When a grandparent comes to visit, it can feel like they’re stepping out from the Magical Kingdom of Oz. Stories from their lives seem fantastical: planes with in-flight smoking, pocket watches, newspapers, and only a handful of stations on TV. For the young, separating fact from fairy tale becomes a challenge.
But Daniel Rom Kristiansen knew the unbelievable story his great-grandfather peddled couldn’t be true… Could it? Drawn to conduct his own investigation, he headed outside with a metal detector and made a discovery even grandpa Kristiansen wouldn’t have believed.
Daniel Rom Kristiansen hails from a rural area of northern Denmark called Birkelse. All his life he was fascinated by wars that shaped the world, and his great-grandfather played a major role in this interest.
Just like most grandparents, Daniel’s told tall tales for his entertainment. So, as soon as Daniel began learning about World War II in school, he rushed to his great-grandfather, curious what wild stories the old man had to share.
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He told his great-grandson that, during World War II, a fighter plane crashed somewhere near the house where Daniel lived. It was a great story, but Daniel didn’t believe it. Major events didn’t happen in his small little town.
In fact, Daniel chalked up most stories his great-granddad told to an overactive imagination. Yet he couldn’t stop thinking about the plane. Could there be some truth to the story? He grabbed a metal detector.
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Later, when interviewed by CNN, Daniel’s father, Klaus, said, “We went out to the field with a metal detector. I hoped we might find some old plates or something for Daniel to show in school.” Boy, did they ever!
Because not long into the investigation, the detector went off! There was nothing metal in the immediate area, so Daniel and his dad, Klaus, borrowed an excavator to start digging. Something sounded the alarm, and they were gonna find it.
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The excavator began digging up chunks of earth, and at first, nothing worth noting was coming up. Suddenly, Daniel and Klaus (who worked the machine) churned up metal chunks. Daniel immediately phoned the authorities.
As they waited, Klaus reminisced. “He was telling a lot of stories, my grandfather,” Klaus said. “Some of them were not true, and some of them were true. Maybe I should have listened to him a bit more when he was alive!”
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While waiting for experts to show up, Klaus kept digging through the ground and more pieces of metal were surfacing. There was definitely something big down there. Was that story Daniel’s great-grandfather spun accurate?
Members of the Environmental Protection Agency and bomb experts showed up at the scene, the latter of which were brought in to safely handle old ammunition Klaus churned up. But, there were more than just metal scraps.
It’s amazing this German pamphlet stayed in such great shape under the ground for all those years. It looked like some kind of instruction manual that was issued to Nazi pilots. There was more.
There was also this lighter with the initials “HW” engraved on it. Those letters stood for Hans Wunderlich, the man who flew the doomed plane. His eroding skeletal remains were also found in the dig.
The plane Hans piloted was a Messerschmitt Bf 109. There were more than 30,000 of them produced for the Germans during the war, and Daniel and Klaus found one of the few remaining that wasn’t in a museum.
Just look at how big some of these chunks were! Daniel was all smiles for the entirety of the process, and for good reason. He and his dad came across a piece of history! But there was still a ton of work to do.
After the excavation process was complete, the father and son assembled all the parts that survived decades under the ground. There was a nearly complete picture here.
Every part was carefully placed into the back of several vehicles by authorities to bring to local historians and experts for testing. Daniel and Klaus beamed with pride while their discovery was loaded up.
It was Klaus’ idea for his son to look for the plane, but he in no way expected to find anything more than maybe some random scrap metal from farm equipment or pocket change. But, now they were on the news!
The remains of Hans were carefully taken to Denmark’s Historical Museum of Northern Jutland where they’d remain safe and cared for. Perhaps one day the museum can give him a proper burial.
Klaus and Daniel couldn’t believe a plane was hiding in their backyard, but if they’d finished their deep dive into World War II, they might have never doubted the great-grandfather. Plane disappearances were part and parcel of the fight.
By 1943, American forces were prepared to overtake Italy — Europe’s “soft underbelly” — and turn the tide of World War II. Still, this campaign posed many dangers, both from enemy fire and the elements. But the Americans had one last hope.
Before ground troops could make their move on Naples, the Americans realized they needed to take out some key targets. They called up a B-24D Liberator bomber called Lady Be Good for what would be the eeriest flight in military history.
Of course, the mission started out like any other bombing run. Setting out from an airbase on the Libyan coast, the Lady Be Good’s nine-man crew made it to Italy and wiped out their targets with unmatched precision.
The return trip, however, turned into an absolute nightmare. The navigators struggled to find their way in the middle of the night, and their fuel tanks were running low. All they could see around them were the sands of the cruel Sahara.
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Shouting over the sputtering engine, Lieutenant William Hatton made radio contact with their comrades on the ground. He asked for base coordinates and relayed information about their mechanical issues. And that wasn’t the only bad news.
The beginnings of a sandstorm were tossing the plane about in the sky like a toy. This broadcast turned out to be Hatton’s last. Before the Air Force could send information or assistance, Lady Be Good flat-out disappeared.
Just two years later, the cataclysmic World War II came to a victorious close for the Americans. Amid their celebrations, many still asked what happened to the Lady Be Good. There was no word of a crash site or any survivors.
Military authorities sought out an answer, but came up with nothing. Their failure only heightened the mystery of the lost plane and made independent explorers more determined to find the truth. But in 1958, one unusual sight kicked the investigation into high gear.
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During a routine aerial survey, the D’Arcy Oil company stumbled upon what looked like a crashed bomber in the Libyan Desert. Could it be Lady Be Good, or some other lost vessel? To find out for sure, they’d have to take a closer look.
A recovery team drove out from Wheelus Air Base, and they nearly had a heart attack when they reached the scene. In remarkably good condition, the Lady Be Good sat there in the desert. But there were zero signs of life around the wreck.
Climbing inside the plane, they took a closer look. Most of the navigational tools in the cockpit still functioned after fifteen years, and a gun turret appeared to be fully loaded. There was no sign of the plane wandering into an ambush.
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In fact, it looked like the crew just vanished mid-air. Their personal effects still littered the plane, along with several day’s worth of rations. Records aboard the bomber stopped after the attack on Naples. Was the wreck just a dead end?
The team tirelessly patrolled the outskirts of the crash site over the next two years. Scouring the Saharan dunes, they finally found a tragic solution: five bodies. The remains of co-pilot Robert Toner contained a diary of their doomed trip.
Holding out a shred of hope for the other four crewmen, the recovery squad ripped through the journal’s pages. They revealed that, faced with the prospect of a crash landing, the men of the Lady Be Good chose another path.
They took only what they could carry and bailed out from the bomber. One crewman died when his parachute failed to deploy. The other eight, with next to no food or water, touched down in the Sahara.
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From there, the survivors trekked north — a devastating mistake, in hindsight. Their plane, which held all their supplies, crashed just a few miles south. But rather than head back for their provisions, the crew sought out help.
They wandered through the desert for eight days, with only one canteen of water to sustain them. One by one, the airmen succumbed to the effects of dehydration. The last man standing made it an astounding 200 miles but never found civilization.
The discovery of the diary was a media sensation, though some skeptics refused to buy it. They instead argued that the airmen had been sold into bondage by Bedouin slavers. Of course, they didn’t present any evidence for this convoluted theory.
The Libyan government relocated the Lady Be Good in 1994, and its engine and propellor made it home to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. For most Americans, this expedition put the legend of the ghost plane to rest. But for a few others, it only made them curious about another lost aircraft.
Like the Sahara desert, the jungles of Papua New Guinea weren’t too friendly to outsiders. One group of pilots learned that fact the hard way, and they never forgot the experience. However, it all came rushing back to them decades later when their plane turned up.
See, in early 1942, the United States had recently entered World War II. The Air Force sent a B-17 Flying Fortress on a bombing run across the Japan-controlled Pacific. That mission, unfortunately for everyone aboard, didn’t go quite as planned.
Due to a critical miscalculation, the aircraft ran out of fuel over Papua New Guinea. Everyone aboard knew that, in foreign territories like this, there were no friendly airstrips. They had to brace for a crash landing.
The plane dipped toward the island and slammed into the ground. Miraculously, barely any of the crew members were injured by the impact, and they soon found out why: instead of landing on solid earth, they careened straight into a swamp.
With the help of some local tribesmen, the Air Force squad made it out of Papua New Guinea alive. Though they escaped, the crew did have to leave their precious plane behind. They figured it would simply become part of the island landscape.
For about 30 years, that’s exactly what happened. Few people wanted to search for a crashed airplane, and any prospective treasure hunters immediately turned around when faced with a swamp full of dangerous predators and disease-ridden mosquitoes.
One routine Australian military exercise in 1972, however, brought the Flying Fortress back to life. The soldiers stumbled upon the tail jutting out of the feral swamp and confirmed with their American allies that it was the lost plane from all those years ago.
The Air Force was relieved to learn the final destination of the famous plane, which earned the nickname “Swamp Ghost.” They couldn’t do anything with it, though local Papuans made a decent amount of money showing tour groups around the crash site.
One man, however, wouldn’t let it rest. Alfred Hagen’s obsession with World War II-era aircraft began back in his childhood, when he learned his great-uncle was shot down. As an adult, he devoted his spare time to tracking down and collecting aviation artifacts.
Alfred wasn’t alone in his mission either. He gained the financial backing of Dave Tallichet. Known as the “Father of the Theme Restaurant,” the entrepreneur collected classic planes and couldn’t help but be intoxicated by the call of the Swamp Ghost.
Together, Alfred and David organized an expedition to locate and possibly seize the legendary plane. When local authorities bristled at their bold objective, they realized they’d have to find it on their own.
Since the Swamp Ghost became somewhat of a regional attraction, Alfred didn’t take too long to find the crash site. He had a full team of salvagers and cameramen to oversee the process. But that’s where the encouraging news stopped.
After generations in the swamp, the Flying Fortress was in sorry shape. Its metal hull had badly decayed, plus a number of wild species made the plane into their home. Even a diehard like Alfred wondered if this was a lost cause.
Still, Alfred stuck to his goal of rescuing the plane. Of course, it would be immensely difficult to airlift any bomber, let alone one that was falling apart. But maybe, he figured, they didn’t have to do all the work at once.
In order to relocate the “holy grail of military aviation,” Alfred ordered his 43-man crew to raise the wreck out of the swamp and cut it into pieces. This alone would take them weeks.
The scavengers worked quickly, as to give as little time as possible for other parties to interfere. They also rented a Russian military helicopter to airlift the various pieces of a plane to a nearby barge.
After thousands of man-hours of backbreaking labor, the Swamp Ghost was ready for the big move back to the U.S.A. Hagen had shelled out $100,000 for an excavation license, but not everybody was thrilled about his success.
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Many Papua New Guineans lamented that one bureaucrat had given up their local treasure. Especially since the U.S. Air Force gave up the salvage rights for any crafts lost prior to 1961, they believed they had legal ownership over the plane.
Aviation enthusiast and blogger Justin Taylan said that the removal of the Swamp Ghost was a huge blow for the area. It meshed itself into the island landscape until treasure hunters tore it away for profit, he claimed.
Alfred insists his goal wasn’t money, but he and his partners did make a pretty penny leasing out the Swamp Ghost to various museums. At least Americans far and wide are pleased to see a famous relic return home. Still, this might not be the post dramatic postwar reunion.
One holiday season, Klaus Kristiansen — then just a boy — was baking Christmas cookies with his World War II veteran grandfather on the family farm in Birkelse, Denmark, when the old man launched into a story from the past.
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His grandpa told him of a World War II fighter plane that crashed behind the family farm back in 1944. But the field, currently used for “grass and cattle” didn’t back up the claim.
At that time, Klaus, seen in 2018 (left), recalled, “he was telling a lot of stories. Some of them were not true, and some of them were true.” But “we had never seen anything on the surface. Not a single bit of metal.” Just cattle.
As far as he knew, the story of a fighter jet in the backyard “was just a good story.” Still, in 2018, when teachers gave his 14-year-old son Daniel, below, research homework on World War II, the dad made a suggestion in jest…
“I jokingly told him to go out and find the plane that is supposed to have crashed out in the field,” Klaus said. Daniel, though, jumped at the idea of including family history in his project.
To humor his son, Klaus grabbed the metal detector and the father-son duo set out for the pasture. At the very least, Klaus “hoped we might find some old plates or something for Daniel to show in school.”
Klaus and Daniel searched the family’s farmlands for hours. But just as they were about to turn in for the night and chalk up the plane to another one of grandpa’s crazy stories, the metal detector beeped on boggy ground.
Shocked, the father and son started digging. First, they used handheld spades, and then they borrowed an excavator from a neighbor. Five yards down, they found something.
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“At first we were digging up a lot of dirt with metal fragments in it,” Klaus said. With the excavator, they pulled out more piles of dirt, all filled with bits of metal both big and small.
Eventually, they’d collected an estimated 2,000 – 5,000 shards of the metal that no doubt once belonged to a plane’s cockpit. When they dug further, however, a discovery turned the dig into more than just a school project…
As they dug, they uncovered a motor, which Klaus eventually discovered belonged to a Bf 109 Messerschmitt plane, German munitions, and then something more disturbing…
They found clothes. Then bones. Then the body of the dead pilot! On him, “we found some personal things,” Klaus said. “Books, a little Bible…in his pocket.” At that point, Klaus and Daniel knew they needed help.
They placed their findings in small bags and contacted both the Danish authorities and World War II historians. Forensic scientists removed the pilot’s body with hopes of identifying him.
In fact, the experts did just that! After digging around in the rubble, experts uncovered his service record. “It was not in one piece, but it was enough to read his name,” they said. The pilot’s identity?
The pilot was 19-year-old Hans Wunderlich, an unmarried man from Bavaria, Lithuania. Experts also uncovered on his person two unused Danish coins and food stamps good for a canteen at the nearby Aalborg air base…
While the wreckage served as his final resting place for 70 years, authorities returned him home for a burial. This was an unintended — and undoubtedly a sentimental bonus —to Daniel’s simple school assignment.
As for the rest of the wreckage? No, Daniel didn’t get to bring it all in for a school project! The plane, as well as Hans’s personal belongings, ended up at the Historical Museum of Northern Jutland.
In the end, Daniel wrote about the experience for school, which likely earned him an A+. But because he uncovered a bit of history, the school gave Daniel a bonus besides the grade and time in the spotlight.
So that he could watch the authorities perform the rest of the excavation, he was given the rest of the day off from school! After all, what better chance at a history lesson would he get?
Meanwhile, Klaus knew his grandfather’s story of the downed airplane was not one of his many tall tales! So, with a laugh, he said, “Maybe I should have listened to him a bit more when he was alive!”