On January 26, one of Papua New Guinea’s most famous WWII relics went home. “The Swamp Ghost” is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that crash landed in a New Guinea swamp. Not everybody is glad to see her go.
After sitting comfortably in a swamp for sixty years, Boeing B-17E Serial No. 41-2446 was cut into pieces and barged to Lae for export to the USA and preservation.
But the departing Swamp Ghost hit a speed bump in July 2006 when the export was temporarily halted and she sat in a timber yard for over three years while her fate was discussed.
The argument boils down to whether WWII relics, be they aircraft, vehicles or vessels should be left in place as a memorial and tourism attraction or whether they should be recovered and restored. WWII aircraft such as the B-17, once war surplus junk, now command seven figure pricetags.
Alfred "Fred" Hagen of Aero Archaeology LLC, Pennsylvania, is one of the world's busiest salvagers, locating and recovering wrecks from Africa, PNG and USA.
“I didn’t salvage it [The Swamp Ghost] because I personally wanted to put it in my garage, I salvaged it because I wanted to preserve history for this, generation and for future generations, and I wanted to pay homage to the people from my own family that gave their lives in New Guinea, flying airplanes and I know I sound frustrated, but this has been a very frustrating ordeal,” said Fred Hagen in a Radio NZ interview.
The counter argument is led by historians such as Justin Taylan, Director of PacificWrecks.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing information about WWII wrecks.
Historian Claims Illegal Export of War Relics is Destroying PNG’s Heritage“The people of PNG lose when war relics are removed in an undercompensated fashion,” says Taylan, “It is up to PNG to enforce its own laws protecting these artifacts or at least sell them at their market value.”
"This B-17 is 'priceless' to PNG tourism and history. In dollar value, other B-17s are worth several millions of US dollars... some at 2-5 million or more."
The PNG Government Public Accounts Committee soundly condemned the transaction between Hagen and the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea (NMAG), who brokered the deal on behalf of the government, concluding its 120-page report with:
"The National Museum & Art Gallery should never again deal with persons or entities outside the established State Museums or State recognized Museums. In particular, the National Museum & Art Gallery should never again deal with Mr Robert Greinert, Mr Fred Hagen, Mr Bruno Carnovale, Mr Ian Whitney, 75 Squadron Flying Museum, Aero Archaeology LLC, HARS or MARC."
The report makes numerous references to improper dealings between Hagen, his colleagues and the NMAG, whose authority to act for the people of PNG was closely examined. One trustee is quoted in the PNG National as calling the NMAG a “national disgrace”.
The PNG Goverment, unfortunately, does not hold a particularly favourable position in the global community as a trustworthy authority. Transparency International rates them 154th out of 180 rated countries in their Corruption Perceptions Index 2009.
Hagen claims the B-17 will be returned to the USA and restored and that PNG will have the right to buy her back when that restoration is complete.
In an ironic footnote, the last surviving Swamp Ghost crew member, navigator George B. Munroe, passed away the same day, aged 92.