Lying undisturbed in the deep water just off the fringing reef from the remote village of Boga Boga on the tip of Cape Vogel is one of the best aircraft wrecks in Papua New Guinea — and possibly the world. The wreck is the B-17F “Black Jack,” serial number 41-24521. It was one of the first B-17F Flying Fortress bombers built by Boeing during WWII, delivered to the U.S. Army in July 1942 for $314,109. These days, the Black Jack bomber makes for an incredible dive site.
Black Jack history
The Black Jack bomber arrived in Australia in September of 1942 to join the war efforts in Port Moresby under Captain Kenneth McCullar and his crew of nine. Avid gambler McCullar christened the plane “Black Jack,” based on the last two digits of its serial number – 21.
Captain McCullar was quite a pilot who, at the controls of Black Jack, developed the potentially dangerous but devastating technique of “skip bombing,” that sank the Japanese Kagero Class destroyer Hayashio in November 1942.
That attack left Black Jack so badly damaged that it was out of action for two months. When it returned to service, it was eventually assigned to its next — and what would turn out to be its last pilot — Lieutenant Ralph De Loach.
The final flight
Black Jack’s final flight was on July 10th, 1943. That night, it left Port Moresby just before midnight on a mission to bomb the heavily fortified Japanese airfields at Rabaul in New Britain. Problems with both of the right-wing engines developed on the flight, but De Loach and his crew of nine reached Rabaul successfully and delivered their bombs on target.
On the way back to Port Moresby, De Loach ran into a violent storm, 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. So, the captain turned the Black Jack southeast down the coast toward Milne Bay. They made it as far as Cape Vogel where, with virtually no fuel left, they decided to ditch Black Jack on the shallow reef that runs parallel to the sandy beach at Boga Boga.
DeLoach gave the controls to his co-pilot Joseph Moore, who had ditched a plane before. He managed to put the plane down but over-shot the reef flat, ending up over the deep water. The plane floated briefly before sinking to the seabed 164 feet (50 m) below.
There was just enough time for the 10-man crew to get out before Black Jack sank. They all managed to get to shore with the aid of local villagers, who had seen the plane come down.
An Australian Coastwatcher saw the crash landing and informed air-sea rescue to dispatch an RAAF seaplane to evacuate the wounded. A PT boat arrived two days later to take the uninjured crew to Goodenough Island and on to Port Moresby.
Both DeLoach and Moore received Silver Star medals, and other crew members received commendation as well for their parts in the overall mission and getting the plane down. Black Jack, however, lay largely forgotten on the sea floor and remained undisturbed there for another 43 years.
Three Australians — Rodney Pearce, Bruce Johnson and David Pennefather — stumbled on the wreck almost by accident in late December 1986.
Pennefather had visited the Cape Vogel area earlier in 1986 and had heard from the villagers that a plane had crashed near their reef in WWII. Subsequently, he organized a Christmas dive trip with Pearce and Johnson to find what they believed was an Australian Beaufort A9.
Boga Boga villagers guided the three divers to the general location where the plane had gone down. When they entered the water, they planned to spread out and cover as much area as possible to try and find it.
Pearce found the wreck first, spotting the large tail-plane as he conducted his search. Over the next few days they dived the wreck as much as its depth of nearly 164 feet (50 m) would allow, entering the inside of the plane and finding the Radio Call Plate with the 24521-serial number. This later helped them positively identify it as the famous Black Jack.
Diving the Black Jack
Sitting as it does, nearly intact on the sandy seabed in clear, blue waters, makes diving the Black Jack almost like diving a set from a Hollywood movie. The nose is badly crumpled from the crash landing and the propellers on the four engines are somewhat twisted. But the rest of the plane is basically intact, which is quite remarkable after nearly 70 years underwater. Visibility on the site can easily exceed 130 feet (40 m).
According to the crew, the plane sank within 45 seconds of stopping and the crew only just had time to scramble out with the three wounded members. Apart from two waist guns and the radio transmitters, jettisoned prior to ditching, Black Jack took all its contents with it to the seafloor.
Pearce, Johnson and Pennefather found machine guns still in their turrets with hundreds of rounds of ammunition in the tracks. They were still able to move the twin tail guns freely in their mounts.
The main catch when it comes to diving the Black Jack bomber is depth. At nearly 164 feet (50 m), it is beyond the limits of recreational diving. Although it’s a straightforward dive in every other regard, decompression and bottom time are critical to a safe overall experience. There is a permanent guideline from the shallow reef that leads you down the slope. At around 49 feet (15 m) you will be able to see the wreck below you. The line goes all the way down and ends near the wreck’s huge tail. From there, head to the front of the plane to take in its full size.
How to visit the Black Jack bomber
Given Cape Vogel’s remote location, options are limited. Tufi Dive Resort will visit the wreck on special request, however. The trip involves a two-hour boat ride across Collingwood Bay from Cape Nelson to Boga Boga, but you need good weather to visit.
The Golden Dawn liveaboard includes Black Jack as part of its Milne Bay itinerary at certain times of the year as well.
Don Silcock is an Australian based in Bali who has dived many of the best locations across the Indo-Pacific. If you are interested in learning more about Black Jack, check out the complete guide on his website.