies struggled to get control of New Guinea, and their efforts involved many airflights to bomb the enemy and help clear the way for ground troops. Given the harsh tropical conditions, let alone the anti-aircraft fire, airplanes flew in severe danger, and often crashed or came down in unplanned circumstances. Hundreds lay in pieces on New Guinea at the end of the war. Being a poor nation with little means of cleaning up the detritus of war, most of these impact zones just became part of the landscape, largely covered over by relentless tropical growth.
The Swamp Ghost lay in Agaiambo Swamp for 64 years.
Many decades later, war historians, veterans, and World War II buffs are still chasing down these remains. Some are well known, having met their end near populated areas, and some have been consumed by the jungle. One, a B-17E Flying Fortress, made an emergency landing following heavy battle damage in 1942. It came down in a place called Agaiambo Swamp, miles from human habitation of any size. The crew all survived the “wheels-up” crash landing, as did the structure of the plane itself. Getting back to anything resembling civilization took the men six gruelling weeks. Because of its remoteness, the difficulty of reaching it in brutal terrain, and the lost memories, the old warbird remained undisturbed until it was rediscovered from the air in 1972. Thirty-four years later, in 2006, an American salvage team managed to extract the plane, now known as the “Swamp Ghost,” and bring it back to the United States. At this time, it sits re-assembled on outdoor display at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for the curiosity and education of thousands. Given that the plane was never officially retired and still bears its battle damage, it is unique among all B17Es still in existence. Its scars are not likely to be covered over, as they are a raw testament to its harrowing experience.
Preserving that reality is important to preserving history. But some feel that the very removal of the plane, or any war artifact, from its resting place strips it of its contextual importance. It becomes just another airplane, or cannon, or tank—historical, to be sure, but no longer an integral piece of the scene where it took its role in history. There is another aspect to the action of “salvaging,” which involves the importance of those historical items to the people who lived where it sat. Those pieces are a part of their history, and as interest grows regarding the now long-past events of World War II, tourism focusing on that history is made less vibrant without the actual artifacts in situ. This brings fewer tourists and tourist dollars to places that could use the income, like New Guinea (or as that half of the island is now called, Papua New Guinea.) Indignation over the removal of the Swamp Ghost brought protests from some native people who felt their history was being stolen from them. It is a conflict with many sides to consider, from making an object easily accessible for the many, to keeping the scenarios of history whole.
Kee Bird, on a misson out of Alaska, became disoriented and ran out of fuel in northwest Greenland.
Less of a moral quandary for salvagers was the recovery of The Kee Bird, a B-29 Superfortress that had to set down in distress on a frozen lake during a flight over northwestern Greenland in 1947. The unscathed crew was rescued after three days, but the plane was left on the ice. The plane had been on a Cold War spy mission monitoring Russian activity in the Arctic, but as World War II was over, there was no famous battle to associate the plane with, and the location was as uninhabited as it was remote. Accordingly, the B-29 didn’t have the cachet that the Swamp Ghost did. Still, the opportunity to save a rare old airplane beckoned. By 1994, an operation was underway not to simply retrieve the relic, but to refurbish it in place, and fly it off the lake! It was planned to then get the plane to Thule, Greenland for further repairs, and then transport it back to the US. The team brought a ton of parts, including new tires, propellers, and even whole engines, and set to work. The window for completing such an extensive overhaul in Greenland is small, and weather difficulties cut the project short. Returning in May of 1995 with more supplies and a small bulldozer to create a runway, the plane was brought back to operating condition. They managed ignition on all engines and were moving toward the runway, when tragedy struck. A fuel leak started a fire, which rapidly involved the interior of the airplane, and eventually parts of the exterior as well. The fire moved too fast to be extinguished. It was the end of a dream.
Since then, rumors have gone around that parts of the Kee Bird had been brought back, or that the damaged plane and various pieces of equipment and garbage had been bulldozed into a big pile. But in 2015, it was reported and recorded on film that the plane still lies on the frozen lake, partly encased in the very shallow water. And there it will probably remain for some time to come. As the stories of these aircraft reveal, the recovery of war memorabilia can be tricky business, fraught with the extremes of climate, difficult access, and the disparate shades of human desire to keep the past alive.
Here she is after the crash landing.
This is the view from the air of the wreckage after she burned and sank some into the shallow lake.