OVER many years, American billionaire David Tallichet (1922-2007) was interested in the World War II aircraft left behind in the Sepik.
Tallichet, who made his fortune as ‘the father of the themed restaurant’, had piloted bombers over Europe in World War II and his post-war hobby was in restoring some of these aircraft.
He corresponded with me on a number of occasions and, coming from a family of aviators myself, I was always eager to help where I could.
There were other guys like him in the 1970s, such as John White from the Australian War Memorial who when in Aitape loved talking to Rev Fr Urban Reid, who as Flying Officer Danny Reid DFC was the only Allied pilot to shoot down of one of the Luftwaffe’s rarest aircraft, an Arado AR-234 jet.
That’s a pretty long introduction to the story of how the Aitape War Museum came to lose millions of dollars worth of vintage aircraft.
Emile Glaus of Wewak had the non-ferrous rights for the Wewak and Aitape Districts and had melted down most of the aircraft in Wewak, But and Boiken.
He was ready to move his equipment to Aitape when the price of aluminium dropped and I offered to purchase the rights for Aitape in the name of the Aitape War Museum. Glaus accepted and I paid him in January 1972.
Then in December 1972 a letter from David Tallichet was hand delivered to me by an Aerial Tours pilot.
Tallichet had been at Tadji the day before and wrote from Wewak. I responded that none of the aircraft were for sale.
Prior to this I had two letters from Tallichet wanting to purchase some of the aircraft. Each time I replied that I, being the owner and founder of Aitape War Museum, wanted them left in the area around Tadji Airstrip for future generations and particularly to attract tourists.
So I was shocked one day to hear that there were expatriates at Tadji with equipment which was pulling aircraft apart.
They had come in a small aircraft and I told them to stop, which they did and went to see the District Officer who contacted the District Commissioner in Vanimo.
He eventually was able to get a decision from the authorities in Moresby to say the workers had permission to proceed.
To this day no one has told me how the ownership was transferred.
So I just had to let them proceed but we were able to keep a Mitchell B25 bomber.
We moved it to the safety of Aitape High School and it is still there on display.
David Tallichet (left) sponsored one of the world’s single largest recoveries of aircraft wrecks, with the majority of the work conducted in 1974 by New Zealander Charles Darby and Australian ‘Monty’ Armstrong.
Most of the Kittyhawk P-40s recovered were taken from the dump sites at the end of the Tadji strip. The salvage work was easy as all the aircraft were near the road and barge service to ship them from Aitape. Recovered were over a dozen complete aircraft and a variety of parts.
There were seven Airacobra P-39Q fighters, a Boston light bomber, six Kittyhawks, a Hudson light bomber and four Beaufort A9 torpedo bombers.
Many of these aircraft were restored to flying condition, some in the United States and others in New Zealand.
‘Feather Merchant’ was saved for Aitape and continues to grace the high school; other aircraft worth millions of dollars found a home elsewhere.
‘Feather Merchant’ was the ninth B-25C bomber produced by North American Aircraft. It was originally intended for the Netherlands East Indies Air Force but was appropriated by the Americans.
It became famous during the war for bringing senior military commanders from Manila in the Philippines to Darwin.
It also flew on a bombing mission against Lae where it was attacked and damaged by Japanese Zeros eventually making a forced landing in a kunai grass field near Port Moresby.
It was repaired and taken out of combat service and, around February 1944, turned into a ‘Fat Cat’ supply and transport plane with its armament removed but still in olive drab paint.
Later, it was stripped to natural aluminum finish, declared war weary and transferred to a service squadron before, at the end of the war, being abandoned at Tadji Airfield with its tail removed.
Photo: B25 Mitchell bomber ‘Feather Merchant’ now on display at Aitape High School.