HIDDEN FOR SIXTY YEARS
MAREELEE II, Lockheed Lightning P-38H-5-LO # 42-66851
39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group, 20th September 1943
Still located near Braham Mission, Ramu Valley, Papua New Guinea
THIS ARTICLE HAS SEVERAL PHOTOS, INCLUDING COLOR ONES OF THE WRECK AS IT EXISTS TODAY. CLICK ON THE HIGHTLIGHTED TEXT THROUGHOUT THE ARTICLE WHERE INDICATED TO SEE THESE.
IN the year 2001 the unmistakable twin-boom wreckage of a Lockheed Lightning fighter still lies near-complete in the jungle of a section of the Markham Valley. Between the booms and through the lwft-hand wing grow sago trees. Why is it there, and how has it laid so remote for all these years ?
Captain Charles P. O'Sullivan’s fighter, like nearly all others in the 39th Fighter Squadron, was decorated with garish red and white shark’s teeth markings. Like most of its squadron contemporaries, it also had a name – MAREELEE II, named after Sullivan’s wife. Unlike some, it sported four Japanese ‘kill’ markings. Sullivan was one victory short of becoming an ace. It was 20th September 1943. Sullivan would not become an ace today, an eventful day which instead marked this particular fighter’s last flight. After force-landing the aircraft would remain intact and undiscovered for nearly fifty years to the day, mainly as the jungle had grown around and over it. When informed of its loss, the US military thought they had discovered an MIA case, but our President told them otherwise, and in fact offered to put them in direct contact with the still-living pilot !
How it came to be there is best told in the exact words of the pilot who put it there, in a compilation made from his log-book, his own diary, official records and his memory. It is a remarkable story. Charlie’s account is a long one, but we have chosen not to cut one word from it. This account is worth printing off and taking away for bedtime reading.
“The image in the rearview mirror of my Lightning was unmistakable. It was a Japanese fighter plane in firing position, so close I did not bother to look over my shoulder. I had no time to be afraid. Instinctively, I shoved the plane into a violent dive, dropping my auxiliary wing tanks. It was then that I felt the shudder of bullets hitting my plane. He had hit the left engine, and the spraying oil caused the engine to catch fire and smoke. I raced for the clouds below, reaching speeds of 500 miles per hour, with the plane shuddering and shaking at the strain. I looked back and saw that I was pulling away from him in my dive, but he was still stalking me. Oil began to spray on my windshield. It began to obscure my vision, and I thought about parachuting right then. I cut off the damaged engine and feathered the propeller, stopping it and turning the blades so they cut through the air. The fire went out on my left engine, and my windshield cleared, but the stalker was still with me. At about 3,000 feet, I entered fleecy clouds, only the clouds were not continuous. I sailed through the first then entered the clear. The stalker was still with me. I sailed through a second cloud, the stalker on my tail. I was beginning to lose my precious dive speed, now that I was on one engine. As the third cloud loomed, I decided to vary my program, or he would nail me. In the third cloud, I put my plane in a spiral, came out under the cloud, and flew beneath it for some time. When I came into the clear, my pursuer was nowhere in sight. I had eluded him. Perhaps he was low on gas. While I was in the third cloud, I thought how clever it would be if I circled behind him and shot him down. Wisdom intervened. I thought to myself, what if you miscalculate and come out in front of him? I quickly dismissed the idea. I radioed my squadron to report that I was hit and on fire in the left engine, but the fire had gone out, and I was still at 3,000 feet, bound on a course for Port Moresby.
Complications! Since my left engine was no longer functioning, I had lost my generator from that side. Gradually the batteries gave out, and I lost radio contact. I berated Lockheed and the Air Force for not having spent a little more and putting a generator in the right engine too – ‘For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, etc’. Having eluded the enemy, I began thinking of the long flight home, at least two more hours, and the necessity of climbing to at least 7,000 feet to get through a pass in the mountains. But it was not to be! The right engine began heating up; it was trailing white smoke - likely a coolant leak in the radiator. I decided to try the left engine again. Somehow I got it cranked up and running. Meanwhile, I feathered the right engine and shut it down. I flew this way for about five minutes. The left engine began to smoke again. So, with black smoke coming out of the left engine, and white smoke from the right, I decided either to make a forced-landing or to bail out. Both engines were dead, their props
Continue to PAGE 2