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Brian J. Bennett
PNG Resident, Wreck Researcher, CILHI/JPAC Consultant
In Memory: Brian Bennett passed away on December 8, 2014.

New Zealander Brian Bennett has lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for most of his life, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the Rabaul area in particular. Over the decades, Brian has been responsible for locating many important wrecks in New Britain. During 1981 until the middle 2000s, he worked a consultant for US Army CILHI / JPAC to assist in locating Missing In Action (MIA) Americans in PNG.

Tell a little about yourself

Click For EnlargementMy name is Brian Bennett and I am a New Zealand citizen but have been a long time resident of Papua New Guinea (PNG) for the last 32 years. I am married to Fida, a Tolai woman from the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain Island. We have three children, all grown up now and resident in Australia.
In 1970, a forest industries consultant in New Zealand originally recruited me to work as forest surveyor at Vanimo on the PNG and Indonesian border. After a year at Vanimo I left to go exploring I suppose and went to Lae where I took up a position with a private survey firm engaged to do rural road survey for the then Australian Administration in PNG.

How did you get interested in WWII History?

I guess I was always interested in war history as a kid, as my father fought in the Solomon Is with the 3rd New Zealand Division and was decorated for gallantry twice. From an early age I had my uncles and their friends around me, all veterans.

What were your early days in New Guinea like?

When I first arrived in PNG I did not see much in the way of war relics in the Vanimo district. While there, I did get to go down to a place called Aitape and this was before most of the aircraft left there were collected and carted off to the states. I recall this vast or so it seemed area of aircraft left behind and but my friend and I had a great time sitting in all of them. At that age the opening of the new Aitape Hotel did go back to first priority.

After I arrived in Lae you noted that there were relics all over the place and readers might know of the book published many years ago called "Pacific Battlefields", well many of the items photographed in that were around for the seeing when I was there. I still recall the great pile of Japanese Naval “Long Lance” torpedoes stacked up in the yard of a sawmill in Lae. I wonder what happened to all the propulsion units. You could go out to Nadzab in those days and there was stuff lying everywhere and it was really only a matter of following your nose and you could always pick up something interesting.

Later on I got to work for a while in the Ramu Valley so Gusap, Dumpu and up around Shaggy Ridge all got tramped on Bulolo and Wau area where war relics were still just ho hum stuff but good places to build up the interest. I finally ended up in the East New Britain Province at Rabaul and was where I would spend a good part of working life and where I raised a family, it was also an area as I was to quickly find out one of the richest places in the SW Pacific for WWII History and even better for me, terrain littered with aircraft. Because of the nature of my work in the forestry sector I have been able to travel extensively in PNG and of course use nearly any excuse to take an opportunity to go hunting balus, the metal not the feathered variety.

What was the first aircraft wreck you visited?

Read ReviewMy first aircraft crash site was in 1971 while I was on loan to a government patrol in the Leron Valley. I was to accompany the patrol and report on the feasibility of a road from the Leron Bridge to an inland patrol post called Wantoat. Up in the hills behind a little hamlet called Sira-Sira the Patrol Officer (Kiap) and myself went to investigate the source of a piece of wreckage we had seen in the hamlet. This turned out to be a crashed Japanese bomber complete with the remains of the crew. Other that the fact that it was Japanese from an obvious “Rising Sun” on a wing neither of us had a clue what the aircraft type was but we picked up bones which were delivered at a later date to the district Office in Lae.

I remember being quite surprised at the time over the crash site and of course the unrecovered crew as I had this idea that after a war was over people went out and cleaned up the mess, it was from this little adventure that I “got into it” as they say. That year, Xmas 1971, I received as a present from my then fiancée later my wife, a copy of Francillon’s wonderful book Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War and I have been hooked on all things aviation in New Guinea ever since.

Tell about working with CILHI to locate and recover American MIAs

Click For EnlargementMy association with the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory [JPAC] out of Hawaii started way back in 1981, when I wrote to Colonel Rosenberg who was then commander of a unit very much smaller that what it is today. I had an inquiry regarding a F4U that I had found.
In 1983 a crash site was reported to me by the logging manager of a company who were operating in an area south of the Warangoi River. After visiting the site which turned out to be B-25C "Skilla" 42-64570 with human remains on site I reported this fact to CILHI and some time later became involved with my first recovery exercise with the unit. I recall that it was only a small team led by then Major Johnie Webb, now Deputy Commander of CILHI.

Talk about B-17E "Naughty But Nice" 41-2430
Click For EnlargementB-17E "Naughty But Nice" 41-2430 was relocated by myself in the company of Jose Holguin the navigator of the crew and only member to survive, and Bruce Hoy who was then Curator of the Modern History Branch of the National Museum. After some correspondence with Holguin I was able to get a fair idea of where the crash site might be and eventually one day the three of us took a helicopter out to the nearest village to make enquirers. As is often the case the “locals” often know what you are looking for and I had warned the others that we would either “ come up trumps” or get a vague answer or a plain blank look.

Click For EnlargementWe got a sort of vague answer which was “the balus (aircraft) up the hill or the one down the valley. Decisions to make. Joe was getting on a bit and as we had possibly the oldest man in the village as a guide we chose to go down the valley. Eventually we arrived at the bank of a pleasant stream in a pristine jungle setting {I have always wanted to write that} at which point our guide said that he recalled some wreckage somewhere up on a low ridge somewhere on the far side. At this stage the weather started to turn bad so time was now of the essence if we were to achieve anything.

Click For EnlargementAs I was the one that spoke Pidgin English and could therefore convey what we were to do I headed off into the jungle with a group of keen locals to see what we could find, if in fact we were in the right place. The first piece of wreckage to turn up was an engine supercharger lying on its own at the base of a low ridge, I then spread the boys out into a skirmish line and off we went.

Then I found the aircraft and to this day it is so fresh on the memory. I walked up over the edge of the ridge, machete in hand, and all but fell into the back of the cockpit. Immediately apparent were the control columns then the seat backs and after leaning forward and clearing some ferns away you could see a quite well preserved instrument panel. Well, you always get a bit excited over things like this so I shouted out for the others to come up and a little bit later Bruce located the still intact nose art ”NAUGHTY but NICE” which aided in correlating the aircraft.

Click For EnlargementIt was a sad time for Joe Holguin as this was the place where a long difficult part of his life started. I left early to go back for the helicopter as the weather had really deteriorated and left the others to explore some more. Some time later Joe recovered the cockpit nose section to Rabaul where it languished for some time then in 1989 when I and several others put the present Kokopo Museum together I dismantled the cockpit as much was corroded and placed the cockpit in the museum together with the nose art that was restored but that is another story. We walked into the site, carried everything on our backs and lived on MREs for the several weeks we were there. Over the years I have researched and relocated other B-17's on the Gazelle as well as innumerable Japanese crash sites.

Mention your discovery of Beaufighter A19-139
I have been most fortunate in that my interest in researching and hunting down missing aircraft has led me not only to many U.S. cases but occasionally to the odd Australian one. In 1995 in company with two other “expats” I finally got into a long overdue mystery site and identified a missing Beaufighter up on the Kuru River behind Kimbe in West New Britain. This was Coates and Chapple who were recovered a short time later and laid to rest at the Beautiful War cemetery at Batapaka near Rabaul.

Tell about your work today with CILHI/JPAC in PNG
From 1983 on to the present I have had a long association with CILHI and have had the opportunity to be involved in a number of recoveries in different parts of PNG. I have worked on some very difficult sites that were also very rewarding, with the results that were achieved. But these are all other stories and probably worth a book each so perhaps another day.

In November 2000 I was approached by CILHI and offered a position as a resident field historian based in Papua New Guinea. Instead of being in Rabaul I am now based in the Capitol Port Moresby where I am essentially a liaison officer for CILHI to PNG [2001 - 2005]. I aid in many of their activities while also acting as a conduit for reports of crash sites from both nationals out in the bush and the several other “ expats” who actively hunt MIA aircraft.

I essentially work from home and spend a lot of time re-working old records as I have an extensive knowledge of PNG and things that were/are mystery many years ago for the earlier search efforts are perhaps not so much now. Currently CILHI is enjoying considerable success with recoveries in PNG with a number of new crash sites coming to light in this last year.

It may come as a surprise to many who access the Pacific Wrecks site that CILHI has someone permanently working for them in PNG but I have been reluctant to advertise the fact as by the nature of what I am involved with which is “Missing Personnel” then I am often not able to mention details on aircraft recently found or those on the current active list for recovery.

CILHI’s policy is to discuss specifics of an individual once they have been identified and the service member’s family has been fully briefed. Rather than be in print, so to speak, I prefer to just toil away at the coalface which out here in PNG is “out in the scrub” looking for the sites.

Brian Bennett passed away on December 8, 2014. According to his wishes, his ashes were buried at Bitavavar village, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, his wife Fida's village.

Published articles by Brian Bennett
FlyPast "Last of the Ship Bsters" by Brian Bennett pages 18-19

Thank you, Mr. Bennett for the interview

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