Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay – The B-17F “Black Jack”

The wreck of the B17F Black Jack wreck

Lying undisturbed on a sandy seabed in the deep water, just off the fringing reef from the remote village of Boga Boga, is what many consider to be the best aircraft wreck in Papua New Guinea.

The wreck is the B-17F “Black Jack”, serial number 41-24521, and one of the first B-17F Flying Fortress bombers built at the Boeing factory in Seattle during WWII.

Black Jack, which got its moniker from the last two digits of its serial number (a jack with an ace is a “blackjack hand” of 21 in the card game of Pontoon) was delivered to the US Army in July 1942 at a cost of $314,109.

The plane was then flown to Australia and joined the war in the Pacific in early September.

Black Jack was assigned to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea with the 43rd Bombardment Group of 63rd Bombardment Squadron.

Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay – the Location of the Black Jack Wreck

Boga Boga village is located on the tip of Cape Vogel on the remote north coast of the mainland of Papua New Guinea

Black Jack wreck map

Map showing the location of the wreck of the B17F Black Jack wreck in PNG

Map showing the location of the wreck of the B17F Black Jack wreck in PNG

Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay – Black Jack B17F Wreck – The History

The crew – Pilot De Loach standing without shirt

Black Jack’s ill-fated final flight was on the 10th July 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.

The plane’s course took it southeast before turning northeast over the Owen Stanley Range, Dyke Ackland Bay & the Solomon Sea to New Britain and Kimbe Bay where it changed course again & headed east to Rabaul.

The flight was a troubled one as problems with the right wing engines had developed as the plane made its way to New Britain, however the pilot, Lt. Ralph De Loach together with his crew of nine, managed to reach Rabaul and successfully deliver their bombs.

De Loach turned the plane round to return to Port Moresby, but on the way back they ran into a violent storm as they approached the coast of New Guinea to the northwest of Cape Nelson and which he later described as “the blackest of black nights…the worst flying weather I’d ever seen in my life”.

With two engines malfunctioning, it was impossible to hold the plane on course for Port Moresby and they ended up heading southeast down the coast towards Milne Bay.

Running low on fuel, the decision was taken to ditch Black Jack on the shallow reef that runs parallel to the white sand beach at Boga Boga, and DeLoach handed the controls over to his co-pilot Joseph Moore who had previously ditched a bomber.

The “Black Jack” on Black Jack…

Moore managed to put the plane down but over-shot the reef flat ending up over the deep water where the plane floated briefly before sinking down to the sandy sea bed some 50m below.

There was just enough time for the 10 man crew, 3 of whom had been injured during the landing, to get out before Black Jack sank.

Then, with the help of some local villagers from Boga Boga  who had seen the plane come down, the crew managed to get safely to shore.

An Australian Coastwatcher named Eric Foster also saw the crash landing and contacted the air-sea rescue to arrange for the dispatch of an RAAF seaplane to evacuate the wounded.

A PT boat arrived two days later to rescue the rest of the crew and take them to Goodenough Island where they were flown back to Port Moresby and then given two weeks leave in Sydney before returning to full combat duty.

The pilot & co-pilot, Ralph DeLoach and Joseph Moore, were subsequently awarded Silver Star medals with some other members of the crew receiving the Bronze Star or Oak Leaf Cluster for their parts in the overall mission and getting the plane down.

Black Jack on the other hand lay largely forgotten on the sea floor and remained undisturbed there for another 43 years.

Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay – Black Jack B17F Wreck – The Discovery

Rod Pearce in 1986

The wreck of the Black Jack was discovered  in late December 1986 by three Australians – Rod Pearce, Bruce Johnson & David Pennefather.

Somewhat ironically, apparently they were looking for a completely different wreck at the time – an Australian Beaufort A9.

David Pennefather was an ex Kiap who had traveled extensively in PNG and during one of those journeys he had visited Boga Boga, where the villagers told the story of a plane that had crashed near the reef during WWII.

So he set about organizing a Christmas dive trip with Rod Pearce & Bruce Johnson to try and find it.

Rod Pearce is the owner of the MV Barbarian, a small liveaboard dive boat that is synonymous with wreck diving in Papua New Guinea.

One can only imagine the exhilaration he must have felt when he first saw a B17 Flying Fortress sat there on the sand in almost perfect condition!

For someone who has dedicated his life to wreck diving, it must have been like finding the Holy Grail…

Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay – Black Jack B17F Wreck – Image Gallery

 

Black Jack B17F Underwater Image Gallery

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