Even as wars end and treaties are signed, brutal reminders of the conflict remain everywhere. Many of these relics deserve to fade into oblivion — and many of them do — but a few of them serve as monuments to the bravery and sacrifice of past heroes. Of course, preserving these momentos is easier said than done.
Decades after one of the bloodiest wars in history, ruins from the gruesome fighting still laid in shambles all over the jungles of Papua New Guinea. That was, at least, until one team finally dared to take it back. These adventurers had time, the elements, and the law stacked against them. And the further they trekked, the more it looked like they were destined for a crash of their own.
The jungles of Papua New Guinea aren’t too friendly to outsiders. One group of men learned that fact the hard way, and they never forgot the experience. However, it all came rushing back to them decades later.
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!”