B-17 'Swamp Ghost' Saga Continues
by Malcolm Black
Efforts to salvage the B17E Swamp Ghost continue to exercise and frustrate the minds of two key players/ businessmen in the United States. The efforts, like those previous, will most likely fail, for reasons which are not immediately obvious. The central character to this interesting charade has placed USD $100,000 in a trust account in the National Bank of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby as a sign of good faith with the PNG government (the amount is refundable in the event the operation fails to proceed). Another US facility has pledged USD $180,000 towards recovery of the aircraft, should it go ahead.
Recently the businessman paid an allexpenses trip to the US for two PNG museum representatives to witness the restoration expertise of their hosts. The two PNG officers concerned were Seneah Greh, Senior Curator of the PNG Museum of Modern History, and Simon Piratouk, the PNG Museum's Deputy Director. The trip also involved extracurricular entertainment in Las Vegas which raised the eyebrows of superiors in Port Moresby.
The biggest sticking block to recovery is obtaining political approval from the PNG National Government. The decision, which originally rested on the shoulders of Soroi Marepo, Director of the PNG Museum, is recognized by Soroi himself as too politically precarious. With an election looming in PNG mid next year, the wrong decision at this stage could even cost him his job, given the porkbarrel nature of PNG politics. Instead, Soroi sensibly passed the decision of whether to allow the bomber to leave PNG to the PNG Minister for Tourism and Culture, Sir Pita Lus. Even Lus, wellaware of the bomber's political sensitivities, abrogated the responsibility to the PNG National Executive Council. The Council continues to prevaricate, although they are certainly more capable of reaching decision than Soroi or Lus, PNGs longest-serving and highly-respected Minister.
There is a second sticking point. Despite the national authority accredited to the PNG National Government over war relics, in reality it has no authority over the traditional landowners from the Popondetta area who have great expectations of a huge "compensation" should the bomber be lifted out from their tribal land. Even were the PNG national government gave the goahead, the fact is that these landowners would prevent the salvage proceeding, unless their unrealistic demands were met. This is highly unlikely, and feelings in the Ambiago area where the bomber lies are strong, very strong.
A third problem is the logistics of the salvage itself. Neither businessmen have realistic appreciation of the mammoth logistics required for successful recovery (in fact one of them has never visited the site!) The PNG helicopter company who they have approached, Hevilift, are certainly not dissuading their efforts however. In light of the parlous state of the PNG economy, their padded offer of circa USD $9,400 per hour for hiring a large chopper is both lucrative and guaranteed.
Interestingly, the US businessman has also earmarked two other wrecks for salvage. The identity of both are guarded secrets, in theory at least, but sources within the PNG government which leaks like a sieve have let slip that one is P-47D Serial Number 42-22687 which went missing on 29th April 1944 from Nadzab #3 strip flown by pilot 2/Lt Marion Lutes on a testflight. The wreck is at 5.51S 146.03E near the village of Serino in the Finesterre Mountains, and is in remarkable condition due to the high altitude of 8,500 feet at which it rests. Interestingly, it has been promised to other Australian interests who will fight its departure.
The high probability is that B-17E, so called Swamp Ghost, will stay where it is, bogged down by political indecision and the Realpolitik of New Guinea's frontier mentality. Another irony is that, had the US businessman concerned not started throwing money around in the first place, several years ago, earlier attempts may have been successful. But it is too late now, for they have created their own monster of expectation with the landowners, and a sense of inflated worth of these war relics with the PNG National Government. If you want to start your own inquiry about war relics in PNG, or feel strongly about this issue, you can contact Soroi Marepo, Seneah Greh, or Simon Piratouk, at email addresss firstname.lastname@example.org