Airplane wreckage deep in the jungle

We are on the move in the True North helicopter. Below us is the rain-covered jungle, where Alan, our pilot, is searching for the landing position with the help of an app. At short notice, the True North has received clearance from Bougainville Air Traffic Control for the route that the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroto might have chosen for his small squadron on April 18, 1943.

Kurz nach dem Start werfen wir aus dem bordeigenen Hubschrauber noch einen Blick auf die australische Mega-Yacht True North / © Foto: Georg Berg
Shortly after takeoff, we take a look at the Australian mega-yacht True North from the ship’s own helicopter / © Photo: Georg Berg

Admiral Yamomoto, who triggered America’s entry into World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, remained a dangerous adversary for the United States as long as he lived. After American intelligence was able to decode a coded Japanese radio message, Operation Vengeance took its course.

Navigiert wird im Hubschrauber der True North mithilfe eines Tablets / © Foto: Georg Berg
A tablet is used to navigate in the True North helicopter / © Photo: Georg Berg

Unlike the Australians, who are more familiar with the history of the World War in the Pacific, I have no particular expectations of the plane wreck lying lonely in the impenetrable hinterland. But the course of our mission is to be a memorable experience.

In der Bar-Lounge der True North gibt Papua Neuguinea Experte Simon Tewson landeskundliche Auskünfte und hält den Kontakt zu einer Reihe von lokalen Ansprechpartner / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the bar lounge of True North, Papua New Guinea expert Simon Tewson provides information about the country and keeps in touch with a number of local contacts / © Photo: Georg Berg

40 minutes ago we took off from our ship, the True North, in clear weather and from the cockpit the pilot Alan together with Simon are looking for the place where we are expected. Simon has arranged with the inhabitants of a village two hours away to prepare a small patch near the crash site for our landing. Roads or clearly visible markings are not visible in the jungle. The plane wreckage itself is also camouflaged by the vegetation. In addition, heavy rain showers with poor visibility shake our helicopter on the way.

Aus der Luft sind zuerst die farbigen Schirme der uns erwartenden Menschen zu erkennen / © Foto: Georg Berg
From the air, the colored umbrellas of the people waiting for us can be recognized first / © Photo: Georg Berg

Near the presumed position we discover a surprisingly large number of people already expecting us. A helicopter does not need windshield wipers itself and for the same reason it blows away all the umbrellas of the bystanders when landing.

Eine Mischung aus Furcht und Neugier erwartet uns nach der Landung / © Foto: Georg Berg
A mixture of fear and curiosity awaits us after landing / © Photo: Georg Berg

Strangers rarely make the arduous journey to the prominent aircraft wreckage and no one has ever seen another helicopter land here. So the situation is extremely unfamiliar for everyone. I have often had the experience of attracting glances from people who have never seen anyone with white skin before. But here the expectations are especially high and our every move is silently observed.

Schücherne Kontaktaufnahme im strömenden Regen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Shy contact in the pouring rain / © Photo: Georg Berg

We are also unsure; not only because the ground is soft from the rain. But people have cleared countless shrubs with their bush knives, whose leaves, like a mat, prevent us from sinking too deeply.

Ein Hubschrauber wirkt hier wie eine himmlische Erscheinung. Das Wort für Hubschrauber in der Pidgin-Sprache lautet vielsagend: Mixmaster belong Jesus-Christ / © Foto: Georg Berg
A helicopter seems like a heavenly apparition here. The word for helicopter in the pidgin language is meaningful: Mixmaster belong Jesus-Christ / © Photo: Georg Berg

Unlike the bystanders who took a whole day to witness the spectacle of a helicopter landing, we came only briefly and primarily for the famous Yamamoto airplane wreck.

Auf dem Weg zum Flugzeugwrack / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the way to the plane wreck / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the way to the crash site there are some opportunities for conversation. Even with children one can communicate in English and everyone helps in the rough terrain.

Mehr als hundert Menschen sind zwei Stunden lang zur Yamomoto-Absturzstelle gelaufen / © Foto: Georg Berg
More than a hundred people walked for two hours to the Yamomoto crash site / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Schwimmwesten aus dem Hubschrauber bleiben auch beim Bodenaufenthalt angezogen, damit wir sie vor dem Abflug nicht suchen müssen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The life jackets from the helicopter stay on even when we are on the ground, so we don’t have to look for them before we leave / © Photo: Georg Berg

The destination is reached, but the shudder that I would have associated with the idea of the past drama does not want to set in. Everyday objects like bows and arrows or the bush knives of the bystanders keep me in the present.

Das Heck des japanischen Mitsubishi-Bombers ist auch 70 Jahre nach dem Abschuss noch gut zu erkennen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The tail of the Japanese Mitsubishi bomber is still clearly visible 70 years after it was shot down / © Photo: Georg Berg

The locals try to understand why the tourists are mainly interested in the historic airplane wreck. After all, Bougainville is currently experiencing the successful end of an ecological revolution. In a referendum, a large majority of the people voted in favor of seceding from Papua New Guinea, because they no longer want to be a pawn in the hands of foreign powers.

Regenschirme und T-Shirts tragen das Motiv der Landesflagge Bougainvilles / © Foto: Georg Berg
Umbrellas and T-shirts bear the motif of Bougainville’s national flag / © Photo: Georg Berg
Wirkungsvoll: Regenschirm aus Blättern / © Foto: Georg Berg
Effective: umbrella made of leaves / © Photo: Georg Berg
Der Hubschrauberpilot Alan interessiert sich für die Details des alten Fluggeräts / © Foto: Georg Berg
Helicopter pilot Alan is interested in the details of the old aircraft / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Zukunft gehört der Technik aus nachwachsenden Rohstoffen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The future belongs to technology made from renewable raw materials / © Photo: Georg Berg

The trip to the airplane wreckage made me think. Especially retrospectively. Because in the situation there was little time to process the many impressions. How much more extreme must our short visit have seemed to the locals? Just a few years ago, they were fighting with primitive weapons against the highly armed Papua New Guinea government army for an intact nature and against a mine that poisoned entire areas. Their lives are deprived but also more tranquil than ours. I imagine that even during the Second World War and in this place hardly anyone had any idea of the importance of the event because of which we set out here at immense expense.

Ananas und Melone mit unsicherem Blick aber zutiefst herzlich angeboten begleiten uns auf dem Rückweg / © Foto: Georg Berg
Pineapple and melon with uncertain look but deeply warmly offered accompany us on the way back / © Photo: Georg Berg

Today, the people of Bougainville hope that they will be received as warmly by the world’s public as the youngest country, just as they treat their visitors. Shortly before our departure we receive fresh fruits as a gift and can never forget this experience. Also because we would have liked to have had more time for conversation.

Wir besteigen den Hubschrauber für den Rückflug, bevor das Wetter noch schlechter wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
We board the helicopter for the return flight before the weather gets even worse / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel advice: Australia for European tourists

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