A B-17 Flying Fortress called “Black Jack” has been laying 48m of water off of Papua New Guinea since WWII. I had not heard of “Black Jack” at all until I picked up an old video cassette titled “Black Jack’s Last Mission” at a second-hand goods shop several years ago. The cover on the cassette’s case indicated that the video was about a dive wreck. That was good enough for me! I bought the cassette and watched it back at home, which I could do back then. The documentary has since been released on DVD.

“Black Jack’s Last Mission” is written and produced by Steve Birdsall, directed by Steve and Russell Galloway. It tells the story of B-17F “Black Jack” 41-24521, one of the first 300 B-17Fs built by Boeing in Seattle.

“Black Jack” crashed in the sea off of PNG in 1943 and was only discovered in 1986 by three Australian divers. The opening scene of “Black Jack’s Last Mission” can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4GSgtTy1sI .

(Source: https://b17blackjack.com/history/map/map-last-mission.html )

I was reminded of “Black Jack’s Last Mission” when I read HE Saywer’s article titled “For Just Ten Minutes With Elvis*” in the July 2018 issue (No.360) of Dive Log.

* (Saywer (possibly Sawyer?) refers to Black Jack as ‘Elvis’ – the best (plane wreck) in the world.)

Saywer was able to dive on Black Jack sometime before writing his July 2018 report. He (?) provided a few photos (including the above header photo), some history and a few tips in his report. Back then, diving to the 48m-depth required had to be done on air.

Saywer says that the broken cockpit window that the pilot escaped through after crashing is quite tiny. He (?) described Black Jack as “just over 20m in length, the wingspan over 30m (with “the tail standing nearly 7m high”). …. The wreck is covered in light coral and sponge …. the nose art is now lost. …. The propeller of number one engine is bent significantly more than the blades of number two, indicating the disparity in performance on impact. …. It’s the best plane wreck in the world bar none.”

“Black Jack” now has a huge online presence, especially at http://B17BlackJack.com. The web page found at https://www.b17blackjack.com/film/letter.html details a letter from Steve Birdsall: –

“In 1986 Rod Pearce found a B-17 Flying Fortress in deep water off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It was quickly identified as 41-24521 of the 43rd Bomb Group, a B-17 nicknamed Black Jack that had been lost returning from a mission on July 11, 1943. Thankfully, the crew survived and were rescued and the war and the world moved on.

“In 1987 I had the privilege of going back to remote New Guinea with Ralph De Loach, the pilot who had ditched Black Jack all those years ago. We took a film crew with us and cameraman Russell Galloway created a magnificent pictorial record on 16mm film of the old B-17 in the water and Ralph De Loach’s reunion with his rescuers.”

Black Jack’s history can be found at https://www.b17blackjack.com/history/index.html, including “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.

“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.”


Details about the film can be found at https://www.b17blackjack.com/film/index.html, as follows: –

“Shot in 16mm film, the documentary contains stunning underwater color footage of the old plane, inside and out, and Ralph De Loach’s moving reunion with his rescuers, all combined with totally authentic wartime combat footage and comprehensive background on the Flying Fortress.”

It goes onto advise that “Black Jack’s Last Mission” can now be seen on DVD.

Lyn Manly reported on the underwater filming of the B-17 at https://www.b17blackjack.com/film/underwater.html, as follows: –

“After eight months of planning, the Black Jack’s Last Mission film crew gathered at Tarakwaruru Village Mission in December 1987, a year after Rodney Pearce found the B-17 off Boga Boga. Nine of us had flown from Australia to Port Moresby then over the mountains to the little airstrip at Cape Vogel. Rod Pearce, Bruce Johnson and two crew had come in Rod’s boat, Barbarian, which was tied up at the mission wharf.

David Pennefather joined us the following day.

The film crew brought 550 pounds of gear including an Arriflex 16SR camera with an Arrimarin underwater housing, Sea-Tite lights and 18,000 feet of film: ten rolls of a then-new 200 ASA Eastman Hi-Speed stock for the underwater filming and 35 rolls of 64 ASA.

The underwater production team was led by director of photography Russell Galloway with Pat Manly as underwater camera assistant, Lyn Manly (dive co-ordinator and production stills), divemaster Jim Smith and Bradley Strohfeldt (a commercial diver from Lae) as a safety diver and second camera assistant.

Rod Pearce had organized air tanks and compressors to refill them, generators to charge the batteries for the camera and lights and to power the refrigerator, food supplies and fuel. The refrigerator was partly for the food, but mainly for the film. [Russell Galloway later recalled way more beer than food or film but that can’t be right.].

Lyn Manly had organized special dive tables that took into account the depth of the B-17, the water temperature, the current and the equipment.

The dive profile gave a 15-minute bottom time, with decompression stops at the nine, six and three-metre marks. Spare tanks and regulators were placed at the decompression stations. For the first two days the divers operated as one unit, but as things went smoothly and everyone got used to the routine, they split into two teams to increase the amount of daily underwater filming.

Here’s how it worked: The safety divers, Jim Smith and an assistant, tied a guide rope from the 15 metre mark on the “wall” of the reef down to 40 metres on a small coral spur adjacent to the plane. It was along this section that they experienced the strongest currents and the guide rope made it possible for the divers, in particular the person carrying the movie camera, to pull themselves along. On some dives there was no current but on others the current whipped along the wall and soared over the top of the plane. Strong currents meant good visibility, and the film crew prayed for the current to run for shoots involving long shots.

Each dive team consisted of a cameraman, camera assistant, and a safety diver who monitored the cameraman’s air supply, plus some or all of the three who had found the plane. The safety diver or camera assistant carried the camera in its housing down to the gathering point at a depth of forty metres. It would be passed over to the cameraman, lights attached to the top of the housing and then they were ready to shoot. The camera assistant directed the “actors” into position.

The day’s shooting was carefully planned the night before, although there was always a fallback plan if visibility went to one extreme or the other – wide shots of the wreck if it was good, closer shots and interiors if it was low. Everything depended on the weather, cloud cover and sunshine. Visibility at the wreck was such a critical factor that two divers who weren’t involved in the filming that day would dive down to Black Jack and report back on the visibility, current and any other important factors.

This routine was followed for eight days, the first team usually diving about 9:00 in the morning, the second team in mid-afternoon after fresh film had been loaded and batteries changed.

The most people we had at the wreck at one time was eight on December 10, 1987 for one of the most spectacular shots in the film: Rodney Pearce, David Pennefather and Bruce Johnson swimming down and over the B-17 to the battered nose, filmed by Russell Galloway from atop Black Jack’s tail.

The vast majority of the underwater footage you see in the film was shot by Russell Galloway, and Julia Mair of National Geographic was delighted, commenting in a letter that, “The camerawork was outstanding on Black Jack’s Last Mission”.”

Trailers for “Black Jack’s Last Mission” can be viewed at https://www.b17blackjack.com/trailer/.

(My thanks go to HE Saywer (Sawyer?) for the above use of their article from the July 2018 issue of Dive Log. My thanks also go to B17BlackJack.com for the use of their images above (map & DVD cover.)

By Steve Reynolds

Steve Reynolds is the current President of MLSSA and is a long-standing member of the Society. Steve is a keen diver, underwater explorer, photographer and is chief author of the Society's extensive back catalogue of newsletters and journals.

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