The history of the B-17F Black Jack Wreck is a fascinating story. It starts in July 1942, when the completed plane, serial number 41-24521, was delivered to the US Army. Black Jack was one of the first Flying Fortress bombers built at the Boeing factory in Seattle during WWII. It carried a sticker price of $314,109.
It was subsequently flown to Australia, from where it joined the war in the Pacific in early September. When it was assigned to the 63rd Bombardment Squadron in Port Moresby.
The plane was assigned to Captain Kenneth McCullar, together with his crew of nine, and served with distinction over the next few months.
It was McCullar, who was an avid gambler, that gave Black Jack it’s moniker. Which came from the last two digits of the plane’s serial number… A jack and an ace is a “blackjack hand” of 21 in the card game of Pontoon.
Captain McCullar was a very skilled pilot, who was highly regarded and decorated for his bravery.
Unfortunately McCullar died in April 1943 when another B17 he was commanding crashed during take-off from Port Moresby.
In his obituary, the commander of the 5th US Air Force commented on McCullar’s bravery and leadership skills. Noting that he was “a master at the art of sinking Japanese ships”.
It was McCullar, at the controls of Black Jack, that developed the potentially dangerous but devastating technique of “skip bombing”. Which is credited in his sinking of the Japanese Kagero Class destroyer Hayashio on the night of the 24th November 1942, in the Huon Gulf.
That attack left Black Jack so badly damaged that it was out of action for two months. When it returned to service it was under the control of McCullar’s co-pilot, Lt. Harry Staley who had took over from McCullar when he was promoted to Squadron Commander in January 1943.
Black Jack performed equally well under Staley. Until he completed his tour of duty and handed the plane over to it’s next, and final, pilot – Lt. Ralph De Loach.
History of the B-17F Black Jack Wreck – Final Flight
Black Jack’s final flight was on the 10th July 1943. It left 7-Mile Airdrome in Port Moresby just before midnight, on a mission to bomb the heavily fortified Japanese airfields at Rabaul in New Britain.
The plane’s course took it down the south coast. Then northeast over the Owen Stanley Range and Dyke Ackland Bay, the Solomon Sea and on to New Britain. At Kimbe Bay on the north coast it changed course again and headed east to Rabaul.
The flight was a troubled one… As both the right wing engines developed problems during the flight to New Britain. However De Loach, together with his crew of nine, managed to reach Rabaul and successfully deliver their bombs on target.
De Loach turned the plane round to return to Port Moresby. But on the way back ran into a violent storm on approach to the coast of New Guinea to the northwest of Cape Nelson. 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 and cross the Owen Stanley’s. And so Black Jack was turned southeast down the coast towards Milne Bay. They made it as far as Cape Vogel where, with virtually no fuel left, the decision was taken to ditch the plane on the shallow reef that runs parallel to the white sand beach at Boga Boga.
Never having ditched a bomber before DeLoach handed the controls over to Joseph Moore – his co-pilot. Moore had ditched before and managed to put Black Jack down. But over-shot the reef flat and ended up over the deep water. Where the plane floated briefly before sinking down to the sandy sea bed some 50m below.
There was just enough time for the 10 man crew, 3 of whom had been injured in the landing, to get out before Black Jack sank. They managed to get to shore with the aid of local villagers who had seen the plane come down.
An Australian Coastwatcher named Eric Foster also saw the crash landing. He informed air-sea rescue to dispatch an RAAF seaplane to evacuate the wounded. The rest of the crew were rescued two days later when a PT boat arrived to take them to Goodenough Island. From there they were flown back to Port Moresby and given two weeks leave in Sydney before returning to full combat duty.
The pilot Ralph DeLoach and co-pilot Joseph Moore were subsequently awarded Silver Star medals. With some other members of the crew receiving the Bronze Star or Oak Leaf Cluster for their parts in the overall mission and getting the plane down.
Black Jack on the other hand lay largely forgotten on the sea floor. Remaining undisturbed there for another 43 years.
History of the B-17F Black Jack Wreck – The Return
So unique was the discovery of Black Jack that it lead to a documentary being made the following year. It was done by a team of nine Australian divers and underwater cameramen together with Rod Pierce, Bruce Johnson and David Pennefather who found the wreck.
Making a documentary about a plane wreck in a remote location in 50m of water is a significant undertaking. It required 8 months of detailed planning, major logistic support from Rod Pearce on his boat the MV Barbarian. Plus two teams of divers for 8 days to get the footage.
Australian aviation writer Steve Birdsall provided a very interesting aspect to the film. He managed to locate Ralph De Loach in Marina del Rey, California.
De Loach had completed his service at the end of WWII and returned to civilian life. He went on to become one of the famous Marlboro Men – the advertising icons created by the tobacco company Phillip Morris to sell their Marlboro cigarettes!
Birdsall arranged for the 69 year old De Loach to return to Cape Vogel. Where he was reunited with some of the villagers who had helped get him & his crew safely to shore when Black Jack was ditched in 1943.
The completed film, Black Jack’s Last Mission, was very successful and was shown on television around the world.
It is still available on DVD from Pacific Wrecks.