The 'Swamp Ghost' B-17 comes home, unveiled in Long Beach

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Natalie Yemenidjian/KPCC

The inside of the "Swamp Ghost," a B-17 E Flying Fortress brought back to the U.S. after being stranded in a swamp in New Guinea during WWII. It was unveiled Friday at the Reef Restaurant in Long Beach, Calif. The aircraft was one of the first to set out on the Pacific Theater during the war.

More than six decades after a B-17 E Flying Fortress ran out of gas and crash-landed in a Papua New Guinea swamp, the World War II plane has returned to the United States. Aviation archeologist Fred Hagen presented it Friday at the Reef Restaurant in Long Beach.

Less than three months after Pearl Harbor, a nine-member crew flew what is fondly referred to as the “Swamp Ghost” over New Guinea in an ill-fated bombing mission.

Hagen and B-17 enthusiast, restaurateur and antique aircraft collector David Tallichet spent more than $1 million on excavating the aircraft.

“It was our greatest dream because for some reason it captured the imagination of people from around the world,” Hagen said. “Because of its completely intact nature, because it was located in one of the most remote and inaccessible swamps on earth, because of the extreme difficulty, logistical difficulty of getting the equipment on site to salvage it and the political problems inherent in that salvage it was widely considered that it was impossible to salvage this airplane.”

For more than 30 years, the aircraft had remained in the 5-foot deep swamp until an Australian Air Force crew found it in 1972.

The plane was struck by enemy fire in 1942 while bombing Rabaul, New Guinea. When it began to lose fuel at a drastic rate, Pilot Fred Eaton crash-landed into what appeared to be a grassy field. It took the crew six weeks to get back to safety.

Political barriers and red tape prevented Aero Archaeology founder Hagen and Tallichet from bringing home the plane in 2006.

"During those few three or four years, the last surviving crewmen died," Hagen said.

Many of the survivors' fondest wishes were for the plane to come back home, including the bombardier of the “Swamp Ghost,” Robert Oliver.

"It's really sad in a way that none of them got to see it because it was a big event in their lives all they went through,” said Oliver’s daughter Karen Braughton. Oliver died August 2009.

The warbird may be restored to flying conditions and kept in an aviation museum, according to Hagen, or it may be kept in a display that resembles the New Guinea swamp.

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