Certainty & Controversy
There is certainty about the intact Boeing B-17E Fortress which lies sprawled into Papua New Guinea's Agaiambo Swamp, known affectionately thesedays as 'Swamp Ghost'. This certainty is that it becomes more priceless, not necessarily valuable, as every year passes. This will ensure that one day it will be propelled into controversy.
Until now, only the American side of the story of how this remarkable relic remains so intact in a remote tropical has been told. There are of course the Japanese and post-war aspects as well, and I wish to explore both in this special release commissioned for pacificwrecks.com. Historical inaccuracies are unworthy of this bomber, and this article intends to set the record straight, cross-referencing primary source material as is the professional and fundamental requirement of all Aerothentic publications.
The Fortresses which participated in this mission were the first ones to appear in Rabaul airspace since a U.S squadron of B-17Cs staged through Rabaul in September 1941 on its way to reinforce US air bases in Mindanao, the Philippines.
The Japanese had since occupied Rabaul in late January 1942, and quickly reinforced it. For aerial defense they took over the former civil field at Lakunai and there they stationed A6M5 Claude and A6M type Zero fighters. Lakunai was picturesque, but had its quirks. At one end of the field was an active volcano, and clouds of volcanic dust were raised every time the Japanese fighters scrambled. The Japanese aerial unit which flew these aircraft was the 4th K?k?tai (Ku), which had hurriedly moved down to Rabaul from Truk in early February 1942, shortly after its formation there. One of its pilots was Petty Officer Motosuna Yoshida, and on the morning of 23rd February 1942 he was 24 years old. Yoshida had flown previously with the Oita, Komura, Yokosuka and 12th Ku in both Japan and Manchuria. Yoshida was therefore an experienced aviator, and much of his time with the Yokosuka Ku had been spent as an instructor. There had been almost no aerial combat opposition in Rabaul skies since carrier-based A6M2s had dispensed with RAAF Wirraways which offered token opposition to the invasion of Rabaul. The 4th Ku pilots were primed and ready however, for beyond the occasional reconnoitering Australian Catalina or Hudson, they anticipated that American bombers would appear in their airspace, sooner rather than later.
Whilst the 4th Ku were settling into Lakunai and the relative comfort of the halcyon days of the early occupation of Rabaul, halfway across the world twelve Fortresses assigned to the 9th, 11th and 88th Bombardment Squadrons were preparing to leave Hawaii's badly-damaged Wheeler Field for a long and staged delivery flight to Australia. Leaving behind the ruins of Pearl Harbour and flying singly, they reached Christmas Island on 11th February 1942, the next day flew eight hours to Canton Island, then on to Nadi and Suva (Nausori) in Fiji. Their stay in Fiji was delayed one day whilst the pro or anti Allied loyalties of the Vichy French in New Caledonia were ascertained. It was considered safe, so they transited through Plaine Des Giacs on that long French island, then flew directly to RAAF Garbutt airfield, near Townsville. Here they landed on 20 February 1942, but Garbutt was considered an easy target for Japanese bombers to find, so the aircraft were dispersed to Charters Towers and Cloncurry, two towns well inland from Townsville. The latter contingent were dispersed to Cloncurry on 21st February, but they were to be there only one day. Orders came through that they were to return to Townsville the next, as a strategic raid was planned, to Rabaul no less. The RAAF Garbutt Tower log defines the target as "Shipping and wharf installations, enemy aircraft, north end Simpson Harbour, Rabaul". Takeoff time was scheduled for 2300 hours on 22nd February 1942, putting the Fortresses over Rabaul at dawn on the morning of the 23rd. It would be a long, long mission in which nine brand new E model Fortresses would lug bombs to Rabaul. The crews were briefed in one of the grey numbered wooden huts which surrounded Garbutt's perimeter. Understandably already tired, most hoped to snatch some sleep on the journey to Rabaul. Townsville to Rabaul was just over 1,100 miles, meaning they had insufficient range to return to Garbutt, so they would divert via Port Moresby to refuel after hitting Rabaul. The mission had been hurriedly planned, and very much so. Furthermore, fuel consumption was based on peacetime operations, not allowing for combat conditions or diversions.
The excited but nervous crews clambered into their E model Fortresses, an event which hallmarked the first combat mission for most. Garbutt's taxiways were poorly lit, and heavy overcast meant there was no moonlight. In the darkness two taxiing Fortresses locked wings, and jerked to an awkward halt. They would fly again, but not this mission. Another Fortress failed to leave its parking space. Magneto and other engine-related problems saw to that. That meant three Fortresses were out of the race, leaving six to give the Japanese a rude wake-up call. The mission would be led by Dick Carmichael, a graduate of the University of Texas, and former fighter pilot in the prewar Hawaiian Air Department. Carmichael was former deputy Commander of the 11th Bombardment Squadron in the US, formerly under the command of Major Flock. One weekend they had gone sailing together, and Flock had been drowned when their boat capsized in a storm. Carmichael had hung to the upturned hull for hours before being rescued, a reflection of his tenacity. Carmichael had subsequently been promoted to Commanding Officer of the 11th Bombardment Squadron. Shortly after Pearl Harbour this squadron was combined with the remnants of the 22nd Bombardment Squadron. Jointly, on paper at least, they had amalgamated to form the new 14th Bombardment Squadron.
Which unit was 41-2446 assigned
However, contention must remain forever as to which unit ‘Swamp Ghost’ was really assigned. The historical answer is somewhat academic. However the facts are that it was U.S Navy Admiral King who had arranged for the twelve B-17Es to fly from Hawaii, primarily to co-operate with naval offensives in the Solomons area. On 12th February 1942 King ordered Admirals Brown and Leary to conduct offensive operations in the Solomons, including the deployment of an ANZAC Squadron of Hudson bombers. Two days later, Brown suggested to Leary that instead the two task forces raid Rabaul, and King agreed. On 16th February 1942 therefore, Brown radioed that he would attack Rabaul on 21st February 1942. Hence the B-17Es were expedited from Fiji to Townsville. On paper at least, the dozen B-17Es were attached to Admiral Brown's LEXINGTON naval task force. Upon departing New Caledonia for Townsville, storms were encountered. Two pilots, Bill Lewis and Harry Speith proceeded directly to Townsville, whilst the remainder diverted to Archerfieild, near Brisbane. One of the Fortresses was destroyed at Archerfield, impacted by a Dutch Airlines DC-3. The following day, this Archerfield contingent proceeded to Townsville. The detachment in reality remained at least partly under US Navy control, and partly by RAAF Townsville. It was never not formerly designated 14th Squadron, although ex-Philippines personnel did lobby for this.
First US Strategic Bombing Against the Japanese in New Guinea
It was under this banner that the first US strategic bombing against the Japanese in New Guinea would take place, with Bill Lewis leading the second echelon. The pilots-in-command were as follows:
|1st Echelon||2nd Echelon|
|Col. Richard H. Carmichael||Bill Lewis|
|Fred Eaton||Fred Watson 1|
|'Swede' Swenson||Harry Speith 2|
|Harry Brandon||Deacon Rawls 3|
|Frank Bostrom 3|
The six climbed into Townsville’s overcast, with the aim of re-grouping over Magnetic Island. About forty-five minutes out they ran into rain and heavy cumulus however. They nevertheless persevered, individually maintaining the course which should place them over Rabaul.
Life At Rabaul
Life at Rabaul for the recently-arrived Japanese Navy pilots was not all bad. In the centre of town there was an old German colonial hotel, now occupied by Geisha girls. The pilots were encouraged to use the facility, they were told it was good for their health. The pilot's main complaint was the obsolete A5M Claude fighters still in the 4th Ku's inventory. These were gradually being replaced by modern A6M Zeros, whilst the Claudes were regarded by both pilots and ground engineers alike as well past their prime. The Claudes had served well in Manchuria, but there was widespread and hard-earned concern that the Americans had better quality opposition. They knew from Philippines' experience that the heavily-armed enemy Fortresses was better dealt with by the more powerful and cannon-equipped Zero. At Lakunai the Zeros were towed and dispersed around the field by pulling ropes attached to their maingears. The Zero's flimsy construction meant that customized duckboards, shaped to the top camber of the wing, were placed on the top of the wings for protection before engineers could work on the airframe. The engineers were always up before dawn, preparing the Claudes and Zeros for early morning patrols and training missions.
Whilst the Japanese pilots slept into the early morning of 23rd February 1942, the six Fortress crews struggled with heavy tropical cloud build-ups which so characterize that part of the world. Several hours further on, and the conditions proved too much for Speith however. He and copilot 2/Lt Kenneth Fields, unsure of their position, banked their Fortress for home, by now nearly seven hundred miles northeast of Garbutt. Speith’s tired and disappointed crew landed there at 0915 hours, very low on fuel.
First two Fortresses over Rabaul
Bill Lewis and Fred Eaton guided the first two Fortresses over Rabaul, and Lewis later recorded that most of his bombs fell among transports in Simpson Harbour. He landed back at Port Moresby's Seven-Mile Field where curious Australian troops, the first Fortress they had ever seen, took a long look at the giant machine with four engines. For whatever reason the patrolling Claudes had missed Lewis, and instead concentrated on Eaton's Fortress. To Eaton's left sat co-pilot, 2/Lt Henry 'Hotfoot' Harlow, whilst navigator 2/Lt George Munroe took pride that he had found Rabaul below the clouds. Whilst there were clearly many ships in the Harbour below, Eaton’s bombs had hung up, so he maneuvered the Fortress around towering cumulus for a second attempt. A sudden flak burst exploded over the right-hand wing, jolting it downwards. There was a jagged hole in the wing, but no other discernible damage. This was when the Claudes found Eaton, and his crew had soon counted six Zeros which joined them. Fighters with red circles were everywhere, and Eaton's evasive action in the ensuing running battle was consuming valuable fuel, in a game of cat and mouse planned on peace-time fuel consumption. Between 0745 and 0800 hours Carmichael, Swenson and Brandon subsequently appeared in the same sky in succession, receiving similar attention from the Zeros and Claudes.
Thirty-five minute air battle
In the next thirty-five or so minutes, whilst Eaton weaved his Boeing in and between cloud, tail gunner Sgt J. V. Hall claimed one Zero, Sgt Russell Crawford, the waist gunner, two more. The Fortress took hits from 20mm cannon fire and Japanese 7.7mm machine guns. More then most, engineer Sgt Clarence Lemieux became increasingly concerned for their fuel situation.
Two Fortresses aside from Eaton’s had wounded aboard. Brandon arguably had the more interesting challenge on his hands - a projectile, probably a cannon hit, set one engine alight, and orange fire streamed from the engine. The emergency fire release extinguished the blaze, but the adjacent engine failed. Brandon quickly feather its propeller before it brought them down. Down to three engines, Brandon salved his bombs and ordered the crew to jettison the fuselage gasoline tank. It was held in with straps, but was now empty having been used to get them to Rabaul. It dropped through the bomb-bay, and Brandon’s only goal now was to reach Port Moresby. He did.
Searching between fluffy and towering cumulus, both Carmichael and Swenson’s droning Fortresses failed to find a satisfactory target. They too salved their bombs and banked left for Port Moresby. By the time they landed there, four of the five Fortresses which had made Rabaul’s air space had sustained hits. There was a bigger problem however. Eaton’s Fortress was missing.
"A Flat Green Field"
As the last enemy fighter banked homewards for Rabaul, Eaton's exhausted crew headed Southwest en route to Port Moresby, directly towards new Guinea's northern coastline which they would cross at right angles. Between the coastline and Port Moresby lay the massive Owen Stanley Ranges however. The second run over target, evasive manoeuvres and increased drag from battle damage had all but run the Fortress out of fuel. The serious situation mitigated against them reaching Port Moresby, and it would be folly to bail out over the mountains. There was little choice but to put down. As they crossed the coast, Eaton perceived a flat green field approximately eight miles inland, suitable for a forced-landing. He feathered the two inboard engines whilst the crew took up crash positions in the radio compartment. The gear-up landing was smooth, and the ship finally came to rest with a slow right-angled turn to the right. A surprise lay in store however. They had put down, not in a flat field, but rather swamp some five feet deep, indiscernible from altitude.
The only injury sustained was a cut to the head incurred by navigator George Monroe. A qualified military pilot in his own right, Monroe had been pressed into service as a navigator due to a shortage of this profession in the USAAC at the time. There was one pressing duty to perform first. Monroe removed the Norden bombsite from the Fortress' forward bird cage, then destroyed it with his pistol. The crew’s escape from the swamp was arduous, drawn out, and took six weeks, conducted with the assistance of Australian coast watchers.
Motasuna Yoshida - Confirmed Kill
Back at Rabaul, Motasuna Yoshida turned in his report of his encounter with the Fortresses to 4th Ku intelligence officers. Copies of these records were regularly returned to Tokyo by way of the MAVIS flying boat service which made a weekly courier run to Rabaul via Truk. They survive to this day. The records do not say whether Yoshida was flying an A6M2 or A6M3 that day, although it is more likely to have been the latter, as the heavier and more short-range A6M3s were preferred for defensive rather than offensive roles in New Guinea. Yoshida claimed to have shot down one of the Fortresses, and since there were no other contenders, he was awarded the kill. In view of the number of attackers, it will now never be known whether it was Yoshida's bullets which holed Eaton's Fortress. The more likely scenario is that Yoshida claimed Brandon's Fortress after one of its engines was set alight. The pursuing Japanese pilots might also have mistaken Brandon's jettisoned fuel tank as the crew bailing out. Historically though, Yoshida is the only Japanese pilot from that eventful day credited with a Fortress, Eaton's or not. Yoshida was wounded, presumably in combat, in Rabaul in March 1942. The following month he was transferred to the Tainan K?k?tai where he flew combat missions in A6M2s to Port Moresby, Lae, Buna and Milne Bay (known as Rabi by the Japanese). He was lost however on 7th August 1942, the opening day of the Guadalcanal campaign. shot down into the ocean near Tulagi by Lt Gordon E. Firebaugh, flying an F4F-4 Wildcat from Navy Squadron VF-6. History credits Yoshida with twelve kills.
Swamp Ghost - The Plane Today
Eaton's Fortress survives in the swamp today, pretty much in the same condition in which it forced-landed. There are moves from Hollywood, to use it as a movie backdrop, whilst an unrelated US historical group wish to recover it. The future of Eaton's Fortress is therefore likely to be interesting unless it is left forever where it came to lay, so many years ago.
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Fact and Fiction about 'Swamp Ghost'
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Primary Material Consulted