To the U.S. military, Carter Lutes, a pilot who vanished in Papua New Guinea in April 1944, is one of the lost heroes of World War II. The Pentagon still hopes to recover him. Until then, it considers his jungle crash site a sacred place – and the last known clue to finding him.
Yet while the military was making plans to search for Lutes’ remains, other visitors arrived on the site seeking different remains: Lutes’ aircraft – a P-47D Thunderbolt, a highly sought-after model in the booming market for authentic World War II planes. Driven largely by wealthy American collectors, interest in such “warbirds” has grown into a multimillion-dollar frenzy that rivals the most feverish art trend or real estate boom, according to interviews with dozens of collectors, aircraft restorers, museum curators, and government officials.
Now, as the U.S. military invests hundreds of millions of dollars to recover the remains of World War II pilots, it is in a race against relic hunters. In recent years the Pentagon has found nearly 500 missing soldiers from World War II, about half from Papua New Guinea, scene of the most dangerous air battles of the war. But by the time recovery teams arrive at suspected MIA sites, the locations often have been picked over and crucial evidence is missing.
For example, the P-38 Lightning flown by one of Lutes’ missing comrades, John R. Weldon, is now registered to Artemis Aviation Group LLC in Wilmington, Del., according to FAA records. An advertisement published in January said the plane had a “documented combat history with the historic 475th Fighter Group.” It was for sale for $495,000. Officials from Artemis did not return calls for comment.
Weldon, who was last seen flying over the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea in January 1944, is still considered a missing soldier, and the Pentagon hopes to recover his remains for a hero’s burial. “We have had to address at least one case that involves this type of site disturbance on every mission that we’ve done,” said Chris McDermott, a historian with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. “The salvaging of the plane leaves us with little to go on. The opportunity to evaluate all the evidence has been lost.”
Lisa Phillips, head of the Maine-based WWII Families for the Return of the Missing, considers taking the planes to be akin to grave robbing. “Disturbing an MIA site is devastating to the identification of our war dead,” she said. “There is a very systematic way to recover remains and identify them. When individuals disturb a site … it could ruin all chances of having our missing loved ones identified.”
A decade ago, a World War II fighter plane could be purchased for a few hundred thousand dollars at most. Now, the price for a restored P-51 Mustang, a sleek single-engine fighter called the “Cadillac of the Sky,” is increasing by tens of thousands of dollars a month; one was offered last summer for $2.7 million, according to Trade-A-Plane, a listing of aircraft sales.
Prices are even higher for the exotic-looking, twin-engine P-38 Lightning; the last two that exchanged hands reportedly went for a whopping $3.8 million and $7 million, respectively. To feed the demand, wreck hunters are congregating on Papua New Guinea, where jungles mask hundreds of World War II planes – along with at least 2,200 missing American fliers.
The plane last flown by Lt. Marion C. “Carter” Lutes is now the pride of two wreck hunters: Fred Hagen, 51, a Pennsylvania millionaire who became “obsessed” with warbirds after searching for the remains of a pilot who was his great-uncle, and Robert Greinert, 51, an Australian aircraft restorer who proudly displays the shell of Lutes’ plane in his workshop south of Sydney. Sitting on a dolly in a cluttered hangar, the wings, tail, and nose of Lutes’ plane are gone, and cables spill from its rusty fuselage. The readings on the cockpit dials that Lutes relied on are frozen behind cracked glass.
“It’s neat,” said Greinert, wiping grease from his hands and gesturing toward the P-47D Thunderbolt. For Hagen, a construction business owner who says he paid $100,000 for Greinert’s help in the salvage operation, the plane is a treasure…