|B-17F "Black Jack" 41-24521 is one of the first 300 B-17Fs built by Boeing in Seattle. These Flying Fortresses were sent all over the world in 1942 and include many famous aircraft including the "Memphis Belle".
A little before midnight on July 10, 1943 the crew of ten boarded the B-17 for a night mission against one of the heavily-defended Japanese airstrips at Rabaul on New Britain. Within eight hours Black Jack would be lying on the ocean floor off New Guinea. She would remain there, undisturbed, for more than 43 years.
Discovery in 1986
Black Jack was discovered in December 1986 by Rod Pearce, an Australian who operates the charter boat Barbarian. Pearce is one of the most experienced scuba divers in Papua New Guinea and is obsessed with finding the wrecks of old planes and ships. This has nearly cost him his life on several occasions.
Intact Underwater Wreck
One of the main reasons that Black Jack is totally unique is the fact that she is intact, despite the violence of her water landing and the passage of time. While other relics in New Guinea have long since been stripped for scrap or souvenirs, Pearce found machine guns in their turrets, hundreds of rounds of ammunition still in the tracks to the guns, and was amazed to find that the twin tail guns still moved freely in their mounts. A battered sextant was found in the nose near the navigator’s position. An oxygen bottle slipped free and floated to the surface when the divers moved it out of their way.
Pearce was accompanied by two other Australians, Bruce Johnson and David Pennefather. Johnson, a commercial pilot, was determined to get into the cockpit of the old plane. He had to make his way through the cramped bomb bay in almost total darkness, running the risk of getting entangled by broken wires and control cables. He made it, and became the first man to sit in the pilot’s seat in more than 40 years.
The B-17 was identified as soon as the divers retrieved the Radio Call plate from the instrument panel. One of the original skip-bombers, Black Jack was a battle-scarred veteran of some of the most savage air battles in the Southwest Pacific and is credited with sinking the Japanese destroyer Hayashio in a deadly duel one night in November 1942.
With the help of members of the 43rd Bomb Group’s veterans’ association it was possible to contact five of the ten men who were aboard the plane that night, and they told their stories for Black Jack’s Last Mission. A sixth crew member was located after the filming, and the fates of the other four were finally determined over the years that followed. Sadly, we found out much later that one of them had not survived the war. In a cruel twist of fate, bombardier Herman Dias was killed six months later when his Liberator was shot down and crashed into the ocean.
The pilot on the last mission was Ralph De Loach, who we located in Marina del Rey, California. He offered to return to New Guinea with the film crew to be reunited with the villagers who had saved his life. He was 69 years old when he returned to the tiny village of Boga Boga in December 1987.