Long-Forgotten P-38 Reemerges on Welsh Beach
When Lt. Robert F. Elliott pulled his P-38F Lightning into the Welsh sky on September 27, 1942, there was trouble ahead. The plane itself wasn’t the problem; his aircraft, a twin-boomed fighter that would become one of the most lethal weapons of World War II, was in pristine condition. It had rolled off the manufacturing line in Burbank only a year before. From California, it had been shuttled to Wales, where it joined the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 14th Fighter Group in the first fighter sweeps over the occupied Low Countries.
Unfortunately Elliott, who was towing a target sleeve for gunnery practice, forgot to switch from the reserve fuel tank to the main tank after takeoff—standard practice in the P-38. About an hour later, his left engine sputtered. Elliott feathered the prop and tried to return to the airfield, swinging out over the ocean to line up for landing. He was at eight hundred feet when the right engine failed. Elliott attempted to reach the beach, but came up just short, and the plane skidded to a halt in two feet of water. He walked away from the crash, and a team was sent out to recover the plane’s guns. The squadron engineering officer recommended the rest of the aircraft be salvaged.
Instead, Elliott’s Lightning was forgotten. Slipping through a wartime bureaucratic crack, it was never retrieved. British beaches were closed during the war, so the mistake went undiscovered. For years, the aircraft lay in the surf, slowly settling into the sand.
Until last summer, that is, when a Welsh man wading just off the beach in the Irish Sea bumped into the plane’s wing, which had emerged in the shallow water. A local aviation enthusiast tipped off Richard Gillespie, executive director of the Delaware-based International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, who mobilized his team, expecting to find a hollowed-out wreck. Instead, walking into the water for the first time in October, Gillespie was shocked to discover a remarkably well-preserved aircraft—one that was almost completely intact. The plane still had some of its original paint. Its fuel tanks were full. Just as incredibly, it kept disappearing with the tide. “It’s like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon,” he says. “Literally, one minute it’s there, and the next minute, whoosh, it’s gone.” Worried about looters, Gillespie marked the spot with GPS and swore those who knew its location to secrecy. Since his last visit, the plane has slipped beneath the sand again.
Gillespie is now grappling with the challenges of recovering what he considers a historic artifact—probably, he says, the oldest remaining combat veteran of its kind. And its discovery has sparked an excited debate in the restoration community about how it has survived for so long in such adverse conditions. “It’s in what you’d expect to be a worst-case scenario,” says Gillespie—lying in shallow salt water for more than sixty years. And yet the plane is relatively undamaged. For restoration experts, it is a discovery with potentially broad applications: early World War II–era planes have held up far better over the years than those manufactured later in the war, largely because the pressures of wartime production allowed more impurities into the metal. Elliott’s P-38 may provide insight into exactly how metals can survive the elements—and how they can be better preserved.
The plane’s pilot, sadly, will not get to play a role. Less than a month after the crash, Elliott was transferred south, along with the rest of the 14th Fighter Group, where he flew missions in support of the invasion of North Africa. He disappeared in December 1942 after his flight was bounced by a squadron of German fighters. His body was never found.
Gillespie is in talks with several British museums that have expressed interest in the plane Elliott left behind. He hopes to pull the Lightning out of the water later this year. To help support the effort, TIGHAR, his organization, is allowing donors to give money in the name of a World War II veteran of their choice. Those names will be inscribed on a plaque that will accompany the aircraft when it finally emerges again from the Irish Sea. Information on how to contribute can be found at tighar.org.
French Political Leader Charged with Holocaust Denial
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French far right party and a one-time candidate for the French presidency, went on trial this winter for violating France’s strict legislation against Holocaust denial. Le Pen was prosecuted for downplaying the suffering of French Jews during World War II in a 2005 newspaper interview. “In France at least,” he told his interviewer, “the German occupation was not especially inhumane, even if there were a number of excesses— inevitable in a country of 550,000 square kilometers.” More than seventy thousand French Jews were deported to concentration camps during Nazi occupation, and thousands of civilians were killed by the German army.
Le Pen—whose party, the National Front, was at one time the third largest political party in France—has been previously convicted of Holocaust denial. He was fined 1.2 million francs (about $270,000) in 1987 for referring to the Nazi gas chambers as “a point of detail of the Second World War.”
In the 2005 interview, Le Pen also implied that historians have exaggerated Nazi violence against non-Jews as well. “If the Germans had carried out mass executions across the country as the received wisdom would have it,” he said, “then there wouldn’t have been any need for concentration camps for political deportees.” He also seemed to excuse the German army for a 1944 massacre in the village of Villeneuve d’Ascq, where eighty-six villagers were executed after a resistance attack on a railroad line. Le Pen said the killings were caused by a German lieutenant who was “mad with rage” over his friends’ deaths in the attack. He credited the Gestapo for putting a stop to the murders.
If convicted, Le Pen faces another fine, a one-year prison term, and a possible ban from holding elective office. At seventy-nine, some experts think he may be close to retirement anyway. Le Pen’s party is millions of dollars in debt and has seen its popularity steadily decline since the 2002 presidential election, when he lost in a runoff to Jacques Chirac. In elections last summer, the National Front did not receive the 5 percent of the vote it needed to receive state funding.
Animal War Heroes Honored
A ceremony was held in England this winter honoring an often-overlooked group of World War II veterans for their “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” in the service of their country. Among the honorees were twenty-six dogs, three horses, a cat, and thirty-two pigeons, including a little-known RAF flier named Paddy, one of the first members of the Allied forces to bring news of the Normandy landings back to England. For his bravery, Paddy, an Irish homing pigeon, had been awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. A total of sixty-two animals have received the award, most of them during World War II.
Paddy’s citation, draped around his neck in a 1944 ceremony and accompanied by two kisses on the beak from the wife of the First Lord of the Admiralty, congratulated him for making the 230-mile trip across the English Channel in four hours and fifty minutes, the fastest time of any pigeon. Allied forces, fearful that radio signals might compromise their operations, relied on Paddy and a fleet of winged couriers—including another pigeon named Gustav, who was the first to make it back to England—to relay the news that the landings had been successful. Along with the long distance, British weather, and threat of a water landing, the pigeons had to grapple with the Germans, who stationed falcons at Calais to intercept them.
Paddy, though, made it across, and he and his comrades were saluted for their efforts in a ceremony marking the reopening of an animal cemetery in Ilford, northeast of London, known as the “Arlington for Animals.” Over three thousand military animals and family pets are buried at the site, including Paddy and the other Dickin Medal winners. Their heroic feats were celebrated with a flyover by a group of pigeons and a march-past by a group of human veterans who served with them.
A German truck salesman, sent to jail for teaching his dog to give the Nazi salute when someone said “Heil Hitler,” was sentenced this winter to thirteen months’ probation. Roland Thein, fifty-four, was jailed in December after being convicted of violating a ban on Nazi symbols, which are illegal in Germany. Police say Thein was proud of the tricks he’d taught his dog, whom he had named “Adolf.” Officers said Thein, who traveled around Berlin looking for people to provoke, had even demonstrated his dog’s talents to them. When a foreigner approached him, Thein would shout, “Sieg Heil! Adolf, sit! Give the salute!” and the dog would extend its leg. The dog has spent the last several months in an animal shelter, where the staff has been working on retraining him to shake paws like a regular dog. “We want him to stop raising his leg too high,” said a spokesperson for the shelter.
WWII Treasure Hunters Arrested in the Philippines
“Yamashita’s gold” is the stuff of legend— and to many historians, legend is all that remains of it. But that hasn’t stopped would-be treasure hunters from clambering up and down the mountains of the Philippines in search of war booty supposedly buried by the Japanese army during World War II. This winter, after years of trying to stop zealous gold-seekers from trampling the area’s natural beauty, the Philippine government arrested twenty-two people digging in a cave on Mount Banahaw, a 7,000-foot volcanic peak on Luzon considered a “holy mountain” by locals. The group hadn’t found anything, and officials appealed for a cessation of any future treasure hunts.
That may be a tall order as long as tall tales of buried treasure dominate local lore. What became known as “Yamashita’s gold” found its way to the Philippines in 1943 when the Japanese army, after relieving much of occupied China and Indonesia of their gilded Buddhas and gold bullion, struggled to get its loot home. More than six thousand tons of gold were taken from Chiang Kai-shek’s treasury after the Battle of Nanking alone. When the American naval blockade successfully sealed off shipping traffic to the Japanese mainland, some of the newly acquired booty found its way to the Philippines, where it was sent to storage sites constructed in the mountains around Manila. Under the supervision of the island’s military governor, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the gold was piled in huge underground tunnels and caverns built by slave laborers and POWs; the caverns were then booby-trapped and sealed shut with the laborers inside.
Yamashita himself was executed for war crimes in 1946, but he apparently didn’t take his secrets with him. According to Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, authors of Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold, an OSS officer named Edward Lansdale arrived in the Philippines when the war ended and, after interrogating Yamashita’s driver, discovered at least a dozen treasure troves in the Luzon mountains, filled with gold ingots worth billions of dollars. The money was used, the Seagraves say, as a CIA slush fund during the cold war.
But what happened to the rest of the gold? It’s a question that has haunted treasure hunters for more than sixty years. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos combed the islands for the treasure in the 1970s, and there was apparently some for the taking. In a sunken cruiser in Manila Bay, $6 billion was discovered. Thirty-eight miles south of Manila, in a massive tunnel known as “Teresa-2,” was another $8 billion. Many historians believe no more of the stash remains to be found, but that hasn’t stopped a cottage industry of treasure-seekers from descending on the islands for decades, with “tourists” wandering the hillsides with metal detectors.
In 2004, the Philippine government began pushing back against this gold rush. Barbed wire was placed along trails leading to Mount Banahaw, and the government announced a five-year effort to protect the area’s natural beauty. With the arrests this winter, the government has showed it’s willing to put a stop to the treasure hunts. It may prove harder to make visions of gold bullion stop dancing in treasure hunters’ heads.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.