The history of the B-17F Black Jack Wreck is a fascinating story that starts in July 1942 when the completed plane, serial number 41-24521, was delivered to the US Army.
It was one of the first Flying Fortress bombers built at the Boeing factory in Seattle during WWII and carried a sticker price of $314,109.
It was subsequently flown to Australia, from where it joined the war in the Pacific in early September with 63d Bombardment Squadron in Port Moresby.
The plane was assigned to Captain Kenneth McCullar and his crew of nine, and served with distinction over the next few months.
It was McCullar, an avid gambler, who gave Black Jack it’s moniker from the last two digits of it’s serial number – a jack and an ace is a “blackjack hand” of 21 in the card game of Pontoon.
Captain McCullar was quite a pilot and one who was highly regarded and decorated for his bravery, but who was unfortunately killed in April 1943 when another B17 he was commanding crashed during take-off from Port Moresby.
In his obituary, the commander of the 5th US Air Force commented on McCullar’s bravery and leadership skills, noting that he was “a master at the art of sinking Japanese ships”.
It was McCullar, at the controls of Black Jack, that developed the potentially dangerous but devastating technique of “skip bombing” that is credited in his sinking of the Japanese Kagero Class destroyer Hayashio on the night of the 24th November 1942, in the Huon Gulf.
That attack left Black Jack so badly damaged that it was out of action for two months and when it returned to service it was under the control of McCullar’s co-pilot, Lt. Harry Staley who had took over from McCullar when he was promoted to Squadron Commander in January 1943.
Black Jack performed equally well under Staley until he completed his tour of duty and handed the plane over to it’s next, and final, pilot – Lt. Ralph De Loach.
Black Jack’s 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 down the south coast and then northeast over the Owen Stanley Range and Dyke Ackland Bay, the Solomon Sea and on to New Britain. At Kimbe Bay on the north coast it changed course again and headed east to Rabaul.
The flight was a troubled one as both the right wing engines developed problems during the flight to New Britain, however the De Loach together with his crew of nine, managed to reach Rabaul and successfully deliver their bombs on target.
De Loach turned the plane round 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 the situation as “the blackest of black nights…the worst flying weather I’d ever seen in my life”.
With two engines badly malfunctioning, it was impossible to hold the plane on course for Port Moresby and cross the Owen Stanley’s, and so Black Jack was turned southeast down the coast towards Milne Bay. They made it as far as Cape Vogel where, with virtually no fuel left, the decision was taken to ditch the plane on the shallow reef that runs parallel to the white sand beach at Boga Boga.
Never having ditched a bomber before DeLoach handed the controls over to his co-pilot Joseph Moore, who had and managed to put the plane down, but over-shot the reef flat – ended 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 in the landing, to get out before Black Jack sank and they managed to get to shore with the aid of local villagers who had seen the plane come down.
An Australian Coastwatcher named Eric Foster also saw the crash landing and informed air-sea rescue to dispatch an RAAF seaplane to evacuate the wounded. The rest of the crew were rescued two days later when a PT boat arrived to take them to Goodenough Island, where they were flown back to Port Moresby and given two weeks leave in Sydney before returning to full combat duty.
The pilot Ralph DeLoach and co-pilot 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.
So unique was the discovery of Black Jack that it lead to a documentary being made the following year by a team of nine Australian divers and underwater cameramen together with Rod Pierce, Bruce Johnson and David Pennefather.
Making a documentary about a plane wreck in a remote location in 50m of water is a significant undertaking and required 8 months of detailed planning, major logistic support from Rod Pearce on MV Barbarian and two teams of divers for 8 days to get the footage.
Australian aviation writer Steve Birdsall provided a very interesting aspect to the film, when he managed to locate Ralph De Loach in Marina del Rey, California.
De Loach had completed his service at the end of WWII and returned to civilian life where he went on to become one of the famous Marlboro Men – the advertising icons created by the tobacco company Phillip Morris to sell their Marlboro cigarettes!
Birdsall arranged for the 69 year old De Loach to return to Cape Vogel where he was reunited with some of the villagers who had helped get him & his crew safely to shore when Black Jack was ditched in 1943.
The completed film, Black Jack’s Last Mission, was very successful and was shown on television around the world and is still available on DVD.