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An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea – Part V: Aircraft Wrecks
By Don Silcock, February 11, 2022 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

In this six-part series, underwater shooter Don Silcock tells you everything you need to know about capturing the best of Papua New Guinea, a country he has traveled to two dozen times over the past two decades…

The wreck of the Mitsubishi Zero in Kimbe Bay is one of many photogenic relics of World War II found in the waters of Papua New Guinea

World War II came to the Australian territory of New Guinea in January 1942 when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Rabaul in New Britain, followed shortly after by the taking of Kavieng in New Ireland. The invasion turned New Guinea into a major theater of war in the battle for the Pacific, and there were many brutal encounters between the invading Japanese and the defending Allied forces. Conditions were often appalling, and the fighting was incredibly fierce, with many young lives lost on both sides. To this day, relics of those battles are part of the fabric of Papua New Guinea.

Air power played a major role in combat for the first time during World War II, and both sides had some formidable aircraft in action during what is now referred to as the New Guinea Campaign. War is, of course, deadly by nature, but for the pilots and crew of those aircraft, the rate of attrition was particularly high. Many were shot out of the sky, some suffered mechanical failures, while others just got lost and simply ran out of fuel.

The majority of those planes have never been found because they came down in remote jungle locations or far out to sea. However, some have, and each one has a special story. For us divers, the underwater aircraft wrecks of Papua New Guinea offer a unique insight into those heroic tales.

In Papua New Guinea’s waters, the wrecks of these four aircraft make for particularly interesting photographic subjects (clockwise from top-left): Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Mitsubishi F1M floatplane, and Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat


Milne Bay’s B17F “Black Jack” Wreck

What many consider to be the best aircraft wreck in Papua New Guinea—and possibly the world—lies undisturbed in the deep water just off the fringing reef from the remote village of Boga Boga on the tip of Cape Vogel on the north coast of Milne Bay Province. The wreck is the B-17F “Black Jack” (serial number 41-24521), one of the first Flying Fortress bombers built at the Boeing factory in Seattle during WWII. It takes its name from the last two digits of its serial number—a jack and an ace is a “blackjack hand" of 21.

The plane’s final flight was on July 10th, 1943 when it left 7-Mile Airdrome in Port Moresby just before midnight on a mission to bomb the heavily fortified Japanese airfields at Rabaul in New Britain. It was a troubled flight soon after takeoff, as both of the right-wing engines developed problems over the Owen Stanley Range and onwards to New Britain. However, the pilot, Ralph De Loach, and his crew of nine managed to reach Rabaul and successfully deliver their bombs on target.

De Loach turned the plane around to return to Port Moresby, but on the way back ran into a violent storm on approach to the coast of New Guinea to the northwest of Cape Nelson, a situation he later described as “the blackest of black nights… the worst flying weather I’d ever seen in my life.” Running low on fuel and with two engines malfunctioning badly, De Loach decided against trying to get over the Owen Stanley Range to reach Port Moresby and turned southeast towards Milne Bay, but was forced to ditch the plane at Boga Boga.

The crew survived the crash landing and managed to scramble out of the plane before it sank down to the sandy seabed some 165 feet below, where it lay largely forgotten for another 43 years

The discovery of the “Black Jack” reads like something out of 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 completely different wreck. Villagers at Boga Boga had told Pennefather that a plane had crashed near their reef in WWII, and he believed it might be the Australian Beaufort A9, which had crash-landed off Cape Vogel in November 1942.

Pierce, Johnson and Pennefather organized an exploration trip on Rod Pierce’s liveaboard MV Barbarian to search for the wreck. Pearce spotted the large tailplane as he made his way along the edge of the fringing reef. Over the next few days, they dived the wreck as much as its depth of nearly 165 feet would allow. They entered the inside of the plane and found the radio call plate with the serial number on it—which later allowed them to positively identify it as the famous “Black Jack.”

Diving the “Black Jack” is a unique experience as the plane is so intact. As it sits on a sandy seabed in clear blue waters with visibility that can easily reach 130 feet, it is almost like a set from a Hollywood movie! The nose is badly crumpled from the impact of the crash landing and the propellers on the four engines are somewhat twisted, but the rest of the plane is all there. It is a quite remarkable sight after almost 80 years underwater.

Amazing visiblity allows divers to marvel at the intact “Black Jack” in all its glory


Kimbe Bay’s Zero Wreck

As the story is told around the bar at Walindi Plantation Resort, the day the Zero was found by local villager William Nui was not long after a small plane had crashed on takeoff from Hoskins Airport in Kimbe Bay. So, when William saw a plane laying on the sandy sea floor, he thought he had found the wreckage of the recent crash—not that of a WWII Japanese fighter that had remained undisturbed for nearly 60 years!

William was freediving for sea cucumbers when he noticed what seemed to be a large shadow on the seabed. Like many people in Papua New Guinea, he is very superstitious and thought that he was looking at a ghost lying face-up with its arms outstretched, soaking up the sun. Terrified, he shot to the surface and the relative safety of his canoe, eventually summoning up enough courage to go back down to take a closer look, realizing that it was the wreck of a plane rather than some demon of the deep.

Kimbe Bay’s Zero wreck is in excellent condition, suggesting the pilot executed a controlled crash landing

William took his story to the local authorities and word of the discovery made it to the late Max Benjamin, the owner of Walindi Resort, who, although somewhat doubtful about its veracity, felt that it should be checked out. What Max found was a WWII Mitsubishi Zero in quite remarkable condition, despite its six decades underwater. There were no signs of bullet holes or combat damage to indicate that the plane had been shot down, rather the “off” position of the throttle lever and the pitch control set to reduce air speed clearly pointed to a controlled crash landing.

In all probability, the pilot had got lost and ran out of fuel—a relatively common occurrence during the New Guinea campaign and confirmed by Japanese records showing that in 1942 only 10 Zero pilots were shot down in air combat, but 16 disappeared due to “unknown causes.” The aircraft’s serial number and date were still visible on the wreck, and military records show that the plane went missing during the battle of Cape Gloucester on West New Britain on December 26th, 1944. The pilot on that day was Tomiharu Honda, but his fate remains a mystery. However, a local story suggests that some villagers who saw the plane come down helped him ashore and took him to nearby Talasea.

No one knows what happened after that, but one theory is that losing a plane due to navigational errors would have been a very significant loss of honor, and unable to deal with such a loss of face, Honda spent the rest of his life in the jungles of New Britain. An alternative but slightly more gruesome notion—which is very popular around the bar at Walindi—is that he ended up as the main course of a ceremonial feast for a headhunting tribe, a practice still common in those days.

Did pilot Tomiharu Honda wander the jungles of New Britain for the remainder of his days—or become a victim of the headhunting practices of the day?


New Ireland’s “Deep Pete”

While Rabaul was Japan’s main base along the southern rim of the Pacific, Kavieng in nearby New Ireland also played a significant role in the grand Japanese plan for control of New Guinea together with the isolation and possible invasion of Australia to the south. Kavieng’s strategic location to the north of Rabaul meant that it could be used to protect both Rabaul and the Japanese supply convoys coming down to New Guinea from Japan and the huge Imperial Navy base at Truk Lagoon in the central Pacific. At Kavieng, the Japanese significantly expanded the original Australian-built airfield and set up a seaplane base, which—when the tide of war turned—became an important target for the Allied forces.

There are more known aircraft wrecks around Kavieng than anywhere else in Papua New Guinea, and my personal favorite is the “Deep Pete” because for me it is the most photogenic. This is a Mitsubishi F1M floatplane, which was designed and built to be launched by catapult from battleships, cruisers and aircraft tenders, and was used for reconnaissance missions. However, it also saw service as an impromptu fighter, dive bomber and patrol aircraft.

The Mitsubishi F1M was a biplane with a single large central float and stabilizing 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

The name “Pete” comes from the way Allied forces identified enemy aircraft during WWII. The Japanese naming convention was difficult to understand and pronounce, plus there were two names for each aircraft—one being the manufacturer’s alphanumeric project code and the other being the official military designation. Thus, the Allies used code names instead: Men’s names were given to fighter aircraft, women’s names to bombers and transport planes, bird names to gliders, and tree names to trainer aircraft!

The Pete floatplane wreck is located on the western side of Nusa Lik (“small Nusa”) island, which, along with Nusa Lavu (“big Nusa”), provides the shelter for Kavieng’s harbor. The wreck lies on its back, with the remains of its main float sticking up, on flat white sand in 130 feet 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 100 feet.

Although the tail is broken, its biplane shape is remarkably 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, and the batfish and barracuda that patrol in the clear blue waters above the wreck.

At just 31 feet long and with a wingspan of 36 feet, “Deep Pete” is not a big wreck, but given its depth of 130 feet and the square profile of the dive, at least two dives are required to fully appreciate and photograph it

A resident school of yellow sweetlips streams in and around the wings of the “Deep Pete”


New Ireland’s Catalina Wreck

The wreck of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Consolidated PBY Catalina A24-11 lays in 65 feet of water near the entrance to Kavieng’s harbor. 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, they served with distinction during WWII both in the role they were designed for and as a very effective way of rescuing downed airmen. Their ability to land on water meant that they could be used to quickly and effectively rescue crews that had gone down in the Pacific and are credited with saving the lives of thousands of 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 take on fuel before heading north into the Pacific. After refueling at Nusa Island, the Catalinas took off again one by one but disaster struck when it was the turn of A24-11 as one of its wing bombs was hit by sea-swell, causing it to explode. The force of the explosion killed the crew instantly and sent what was left of the Catalina to the bottom of the harbor entrance. It lay there until 2000, when Rod Pierce found the wreckage.

Like all the crews of the aircraft wrecks of Papua New Guinea, the airmen of the PBY A24-11 were simply doing their duty to their country. Some lived to tell the tale, but many did not, and those wrecks are poignant reminders of the sacrifices they made.

The engines are what makes the Catalina wreck special, as they stand proud on the seabed, surrounded by the parts of the plane that were not obliterated in the explosion

Whenever I have dived the Catalina, my thoughts always return to the brave crew suspended in the flimsy fuselage below those massive engines

Check out all the parts of Don Silcock’s Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea: Part I: Introduction, Part II: New Guinea Island, Part III: New Britain Island, Part IV: New Ireland, and Part VI: Tips and Techniques.

In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.


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