Part-time adventurer finds wreckage of World War II plane in New Guinea

September 10, 1993|By Arizona Republic

It was like the best of Indiana Jones: an executive from Arizona who is also a World War II buff hopping on a plane to New Guinea, trekking through the jungle to a 9,000-foot summit.

She struggles through the rain forest to find the wreckage of an American bomber that's been missing for 50 years -- the skeletons of its 11-member crew still are inside. Then, she tracks down a scavenger who had bought an identification bracelet taken from the remains of the pilot.

Now, the executive is planning to return the bracelet to the pilot's widow in Portland, Ore.

Call this executive Indiana Jan.

For about 49 weeks of the year she is Janice Olson, manager of Fiesta Mall, a complex of 145 retail outlets in Mesa, Ariz.

But for three weeks in March, above the clouds and the dark, ominous thunderheads halfway around the world, she spearheaded an archaeological mission of mercy.

"I had been studying bomber groups in the South Pacific for quite a while," said Ms. Olson, whose father was a B-17 pilot.

"You can only bear reading about it so long before you want to go walk the dirt in their shoes, although you can never know what it's like to be under attack."

She defied warnings from State Department bureaucrats that the trip was too dangerous. She braved the ravages of a jungle that threatened to consume her. And she found what only had been on a map in her mind.

Concealed in the jungle's thicket were skeletal remains and twisted pieces of steel. Ms. Olson wanted desperately to link them to the missing crew of 11 airmen aboard a B-17 bomber that disappeared in the South Pacific on Sept. 15, 1943.

"But the chances of finding something, a piece of the plane's wreckage, with a serial number on it in this dense, wet forest were slim," she said recently in her Mesa office.

Slogging through the the soggy jungle, and attacked by "basketball-sized" swarms of mosquitoes, Ms. Olson dug out two partly buried parts of the plane with markings confirming that it was the missing B-17.

An ecstatic Ms. Olson read the number over and over again, she says in her diary.

Those markings helped Ms. Olson accomplish something the Army has been unable to do for 50 years: positively identify the lost bomber and its crew, according to Army records.

But the markings only were part of the puzzle. For Ms. Olson, there was a Holy Grail of sorts yet to be found.

A gold identification bracelet that had been worn by the B-17's pilot, 1st Lt. Howard G. Eberly, 24, of Portland, Ore., had been seized by hunters from the New Guinea Village of Wau when they discovered the wreckage in October.

They had taken the jewelry as evidence of the carnage they had found.

News of what the hunters found had brought Ms. Olson to New Guinea in the first place.

A few weeks after their discovery, a war historian who has contacts in New Guinea called Ms. Olson in Mesa and told her about it.

"Word in the village was that hunters sold the bracelet to a man who collected World War II relics," Ms. Olson said.

"In that kind of environment where people are familiar with each other, it wasn't too difficult tracking him down while we were there," Ms. Olson said of the collector.

"He agreed that the bracelet should be returned to the family of the pilot and gave it to me."

When she returned to Mesa, Ms. Olson and a member of her team spent weeks pursuing the whereabouts of Lieutenant Eberly's survivors.

On Sept. 2, Ms. Olson reached Lieutenant Eberly's widow, who remarried and is now Billie Jean Haley.

Ms. Olson and George Wyatt, a friend and member of her New Guinea team, found Ms. Haley after searching alumni records at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., where Ms. Haley graduated under her maiden name of Billie Jean Gilliland.

A university official who knew Billie Jean called her at her home in Portland and put Ms. Olson and Mr. Wyatt in contact with her.

"She was overwhelmed," Ms. Olson said of talking with Ms. Haley. "She said, 'I've always wondered what happened. You hear about things like this happening but you never expect them to happen to you. This has been an unresolved issue for so many years, and now I can finally put it to rest.' "

Ms. Olson, 47, currently is making arrangements with the 43rd Bomber Group Association in San Antonio for a "fitting tribute" to Lieutenant Eberly and return of the bracelet to his widow.

"Less than a year ago, I had never heard of Lieutenant Eberly," she said.

"I told Mrs. Haley that I didn't know why her life and mine and George Wyatt's had all been thrown together. I told her that I felt like George and I had been swept along on some tidal wave of events, but we, too, were closing a chapter in our lives with the safe return of the bracelet."

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