The body of WWII airman that was found dangling from a tree but which turned out to be a moss covered vine

Image courtesy of Lisa Fabre
Image courtesy of Lisa Fabre

In 2008 a group of hikers were walking along the Kakoda Trail, a mountain pass in New Guinea that saw intense fighting between the Australian and Japanese forces in 1942. There they spotted what they thought were moss covered remains dangling from a parachute in a tree.

The remains were hardly visible in the dense jungle canopy but the hikers thought it was caught up in a parachute harness and appeared to be wearing goggles.

During the war, the air war was raging above and many aircraft were lost and crashed in New Guinea. Many of these have never been found so it is within reason that one may stumble across human remains and aircraft wreckage that have been missing for over 70 years.

The hikers made a note of the tree and marked it to identify it and reported their find to the authorities. Within two weeks a team from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) went to investigate and recover the “body” but upon arrival they discovered that the remains were simply a branch tangled in vines.

“I couldn’t make it out at first. It wasn’t until the wind blew that you could really see (that) it is in a harness. There are goggles and it appears to be caught up in cables, so presumably it is an airman,” said jungle guide David Collins.

The moss-covered object, hardly visible in the dense jungle canopy, was first seen by an off-duty Australian police officer who was out on the trail with a group that was being led by Mr Collins.

He was taking photographs of exotic plants and wildlife in the jungle canopy when he thought he had spotted the remains of an airman.

“We had a few police officers on the 19-man trek. One was taking photos with a large lens of the trees and flowers,” said Mr Collins, a firefighter who works part-time as a trekking guide for Melbourne-based adventure company No Roads Expeditions. “He then discovered what looks like the remains of a body.”

A spokesman for the ADF said the location of the find, about half-way along the 60 mile-long Kokoda Track, is close to a flight path regularly used by Allied aircraft and that several aircraft went missing in the region.

It isn’t without reason to think this could actually happen as on 25 August 1942, Kittyhawk fighters of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF, based at Milne Bay, attacked Japanese barges that had been intended for use in an attack on Milne Bay.

In spite of the loss of these barges, on the next night, the Japanese landed a force of some 2000 marines at Milne Bay in an attempt to seize the airstrips and secure a base from which to provide naval and air support for the battle over the Kokoda Track. Believing that only a few infantry companies protected the area, the Japanese landed just before midnight on 26 August.

A statement by the ADF said that, even though the location of the find was below a flight path used in WWII by Allied aircraft, the “remains” were in fact a moss-covered branch. The ADF confirmed that no body had been found.

“It appears the branch has broken off the main tree and fallen across some vines, which from the ground, could have been confused with the body of an airman,” the ADF statement continued.

Thus a story that for two weeks cause quite a stir in 2008 turned out to nothing more than an over active imagination.

Joris Nieuwint

Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield guide for the Operation Market Garden area. His primary focus is on the Allied operations from September 17th, 1944 onwards. Having lived in the Market Garden area for 25 years, he has been studying the events for nearly as long. He has a deep understanding of the history and a passion for sharing the stories of the men who are no longer with us.