Wreck heaven

PNG’s un­der­wa­ter trea­sure trove

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PNG 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 New Bri­tain, 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.

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 got lost and ran out of fuel.

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 July 10, 1943, when it left 7-Mile Aero­drome in Port Moresby on a mis­sion to bomb the Ja­panese air­fields at Rabaul in New Bri­tain.

The flight was trou­bled soon after take­off, 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.

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.

Lo­cal vil­lager Wil­liam Nui found the wreck of the Zero in Jan­uary 2000, not long after a small plane had crashed on take-off from Hoskins Air­port in Kimbe Bay. So, when he saw a plane ly­ing on the sandy sea floor, he thought he had found the wreck­age of the re­cent crash – not that of a World War 2 Ja­panese fighter plane that had re­mained undis­turbed for nearly 60 years.

Nui took his story to the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and word of the dis­cov­ery made it to Max Ben­jamin at Walindi Plan­ta­tion Dive Re­sort, who doubted the ve­rac­ity but felt that it should be checked out.

What Ben­jamin found was a World War 2 Mit­subishi Zero in good con­di­tion with no signs of bul­let holes or com­bat dam­age to in­di­cate it had been shot down. Rather the ‘off’ po­si­tion on the throt­tle lever and the pitch con­trol set to re­duce air speed clearly pointed to a con­trolled crash land­ing.

The air­craft’s se­rial num­ber and date are still vis­i­ble on the wreck, and mil­i­tary records show that the plane went miss­ing dur­ing the bat­tle of Cape Glouces­ter on De­cem­ber 27, 1943.

The pi­lot on that day was Tomi­haru Honda and lo­cal leg­end is that he was helped ashore by nearby vil­lagers and guided back to Ja­pane­se­held ter­ri­tory.

While Rabaul was Ja­pan’s main re­gional base, Kavieng in nearby New Ire­land also played a sig­nif­i­cant role and the orig­i­nal Aus­tralian-built air­field was ex­panded and a sea-plane base es­tab­lished.

Both became im­por­tant tar­gets for the Al­lied forces when the tide of war turned; as a re­sult, there are more known air­craft wrecks around Kavieng than any­where else in PNG. My per­sonal favourite is Deep Pete.

The plane is a Mit­subishi F1M float­plane, which was de­signed and built to be launched by cat­a­pult from bat­tle­ships, cruis­ers and air­craft ten­ders and used for re­con­nais­sance mis­sions.

The F1M was a bi­plane, with a sin­gle large cen­tral float and sta­bil­is­ing floats at each end of the lower wing. Early ver­sions suf­fered from poor di­rec­tional sta­bil­ity in flight, and were prone to ‘por­poise’ when on the wa­ter – which may ex­plain why the wreck is ac­tu­ally there.

The name ‘Pete’ comes from the way the Al­lied Forces iden­ti­fied en­emy air­craft dur­ing

the war as the Ja­panese nam­ing con­ven­tion was dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand and pro­nounce. So, the Al­lies used code names in­stead, with men’s names given to fighter air­craft, women’s names to bombers and trans­port planes, bird names to glid­ers and tree names to trainer air­craft.

The wreck of the Pete float­plane is on the western side of Nusa Lik (small Nusa) Is­land which, along with Big Nusa Is­land, pro­vides the shel­ter for Kavieng’s har­bour.

The wreck lies on its back, with the re­mains of its main float stick­ing up, on flat, white sand in 40 me­tres of wa­ter – hence the name ‘Deep Pete’. As it is on the Pa­cific Ocean side of Kavieng, div­ing it on an in­com­ing tide means that the vis­i­bil­ity is of­ten ex­cep­tional and usu­ally in ex­cess of 30 me­tres.

Al­though its tail is bro­ken, its bi­plane shape is in­tact given the rel­a­tively light­weight and frag­ile na­ture of the air­craft. What makes the

Deep Pete so pho­to­genic is the res­i­dent school of yel­low sweet­lips that stream in and around the wings, plus the bat­fish and bar­racuda that pa­trol in the clear blue wa­ters above the wreck.

At just 9.4 me­tres long and with a wing­span of 10.9 me­tres, Deep Pete is not a big wreck but be­cause of its depth and the square pro­file of the dive, there is rarely enough time to fully ex­plore it.


The wreck of the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force (RAAF) PBY Catalina A24-11 lies in 20 me­tres of wa­ter near the en­trance to Kavieng’s har­bour.

The Catalina fly­ing boat was de­vel­oped by the US Navy in the 1930s as a long-range pa­trol bomber and, al­though slow and some­what un­gainly, served with dis­tinc­tion in the role it was de­signed for, as well as pro­vid­ing a very ef­fec­tive way of res­cu­ing downed air­men.

Its abil­ity to land on wa­ter meant that it could be used to quickly and ef­fec­tively res­cue crews that had gone down in the Pa­cific and it is cred­ited with sav­ing the lives of many Al­lied air­crews.

PBY A24-11 had taken off from Rabaul with six other RAAF Catali­nas on a mis­sion to at­tack the Ja­panese base at Truk La­goon and had landed

at Kavieng to re­fuel be­fore head­ing north into the Pa­cific.

After re­fu­elling at Nusa Is­land, the Catali­nas took off again one by one, but disas­ter struck A24-11 when one of its wing bombs ex­ploded dur­ing take-off.

The force of the ex­plo­sion killed the crew in­stantly and sent what was left of the Catalina to the bot­tom of the har­bour en­trance, where it lay un­til 2000 when Rod Pierce found the wreck­age.

The en­gines are what make the Catalina wreck spe­cial, as they stand proud on the se­abed, sur­rounded by those parts of the plane not oblit­er­ated in the ex­plo­sion. When­ever I dive the Catalina my thoughts al­ways re­turn to the brave crew sus­pended in the flimsy fuse­lage be­low those mas­sive en­gines.

Like all the crews of the air­craft wrecks of PNG, they were sim­ply do­ing their duty for their coun­try. Some lived to tell the tale, but many did not and those wrecks are poignant reminders of the sac­ri­fices they made.


Bali-based Don Sil­cock pho­to­graphs and writes about the div­ing in the In­doPa­cific re­gion. His work can be found at in­dopaci­ficim­ages. com.

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