A couple of years ago I read a book by a chap called Mitchell Zuckoff titled Lost in Shangri-La. It tells the true story of the survivors of a USAF Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft that was flying from Sentani airport and crashed near Wamena here in Papua. It is a remarkable story and one that totally captivated me along with anyone I have recommended the book to. This weekend I finally went out to locate the wreckage of the Gremlin Special.
Ever since reading the book I had always wanted to go and find the wreckage. There are many reasons for this. Firstly I have always wondered if after seventy years any of it still existed, secondly I wanted to see exactly where the aircraft ended up crashing and finally I wanted to get an idea of what the survivors must have gone though following the crash. The mission to find the wreckage began last week, as most of my adventures begin, with a casual conversation on the apron with a fellow bush pilot. I have been putting off going to find the crash site because I had always heard it was buried deep in the jungle and was impossible to reach in a single day. However now I had some willing company, the mission was on!
I had some GPS coordinates from another pilot and a quick Google search confirmed the ones I had were accurate to within 300m according to a website mentioning the crash site. Curiously the one’s from Zuckoff’s book were quite a distance away (around 7km) but I put this down to wartime records and the coarseness of the coordinates in the book which lacked any decimal points. The mission was on, and a 5am departure was planned by pick-up truck from our house in Wamena to drive as close as we could to the coordinates.
Once our small party of five of us had driven as far as we could, we parked up and walked up to the first house we found to ask if anyone there knew about the aircraft that crashed in 1945. Hopefully this would confirm our coordinates were correct. The first chap we spoke to had absolutely no idea. Bugger! As there were no other houses around we were left with two options, get back in the truck and find another house to ask someone else or start heading off into the jungle towards the coordinates which were only 3km from our position just off the road. Luckily we went with the first option.
The next chap we spoke to knew of four different crashes but crucially did know of a large aircraft from a very long time ago that crashed in this area. Unfortunately he was pointing to a location in quite the opposite direction to our coordinates! However he said that his parents had seen the wrecked DC3 and he claimed to know exactly where it was. So after some negotiations over payment he agreed to take us to the wreck and off we drove, away from where we thought we had to go…
Along the way we bumped into another chap on the road and thankfully he was able to confirm what the other chap was saying and went one further by insisting we come into his village to meet a lady who was apparently alive at the time of the crash in 1945. This was too good an opportunity to pass up and a fascinating encounter ensued as we listened to this lady. She described how terrified their village was when the white people emerged from jungle and how they all ran away. She was only a girl at the time so didn’t actually meet the survivors herself but she was told there were two men and one women. Bingo! This was definitely the Gremlin Special survivors, exactly as told in the book!
After listening to her fascinating recollection (in a local dialect that was then translated into Indonesian by one of the other, younger villagers which I was able to mostly understand) we got back in the truck and headed up the road a few more kilometres to the start point our guide took us to. From there was was a tricky, slippery and at times quite treacherous hike along a thick, jungle covered ridge-line path constructed mostly of fallen trees covered in wet moss. After around half an hour we then dropped off this path and down the northern slope into even thicker jungle to where our guide thought the wreckage would be. After well over an hour of searching around it wasn’t looking good. Many thoughts crossed our mind from “is this guy just messing with us?” to “perhaps those coordinates we have are correct and we are now 5km from that location, lets go back and look there”.
Our guide then decided we should head back up to the ridge-line path and go a little further along it as he was certain the wreckage was around here somewhere. And so we followed for another ten minutes and eventually stumbled upon the above pictured floor panelling. What follows below are some further photos of what remains of the C-47 Dakota, The Gremlin Special. As you can see, there is still a lot of it left.
The whole experience was both incredibly exciting but also very humbling and it is nice to see that so much of it still remains. I can only speculate that almost no-one has been here over the last seventy years making this a very privileged exhibition. Very little has been taken which is unusual as normally when an aircraft crashes in Papua the locals tend to remove anything of use to be upcycled as roofs, fences etc. Interestingly our guide did say that this aircraft was the first metal any of them had seen and so some of the aircraft was used to make machetes and other tools which is also mentioned in the book.
My passion for aviation and this story in particular was hard to contain at times and I had to keep reminding myself this was also a grave site (although all the bodies have been removed now). Here I was walking amongst an incredible bit of history and being able to picture exactly what those survivors encountered. The jungle was much thicker that I had imagined and the slope considerably steeper that I thought too. It really is a miracle there were any survivors considering the terrain. If you have read the book I hope these photos help show you a little bit of what it was like in that jungle and if you’ve not read it yet, I cannot recommend it highly enough!