Pacific Wreck Diving: Exploring “Black Jack”, New Guinea’s submerged B-17 Flying Fortress

(All images by Don Silcock, Indo Pacific Images, reproduced with permission)

On the fateful night of June 10, 1943, a B-17F Flying Fortress known as “Black Jack” took off from Seven Mile Aerodrome near Port Moresby on a bombing mission against the heavily defended Japanese airfields at Rabaul in New Britain. Little did the 10-man crew know that the mission would be Black Jack’s last, or that within eight hours the aircraft would be lying on the ocean floor off Papua New Guinea, not to be seen again for 43 years.

In this article, we recount Black Jack’s remarkable story, wonderfully illustrated by the photographs Anglo-Australian scuba diver and owner of Indo Pacific Images, Don Silcock.

Shortly before midnight on that July night in 1943, Black Jack took to the sky piloted by Lt. Ralph De Loach. The flight was plagued by mechanical problems as faults developed on the B-17′s right engines. But the crew pressed on and delivered their bombs on target before turning back for Port Moresby.

On the return flight, the aircraft encountered violent storms to the northwest of Cape Nelson as they approached New Guinea, which De Loach later described as “the worst flying weather I’d ever seen in my life”.

Unable to reach Port Moresby, Black Jack headed southeast down the coast of New Guinea towards Milne Bay. With two engines malfunctioning and running low on fuel, the decision was made to ditch the Flying Fortress over a shallow-reef close to the beach at Boga Boga.

De Loach handed the controls to co-pilot Joseph Moore who had ditched a bomber previously. Moore landed successfully on the water but overshot the reef. The crew – three of whom were injured – evacuated the B-17 with the help of local villagers, before it sank 50 metres to the sandy ocean floor.

The Flying Fortress lay silent and undisturbed for the next 43 years before being discovered in 1986 by Australian wreck diver Rod Pearce, who was, ironically, searching for a different wreck at the time. Her remarkably intact condition has made Black Jack one of the most unique and important wartime aircraft wrecks, with fully intact guns fed by hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Ralph De Loach returned to Seven Mile Aerodrome in 1988. Forty five years earlier, following their narrow escape, the decorated crew had been given two weeks leave in Sydney before returning to active duty.

Keep reading – Find out more at Indo Pacific Images, and explore another incredible B-17 Flying Fortress Wreck (the Gray Ghost) in Papua New Guinea.

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