Over 4th of July weekend, the History Channel aired portions of a documentary on the recovery of a B-17 Flying Fortress, now known as “the Swamp Ghost”, from Papua New Guinea in 2006. ULF partner Ken Fields was a member of the recovery team. Continue reading to discover Ken’s journey into the recovery of “the Swamp Ghost,”and click here to watch the documentary.
“A new history has been published about the United Stated Army Air Corps Squadron in which Lt. Col. John Wallace Fields, of Shamrock, father of Pampa attorney, Ken Fields, served during WWII. The book is titled Kangaroo Squadron: American Courage in the Darkest Days of WWII.
The author is Bruce Gamble, of Madison, GA. Bruce is an award-winning author and historian who served as a Naval flight officer during the closing years of the Cold War. Medically retired in 1989, he began working for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation before turning to freelance writing. One of the most respected authors on the war in the Pacific, Gamble has written seven books, and has appeared in documentaries produced by History Channel, Fox News, PBS, and the Pritzker Military Library. Among Bruce’s books are Fortress Rabaul; Invasion Rabaul; Target: Rabaul; Black Sheep One (the definitive biography of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington); The Black Sheep, and now, Kangaroo Squadron. Within the past couple of years, Bruce made a trip to Pampa to visit with Ken Fields about his father’s history with the Kangaroo Squadron. Ken was delighted to cooperate with Bruce and furnished a 1982 interview with his father about his service as a B-17 pilot with the Kangaroo Squadron in the Pacific in 1942. From that cooperation, along with that of other surviving relatives of Kangaroo Squadron members, Bruce captured beautifully the dark early days of WWII and the story of brave Americans willing to take the fight to the seemingly invincible Japanese Empire.
John Wallace Fields graduated from Texas Technological College in 1940 with a degree in Chemistry, and, seeing war clouds on the horizon, gave up his ambition to go to medical school and joined the Army Air Corps. He received his wings with the class of 41-C and was assigned to the 7th Bombardment Group. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the 7th Bombardment Group was travelling in several small flights to their new assignment in the Philippines, by way of Hawaii. Flying new Boeing B17-E Flying Fortresses, some of Fields’ squadron arrived in Hawaii in their unarmed bombers at the height of the December 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack. When Fields arrived on December 16, sunken US battleships were still smoking in Pearl Harbor. Assigned as co-pilot to Lt. Harry Speith, Fields took part in the first B-17 mission out of Australia on February 23, 1942, against the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. It was on this mission that B-17E #41-2246, piloted by Fred Eaton, and now famous as “The Swamp Ghost”, made a forced landing on the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. Ken’s account of his participation in the recovery of this Flying Fortress from the swamps of Papua New Guinea has been told in earlier issues of Focus.
The 7th Bombardment Group B-17s were then absorbed into the 19th Bombardment Group, which had lost most of its ships in the Japanese attack at Clark Field in the Philippines, and were re-designated as the 435th Armed Reconnaissance Squadron.
On March 25th, 1942, the 435th flew a 3-ship mission to Mindanao to evacuate Philippine President Manuel Quezon and his staff, a mission for which Fields received his second Distinguished Flying Cross, the first for having sunk a Japanese cruiser in Rabaul Harbor.
In May of 1942, the 435th Squadron’s B-17s participated in the Battle of Coral Sea, bombing and shadowing the Japanese invasion fleet attempting to invade Papua New Guinea by landing at Port Moresby. The battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in history where the opposing fleets never made contact, all of the combat being conducted by carrier and land-based aircraft.
On a later mapping mission to Guadalcanal, prior to the Marine landing and invasion, Fields’ aircraft was attacked by two Japanese float planes, which shot out one of his engines. He made the return trip to Townsville, Australia on 3 engines and landed with an auxiliary fuel tank wedged partly out of his bomb bay. During this attack, his crew obtained the first American photographs of the Zero Float Plane, codenamed “Rufe”.
Underscoring the lack of the United States’ preparedness in the Pacific during the early months of the war, Fields observed that he had a fighter escort on every mission, “all Japanese”.
In November of 1942, Kangaroo Squadron returned to the United States. Fields flew one of his final missions with the Kangaroo Squadron by commandeering a B-17 at Pyote Air Force Base and flying it down the main street of Shamrock, Texas, while looking up at the water tower. Fields flew a total of 51 combat missions against the Japanese, and was discharged in 1945 as a Major. He was recalled to active duty as a Lt. Col. in 1951 in the Korean War, serving in England as Deputy Base Commander at RAF Mildenhall. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Presidential Unit Citation with Five Oak Leaf Clusters; the WWII Victory Medal, and the American Defense Medal. He is a member of The Freedom Museum Hall of Fame and the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame.
On Friday, November 7, 2018, Ken and Carol Fields flew to Georgia for the book debut of Kangaroo Squadron. The debut, in Madison, Georgia, where the author, Bruce Gamble, resides, was attended by many family members of Kangaroo Squadron pilots and crew, as well as Philadelphia contractor, Fred Hagen, a renowned explorer of Papua New Guinea aircraft sites, who lead the Swamp Ghost recovery effort. Today only one squadron member survives. Ken notes that he was privileged to be born into the household of his hero, and that, because he began attending Squadron reunions with his father at an early age, he became acquainted with many of the officers and enlisted men of the Kangaroo Squadron, from Fred Eaton, pilot of the Swamp Ghost; Frank Bostrom, who flew General MacArthur out of the Philippines, to Earl Williams, the last surviving member of the Kangaroo Squadron, and many others. Ken observed that, “as well acquainted as I am with many of the Kangaroo Squadron stories, I confess that I felt the tension of the times as Bruce Gamble recounted them in his book with an unfiltered, fresh, and educated eye, making it all new again.” Ken is delighted that, at long last, the Kangaroo Squadron has received its due for their heroism in the desperate early days of the war in the Pacific.
As a result of Ken’s association with the largely unsung heroes of the 435th “Kangaroo Squadron”, he developed an abiding desire that one of their B-17’s, 41-2446, now nicknamed “The Swamp Ghost”, piloted by Fred Eaton to a forced landing on their first mission out of Australia, be recovered from the New Guinea swamp in which it had rested since February 23, 1942. Ken worked on this project for over a quarter of a century with many institutions and individuals, culminating in the rescue of the Swamp Ghost as a member of a team headed by his friend, Fred Hagen, in 2006. Ken now has the satisfaction of seeing the Swamp Ghost safely installed at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Ford Island, Oahu, where she is secured in a battle-scarred seaplane hangar which still bears bullet holes from the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.
In Kangaroo Squadron, Bruce Gamble made it all come to life and immortalized a proud but little-known group of men who were the point of the spear for America, at a time and in a place when spears were hard to come by.”