Adventure leads to lost B-17: World War II remains discovered in New Guinea

September 23, 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 climbed out of the pressures of corporate management and 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 the jungle. And she found what only had been on a map in her mind.

The treacherous part began on March 7, when a helicopter carrying Ms. Olson and three members of her expedition touched down precariously on a steep, slippery mountainside in New Guinea.

Within minutes, Ms. Olson and her crew began inching up the slope, above the 9,000-foot level.

"There is no footing," Ms. Olson later wrote in her diary. "There is only slime, gooey decayed material and weird amoebic growth."

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.

Slipping and falling with each step on the soggy, jungle underfooting, 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.

"I can't jump up and down or I'll fall a bazillion feet. I can't shout with joy because there's not enough oxygen. All I can do is slide around in one spot saying, omigosh, omigosh, omigosh."

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

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.

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

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

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