UNDER blazing sun, with drenching humidity and temperatures hovering at 100 degrees, Alfred "Fred" Hagen finally saw the belly of the World War II bomber that he had worked so hard to salvage rising out of a grassy Papua New Guinea swamp.
The Bucks County man was most worried about keeping the six-ton fuselage, weighted with water, in one piece. As a helicopter began lifting it, Hagen, on the plane's separated right wing, grew nervous.
"The fuselage was going up and down, kind of teetering," he said. "My stomach was just churning. I was worried he wasn't going to be able to do it . . . He just lifted it and he flew it off."
That moment was one "of exultation; knowing that after 10 years of labor and problems and setbacks and all the horrific things that I had to endure to get to that point that my biggest fear and obstacle in the actual salvage had been overcome . . . I was jumping in the air and thrusting my hands in the air," he said.
That was May 2006.
It would take Hagen another three years and eight months to get the B-17E Flying Fortress, nicknamed the "Swamp Ghost," onto a ship bound for New Zealand, where it is now waiting to travel by ship to Los Angeles, expected to arrive mid-April. He has an agreement to display his prize at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz.
Hagen, 52, who runs a construction business in Bensalem, is an aircraft and history enthusiast whose great-uncle was killed in Papua New Guinea during World War II. For the last decade he has been fixated on the B-17E Swamp Ghost, which he first spotted in 1996, then stepped foot on the following year.
"I fell in love with it the minute I got down on it," Hagen said.
It's like "when you're a young man . . . walking down the street, then suddenly you see a ravishingly beautiful woman, and you want her with every fiber of your being," he said."I just thought it was a beautiful airplane."
Around dawn on Feb. 23, 1942, the bomber, after taking off from Australia with a crew of nine, flew into heavy clouds amid an intense tropical storm over Rabaul, a Japanese-held port on New Britain island off the New Guinea coast.
Its mission: to bomb Japanese freighters in the harbor. But the bomb-release mechanism apparently wasn't working, said Glen E. Spieth, whose father piloted another plane on the mission.
As the pilot circled the target, looking for a clearing in the clouds, the bombardier, Richard Oliver, set up a salvo to unload the bombs on the next go-round, which he did, Spieth said.
"In the time it took to go around, they allowed the Japanese fighters to come around and intercept them," Spieth said.
During the next 30 to 40 minutes, Japanese Zeros swooped in and fired at the bomber. "I think there was a frontal attack once or twice," Spieth said. "They came in behind the tail" and strafed the right and left sides of the plane.
The bomber took 33 bullets in its fin, he said.
An antiaircraft shell shot through the plane's right wing from below. It was not clear if it later exploded, but crew members thought it did because they felt something explode above the wing and felt the plane bounce, Spieth said.
An antiaircraft shell also hit the left wing, he said.
The bomber escaped the attack and flew to New Guinea, where it was to refuel in Port Moresby, but the crew soon realized they didn't have enough fuel to climb over the 14,000-foot Owen Stanley Mountains, Spieth said.
Clarence LeMieux, the engineer, told the pilot, "We're not going to make it," his nephew, Jim LeMieux, recalled.
So, Fred Eaton, the pilot, landed the plane in what looked like a grassy field.
"As soon as they touched on the grass, there was a great big splash," and the plane slid 90 degrees sideways, Spieth said.
The crew found itself in four feet of water amid six-foot-high kunai grass.
Spieth, 69, who in 1986 self-published a book, "The Swamp Ghost," said the raid on Rabaul was the first U.S. bombing mission out of Australia following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
After landing in the swamp, the Swamp Ghost's crew had to chop through the tall grass with a machete, Spieth said.
It was four exhausting days before they found two villagers, who helped them. Jim LeMieux recalled his uncle saying that some crew members had become delirious from exposure.
After resting in the village, it took the crew five more weeks to reach Port Moresby by canoe, foot and boat.
Asleep in the swamp
For 64 years, the bomber slept in the Agiambo Swamp in Oro Province; it was discovered by an Australian Air Force crew during a routine flight in 1972.
Before Hagen salvaged the plane in May 2006, it was widely considered the best-preserved unrecovered B-17 in the world, according to experts like Scott Thompson, a California-based author and publisher of aviation history books. It's the oldest intact original B-17E that exists, Spieth said.
Among B-17s, it is one of only four E models that have been recovered, said Thompson, who manages the Aero Vintage Books Web site.
For these reasons, and for the memory of men like his great-uncle, Hagen was drawn to the Swamp Ghost. "I've seen a lot of wrecks in New Guinea," he said. "This was [considered] the Holy Grail of World War II military aviation - and, as such, I wanted it."
Hagen, a self-made businessman who has a private pilot license, first went to the South Pacific nation in 1995 in search of his great-uncle's B-25 bomber.
Maj. William Benn had piloted the B-25, which crashed alongside the Owen Stanley mountain range. It took Hagen four trips in as many years to find the wreckage in 1998. During his search for that plane, Hagen found an American P-47 Thunderbolt in October 1996 with the skeletal remains of its World War II pilot, Lt. Wilfrid Desilets, of Massachusetts.
It was October or November of 1996 when Hagen first spotted the Swamp Ghost and retrieved its GPS coordinates. Eight months later, he returned to the site in a helicopter. That day, he set foot on the plane and determined it was worthy of salvage.
He executed a contract with Papua New Guinea's National Museum and Art Gallery in 1999 for the rights to salvage the plane and placed $100,000 in an escrow account to purchase it.
But the recovery effort was delayed amid opposition by people who wanted the plane to stay in the swamp or who didn't think a Philadelphia-area builder was prominent enough to be the one salvaging the plane, Hagen said.
It wasn't until 2005 that the National Museum gave Hagen an export permit for the plane.
Ghost leaves the swamp
To salvage the Swamp Ghost, Hagen coordinated a team of 11 men and one woman from Australia and the United States, hired helicopters, and got the necessary equipment to the remote swamp site. It was an arduous venture.
In May 2006, the recovery team, which included Spieth, and a five-man film crew set up camp in a village about three miles from the plane.
After preparing for weeks to get to the site, it took the crew about a week to 10 more days to take the plane apart. Locals helped clear the tall scrub brush and grass surrounding the plane.
The team battled scorpions, centipedes, spiders and malarial mosquitoes. "Everything in the swamp crawled," Hagen said. On the larger end of the pest scale, there were saltwater crocodiles to deal with.
Crew members first put air bags under the wings, then removed the four engines. They lashed bags under the fuselage, then blew them up with air so the fuselage floated like a boat. At that point, they removed the wings and the horizontal stabilizers from the fuselage.
Two helicopters lifted the parts and transported them to a barge at the mouth of the Musa River, about eight to 10 miles through the air, Hagen said.
From there, it took three days for a tugboat to pull the barge to a dock in Lae, the country's second-largest city.
"And then all hell broke loose," Hagen said.
People began to question whether the country should let go of the war relic. Local newspapers wrote about the salvage. There was "enough of a stink" that the prime minister revoked the export permit pending an investigation into the matter, Hagen said.
Justin Taylan, now 32, from Hyde Park, N.Y., was one of the more vocal critics.
"I became haunted by this airplane called the Swamp Ghost," Taylan, whose grandfather served in World War II, said in a 2006 interview after the plane was removed from the swamp.
"Some, like Mr. Hagen, look at the airplane and says it needs to be pulled out of there, and put in a controlled environment. My reaction [was], 'Wow, I need to go out there.' Nowhere else in the world can I see this. It's like a time capsule to me," said Taylan, who manages the Web site www.theswampghost.com.
Reached last month, Taylan declined comment on the plane's removal from Papua New Guinea.
Hagen doesn't buy the argument that people would have traveled to the remote swamp to see the plane. "Americans will not go to stand in a swamp to look at a B-17," he said.
Papua New Guinea's National Executive Council, or Cabinet, eventually gave Hagen permission to get the plane. The country's minister for culture and tourism also announced that the sale of the Swamp Ghost was done legally, according to local news reports.
Two months ago, Hagen finally got the disassembled plane out of a timber yard on the outskirts of Lae where he had been storing it. The parts are now on a New Zealand dock awaiting the arrival of another ship, which will take them to Los Angeles; they will then be trucked to Pima in Tucson.
Scott Marchand, director of collections and aircraft restoration at Pima, confirmed that the plane will be displayed there, at the earliest by late summer or the fall.
As a long-term goal, Hagen said he would like to see if the plane could be restored to flying condition. Pima is not in the business of doing that type of restoration work, so Hagen would have to go elsewhere. If that dream comes true, he would eventually love to fly it in air shows, he said.
'For posterity's sake'
All nine crew members of the B-17E Swamp Ghost have died - the last three within the past year.
In interviews with this reporter before their deaths, the three said they wanted to see the plane returned to the States or didn't have a preference.
"I don't see any point in it staying over there," said Richard Oliver, of Tiburon, Calif., the bombardier. "It's going to fall into pieces over there. If it's back in this country, it will get preserved." Oliver passed away in August at age 89.
Clarence LeMieux, the engineer and top turret gunner, of Spokane, Wash., said: "It should come to the United States. It was in the swamp when no one else wanted it." He died in December at age 92.
The plane's navigator, George B. Munroe Jr., of Falls Church, Va., said: "I could care less. Let them bring it back, great. If they don't, I don't care. I've been through all of that stuff. I didn't save the world."
Munroe, the last surviving member, died Jan. 17 at age 91.
Randall Einhorn, the director of the film crew that accompanied Hagen on the salvage trip, said a documentary about the plane is near completion and is being shopped around.
"I've been in New Guinea 20 times doing documentaries," Einhorn said. "To think there would ever be a tourist business of taking people there is incredibly unrealistic. It's a very difficult part of the world, very primitive part of the Earth.
"Fred goes there not in search of gold, but in search of the planes. He's doing it out of passion, not to sell the plane, but for posterity's sake. You don't find that very often, that type of passion and determination."