Army Vet Hikes the Jungle, Stumbles Upon Aircraft That Had Been Missing for 68 Years!
David Tallichet is a United States Army veteran who had served in the armed forces as a pilot. During his time serving, Tallichet would learn the ins-and-outs of the aviation world. After leaving the Air Force, Tallichet turned his attention toward his burgeoning restaurant business. With all of the fascinating things that happened during Tallichet’s career, you’ll never guess why his most exciting adventure happened after retiring!
Today, we are going to journey deep into the jungle to join David as he made the aviation discovery of a lifetime.
Introducing David Compton Tallichet Jr.
Our story starts in Dallas, TX, in 1922. David Compton Tallichet Jr. was born and raised in the Lone Star State. Tallichet pursued a degree in English with plans to work in that sector when Pearl Harbor happened. As the United States entered World War II, Tallichet knew that he had to answer the call of his country.
Meet the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
David would join the military where he would become a pilot. Tallichet would end up being deployed to Europe where he would fall in love with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. David would go on to call the plane that he co-piloted, the ‘Spirit of Pittwood’. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was first developed in the 1930s before finding utility during bombing campaigns throughout Europe.
Fascinated by Aviation
While David served in the military, he would fly more than 20 missions as a co-pilot. When the Axis powers finally surrendered, David would not come back home. Instead, the future restaurateur would spend time flying various planes to war-torn countries abroad in order to support rebuilding efforts. Eventually, David would return home to the United States where he would join the New Mexico Air National Guard. During Tallichet’s time with the National Guard, he flew a P-51 Mustang.
Before we can jump into our jungle journey, we should know a little more about David.
Making a Career Change
David would remain as an active reservist until 1957. After leaving the military behind, David would go on to join the Hilton Hotels. Working in the hotel industry would grant David so many different opportunities, including the chance to meet his wife! David would meet his wife during a Miss Universe pageant. For those curious, Tallichet’s future wife had competed as Miss Indiana.
Building His Fortune
As David further entrenched himself within the hotel industry, he met important people like George Millay. Millay and Tallichet would partner together to build the Specialty Restaurants Corporation. This company focused on building unique themed restaurants in popular tourist destinations. David was quick to include his love of aviation in this area of his work, featuring planes in many different restaurants.
International Man of Mystery
The Specialty Restaurants Corporation would end up being the enterprise that built David’s sizable fortune. Thanks to his efforts with this corporation, Tallichet would be able to use his vast amount of wealth to further his appreciation for aviation. We aren’t quite talking about our jungle destination yet, there’s still some more to learn!
Funding His Passions With Hotel Fortune
Through his efforts with George Millay, David would bring Polynesian themed restaurants to Long Beach, Burbank, and Los Angeles. Inside of these restaurants, David would ensure that his aviation interests were on prominent display. Can you blame David for wanting to include his love of flying in everything he did?
Founding the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation
A chance trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum would give Tallichet a big idea. After seeing all of the restored craft on display, David knew that he wanted to do something similar. There are very few stages of wealth in the world where you can think, “Oh, let me make my own Smithsonian.”
Why Do People Restore Old Planes?
Tallichet would end up establishing the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation (MARC) in order to take care of his personal collection. David started his collection with a bang by acquiring a P-51 Mustang, a B-29 Bomber, a Korean War MiG jet, and a Martin B-26 Marauder among many others. With so many planes in storage, we don’t blame David for turning them into an enterprise!
Now that you know what makes David tick, let’s head to the jungle for an amazing discovery!
The Beginning of Our Journey
Thanks to his massive fortune and personal aircraft restoration service, David knew that he wanted to keep adding crafts to his collection. One such craft had long been on David’s mind, a lost B-17 Bomber that had fallen during World War II. David knew that it was somewhere in Papua New Guinea, and he was ready to recover it.
Heading to Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is located in the southwest Pacific where it is known for both ecological and cultural diversity. Papa New Guinea is as beautiful an island as you could hope to visit thanks to its lush rainforest, active volcanoes, and long beaches. The history of Papua New Guinea can be traced for more than 60,000 years into the past!
Where Others Had Failed
Unfortunately for David, a team had already tried to recover the missing B-17 Bomber from Papua New Guinea. That team was known as the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. The team had ventured to Papua New Guinea in the 80s to recover the craft, though a spat with the local government would prevent them from their goals.
Beginning the Journey
Knowing that he had an uphill battle ahead of him, Tallichet put together as skilled a group of explorers as he could. David brought in a salvage expert by the name of Alfred Hagen to assist with his search through the swamplands in Papua New Guinea.
David never knew how successful his efforts would be!
Realities of Traveling in the Jungle
Papua New Guinea’s jungle is home to untold diversity. Scientists speculate that there are many species of flora and fauna still waiting to be discovered! With that being said, very real dangers lurked in the shadows of David’s expedition. From the infamous Papuan Blacksnake to the Great Flying Fox, it would be easy to think that you had stepped back to the time of prehistoric dangers.
Finding Their Hidden Treasure
Thankfully, David and his team would end up stumbling upon their treasure before a giant Cassowary could make them regret their efforts. After investigating MILES of swampland and jungle, Tallichet and his crew would find the infamous B-17 Flying Fortress. Despite being lost for nearly 70 years, the plane was in excellent condition.
Can you imagine finding a plane in the jungle?
First Flown In 1942
The lost B-17 Flying Fortress had been lost during World War II. The B-17 was captained by Fred C. Eaton and Henry ‘Hotfoot’ Harlow. In a stroke of misfortune, this would be the ONLY mission that the B-17 would ever fly.
You won’t believe what happened to this plane before it crashed.
A Special Mission
Before Captain Eaton’s plane had gone down, his crew had been dispatched to fly the craft to Australia. Their mission was to perform a bombing run on Japanese shipping vessels located at Simpson Harbor. The crew would miss their target before being steered back for another run. On this second run, the plane was struck in the right wing.
Things Go From Bad to Worse
Despite being shelled, Captain Eaton and his crew managed to keep their vehicle aloft. Unfortunately, the B-17 would be intercepted by Japanese fighter planes. These sleek vehicles would steer their 7.7mm machine guns and 20mm cannons toward Captain Eaton and his crew. Thanks to quick thinking and even quicker flying, the B-17 would once again escape while still in the air.
Too Much Damage Leads to Tragedy
Unfortunately, it seemed that too much damage had accrued on the vehicle for it to continue flying. Eaton would decide that he had to crash-land the plane in order to save his men. Eaton steered the vehicle toward the northern coast of New Guinea where he was able to crash-land on relatively dry ground — at least, that’s what he thought.
An Unavoidable Crash Landing
When things can’t look any worse, they can sometimes find a way. Instead of finding solid ground, Eaton’s crew would be introduced to the swampy grassland of the Agaimbo Swamp. Instead of a decent landing with a chance of recovering their craft, the vehicle was done for.
As it turns out, this cursed adventure was nowhere near complete.
Introducing Clarence LeMieux
Clarence LeMieux was one of eight men aboard the B-17 on that historic day. LeMieux, who worked as an engineer, recalled, “Fred Eaton says, “Let’s put her down here.“ LeMieux would go on to describe the empty fuel gauges as the impetus for putting the vehicle down.
Despite the terrible conditions on the ground, all eight crew members would survive.
The Crew Manages to Survive
Eaton and Harlow must have brought their luckiest charms because all of their men survived the crash. Unfortunately, Eaton and his men were a long way off from getting any help. This meant that the crew would have to hike through the swamplands and jungle until they could find rescue. Before leaving, one of his men removed the Norden Bomb Sight to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
Desperate to Survive
Remember when we talked about all of those dangerous creatures in the jungle? Now eight Americans that had just survived two battles were being forced to face them all just to survive. On top of all the snakes and carnivorous creatures in the jungle, there were seemingly infinite mosquitoes eating away at their flesh. To say that this journey was awful would be an understatement.
Meet Richard Oliver
This journey through the jungle proved far more dangerous than Japanese fighter pilots. The crew ran through their rations before succumbing to hallucinations. Richard Oliver spoke to Smithsonian Magazine about his experience hallucinating, describing a ‘mess hall’ that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. When Oliver arrived at the mess hall for ‘ice-cold canned tomatoes’, the building vanished.
Saved By the Locals
Thankfully, Eaton and his crew would be in for one more stroke of good fortune. With their food stores gone and their survival in question, Eaton and his team would run into a Papuan local. The native immediately realized how dire the situation was before leading the crew to a nearby village.
Shortly after arriving in the village, the crew would be rescued by Australia. The crew would return home after 36 days away from base.
Left Behind and Forgotten
After 36 days in the jungle, the crew of the lost B-17 was certainly not worried about their old plane. Unfortunately, the men would end up being sent back to combat where they would fly many more missions during World War II. Soon the old B-17 would be forgotten by the crew and the United States Army.
Rediscovery Leads to Unique Problems
It wasn’t until 1972 that the B-17 was rediscovered by members of the Royal Australian Air Force. During a string of exercises, a helicopter would spot the bomber. Upon inspecting the craft, the soldiers would become shocked by the pristine condition of the vehicle.
Unfortunately, being discovered meant that the plane was at risk of being vandalized by locals and tourists.
Meet the Swamp Ghost
After being rediscovered by Australia, the old B-17 bomber would be granted a nickname, The Swamp Ghost. The Swamp Ghost was handed out to locals as they sought the craft due to just how hard it was to find. The plane would end up being featured in an issue of National Geographic Magazine back in 1992.
David and His Team Come to the Rescue
With the plane back on the map and another crew having already failed, Tallichet knew that recovery would be difficult. His affinity for aviation and his closeness to World War II meant that David would stop at nothing to export the plane. Tallichet would end up signing a check for $100k to export the plane alongside his expert, Alfred Hagen.
Bringing in the Heavy Hitters to Help
Tragically, Tallichet never expected the delays that would come during the recovery. While Tallichet and his team were met with delay after delay, the old restaurateur knew that he had to hand the project off. In 2001, David gave full control of the rescue operation to his good friend, Mr. Hagen.
Introducing Alfred Hagen
Hagen worked closely with the people of New Guinea as well as their government to rescue the forgotten vehicle. What did this mean? Well, Hagen had to completely disassemble the plane in order to transport it. Can you imagine taking a 70-year-old plane out of the jungle piece by piece?
The Craft Gets Trapped in Lae
Despite how difficult the work was, Hagen and his team would get the plane to the town of Lae. Unfortunately, Hagen would take until 2006 to accomplish this task and that meant that things had changed. The people of New Guinea were no longer ready to give up the plane. They thought of it as a vital part of their nation’s history.
A Problem Arises With the Native Population
Many people of New Guinea assumed that the craft had become part of their ancestral lands due to how long it had rested there. One man, Augustin Begasi, organized a group to try to protect the plane from being taken. Begasi and his crew would be stopped by law enforcement. In an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine Begasi would say, “The plane would bring tourists, now there is nothing.”
Hagen Pays to Save the Swamp Ghost
At the time, the government of Papua New Guinea had declared that salvaging was purely illegal. Hagen had to work with the government in order to come to an amenable solution. If you instantly thought of a cash transaction, you were right. Hagen would pay an additional $115k while acquiescing to other stringent demands to take the vehicle.
Finally, the Swamp Ghost was coming home.
Tragically David Tallichet Did Not See Success
While Hagen had finally succeeded in realizing David Tallichet’s dream, the latter man was not there to celebrate. Tragically, Tallichet would succumb to his battle with cancer in 2007. All of that work and effort and Tallichet was not around to celebrate with his team. What was to happen next?
Hagen Honors His Friend
Hagen knew that he had to honor his longtime friend and collaborator. In order to celebrate his friendship with Tallichet, Hagen would host a special unveiling ceremony to show off the craft. The ceremony was held at one of Tallichet’s favorite restaurants, as well as his first establishment, the Reef Restaurant locate din Long Beach. Three of David’s child as well as three of the surviving crew members would attend.
Reassembling the Swamp Ghost
After Hagen and Tallichet made waves with the rediscovery of the Swamp Ghost, Hagen would see that the craft was brought somewhere safe. The Swamp Ghost would spend time at Chino California’s Planes of Fame Museum before being moved yet again.
Would the Swamp Ghost ever find a permanent home?
Introducing the Pacific Aviation Museum
After spending time in California, the Swamp Ghost would be brought to the Pacific Aviation Museum in Pearl Harbor. The craft would arrive on April 2nd, 2013, in Honolulu Harbor. What makes this location so fascinating for the Swamp Ghost is the fact that it had flown in the area more than 72 years ago!
Now the Swamp Ghost was back home where it belonged.
Displayed for the World to See
The Swamp Ghost has been on display since 2013. Now fully reassembled, visitors from around the world can walk by and soak up the history of the plane whenever they want. The museum is also collecting donations to help keep the craft preserved, so feel free to stop by and show your appreciation for history!
Remembering David Tallichet
David Compton Tallichet Jr. may not have lived to see his B-17 Bomber brought home, but he played a vital part in its recovery. Tallichet was a war hero, a successful entrepreneur, and one of the most rabid fans of aviation in the world.
Here is a hoorah to all the history buffs like Tallichet that keep these important moments in our memory!