Ditching Black Jack

A new crew had taken off in the 63rd Squadron B-17 named BLACK JACK early on July 11, 1943. It was the first time this crew flew together as well as the first mission for one of the two waist gunners. The initial part of the flight was more difficult than it should have been, as pilot 1/Lt. Ralph K. De Loach was having a hard time gaining enough altitude to fly over the Owen Stanley mountain range. Before he was able to clear the mountains, De Loach circled near Hood Point three times. Then the gyroscopic compass (heading indicator) began to malfunction. Pressing on, BLACK JACK began to cause additional problems for the crew as the men flew over the Solomon Sea. The #3 engine’s oil pressure dropped to 50 pounds, leading to the engine shaking severely and the crew questioning whether or not they should continue the mission to Rabaul. After a quick poll, they decided to keep going.

When the crew approached Vunakanau, the RPMs in BLACK JACK‘s #4 engine dropped significantly, resulting in a second vibrating engine. De Loach feathered the #4 engine, causing a drop in altitude from 14,000 to 10,500 feet (4.267 to 3.2 km) before beginning a bombing run. The bombardier, 2/Lt. Herman Dias, quickly dropped all the bombs while De Loach got the ailing B-17 away from the target area and Japanese territory. Engine #3 continued to weaken, leaving the crew in a perilous state as the bomber’s altitude continued to drop. By now, the plane was below the tops of the Owen Stanley peaks, which De Loach needed to fly over in order to reach the Solomon Sea. He restarted engine #4, resulting in engine #3 vibrating even more severely than before, in hopes of increasing the altitude. He was able to get BLACK JACK over New Britain, only to run into a thunderstorm. Radio operator T/Sgt. George Prezioso began transmitting their location to New Guinea in case the plane had to ditch.

The plane continued to burn through its fuel and lose altitude, cruising at only 2000 feet (.61km), when De Loach made the decision to ditch BLACK JACK. The crew prepared for the ditching as best as it could while De Loach gave his co-pilot, Lt. Joseph H. Moore, controls for the actual ditching. De Loach thought it best for Moore to execute the ditching since he had experience doing so. Moore intended to set the plane down on a reef, but BLACK JACK instead went over the edge and into the deeper water. The men escaped the plane as quickly as possible, helping their three injured comrades however they could.

Meanwhile, a couple of Australian Spotters were stationed at Cape Vogel when they heard a plane nearby. “The mate and I heard plane’s motors,” Cpl. Eric Foster recalled, “and we went outside to look for it…As it got closer we still could not identify it as we had never seen any of our planes close up. As it got closer it started to climb to get over the cliff. It then banked round to the left and we saw the big white star and heaved a great sigh of relief [that it was not a Japanese plane], not knowing that they were in trouble. We looked away and the next thing we heard a terrific crash. They had crash landed at Boga Boga, a native village about 3 miles from us. The mate and I took off thinking there was likely to be injured. By the time we reached Boga Boga the natives had gone out in canoes and towed them in. When we arrived the Americans said ‘Thank God, Aussies. We didn’t have a clue where we were.’”

A message was soon dispatched to Milne Bay, then forwarded to Port Moresby, where the men of the 43rd learned that the crew was safe and no one had died during the crash. Forty-three years later, in 1986, Australian diver Rodney Pearce found BLACK JACK completely intact. De Loach visited Boga Boga village that year after he was invited by historian Steve Birdsall. Reflecting on the remarkable preservation of the veteran B-17 bomber in the documentary “Black Jack’s Last Mission” De Loach said “I think the way it’s ended up now, sitting under the sea, being encrusted in coral is one of the finest endings it could have had. It was a very proper ending for a gallant aircraft.”

B-17 Black Jack

Black Jack in its final resting place.

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4 thoughts on “Ditching Black Jack

  1. Pingback: Announcing the release of Ken’s Men Against the Empire Vol. I | IHRA

  2. Pingback: International Historical Research Associates | Ken’s Men Against the Empire Vol. I is available for pre-order!

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