David Billings recently returned from his seventeenth trip to East New Britain in search of the Earhart Electra, and again he was unable to find the hidden wreck that he believes is the lost Electra 10E that Amelia Earhart flew from Lae, New Guinea on the morning of July 2, 1937.
Billings’ New Britain theory is the only hypothesis among all the various possible explanations that vary from the truth as we know it, that presents us information and poses questions that cannot be explained or answered. Unless and until the twin-engine wreck that an Australian army team found in the East New Britain jungle 1945 is rediscovered, this loose end will forever irritate and annoy researchers who take such findings seriously.
Readers can review the details of Billings’ work by reading my Dec. 5, 2016 post, New Britain theory presents incredible possibilities. Billings’ website Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project and subtitled “Earhart’s Disappearance Leads to New Britain: Second World War Australian Patrol Finds Tangible Evidence” offers a wealth of information on this unique and fascinating theory.
Billings has sent me a detailed report on the events of the last three weeks, and it’s presented below. I wish he had better news, however, as this aspect of the Earhart search is one that screams for resolution, unlike the others, which are all flat-out lies and disinformation, intended only to keep the public ignorant about Amelia’s sad fate.
SEARCHING FOR THE ELECTRA AND FOR AMELIA AND FRED
Our last expedition started on Friday, June 2, when the six members of the Australian team met at the Brisbane International Motel on the Friday evening prior to the flight out of Brisbane for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on the morning of Saturday, June 3.
We flew from Brisbane for three hours and went into transit at Port Moresby, then on to the flight which is “nominally” to Rabaul but actually Kokopo and arrived at Tokua Airport after an hour and 20 minutes, on time, and then by mini-bus to the Rapopo Plantation Resort just outside of Kokopo, which was the base for our “equipment and rations” gathering over the next two days.
The hired HiLux vehicles arrived and Sunday and Monday was spent on shopping for the major items from prepared lists and boxing all the goods up and storing them in the rooms. Money changing at the banks in Kokopo and final shopping was Tuesday for odds and ends.
The U.S. team members arrived at the Rapopo on Monday, June 5, and after their hectic flight schedule relaxed on the Tuesday ready for the road trip on Wednesday.
The Journey to Wide Bay
The road trip with all 10 members was carried out in three Toyota HiLux Dual Cab 4WD’s with diesel engines. We had walkie-talkies for contact during the drive. The road we had planned on was to be approximately 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) and we expected to be able to do this in about four and a half hours. The actual time was seven hours over very rough roads and with a planned one major river crossing and several minor river crossings. In the event, due to finding one road impassable, we were forced to ford a quite wide and substantial river which we know from previous trips can be in flood quite rapidly as it has a large watershed area stretching up into the Baining Mountains.
The supposed “sealed” roads out of Kokopo through small villages towards Kerevat town were a nightmare with potholes every few yards and the daily multitude of vehicles were weaving in and out of the potholes and wandering all over the road to avoid the holes.
A good 10 kilometers out of Kerevat town, a turnoff towards the village of Malasait brought us onto the very rough tracks that we were to use for the rest of the journey. This rough track constitutes the major part of what is euphemistically called the “East New Britain Highway.” For a detailed look at the Gazelle Peninsula in relation to the Billings search, please click here.
On the Highway
All went well over the awful rough roads until about the halfway point whereupon we came across a gigantic mudslide over a stretch of the “highway” on a downslope about 100 meters long, with ruts in the mud about 500 millimeters (19.6 inches) deep. There was a truck there which they had shed the load off of it and copra bags littered the drains as they had strived to get the truck through and they were picking the bags up on a long pole when we got there. Rain water had gone completely over this section and washed the road out. After throwing rocks into the deepest rutted sections and pushing the loose mud down also, we managed to get through this area in four-wheel drive. We had to remember this section of “road” and prepare for it for the return journey.
Shortly after this, we crossed the Sambei River No. 2, in a wide sweeping arc with water just over the wheel hubs which allowed us to stay on the shallowest parts and then continued on the way.
At this river crossing we had met up with a local man who said he was going to the Lamerien area and we followed him along a newly cut forestry road which joined up with the old road near to the turn-off to Awungi then we entered the steep descending curves down into the Mevelo River Valley and expected to turn off to the right to follow the track through the Mumus and Yarras River Valleys. However, our guide drove straight ahead to a security guard post leading into the Palm Oil Plantation, sited on the northern side of the Mevelo River. On realizing that we were being led into the Palm Oil Plantation the expectation then was that the bridge over the Mevelo which we could see “not completed” in Satellite views must then be “completed,” which would mean we could cross the wide Mevelo River with ease.
The Mevelo River
After driving through the Palm Oil roads for about 40 minutes we came to the Mevelo River and our hopes were dashed! There was no bridge. We had seen a bridge with a very nearly completed driving span in the satellite pictures with but one span to be completed. What we were now looking at was a damaged bridge with no roadway across the pylons. The Mevelo River is a very fast flowing river in flood and an earlier flood had obviously caused the bridge supports to move and the bridge had collapsed.
The bridge was down, destroyed by the “mighty” Mevelo at some time in a flood. Several of the old shipping containers that had been used as ballast cans for rocks to hold and support the concrete bridgeworks had been moved out of position by the strength of the flow of water down the Mevelo River and now we were left with a choice — we must now ford the river or turn back.
Luckily, while we had a rest stop close to the access road to the river, I had seen two Toyota Land Cruiser troop carrier vehicles come out of the track entrance to the river and sure enough when we arrived at the river, there were the wet wheel tracks of these vehicles left behind on the steep entrance into the river, so we decided to go across, fording the river in the HiLux in H4, in four-wheel drive. I went first and kept a straight line across and the water was deeper over on the far side of the river and estimated to be just at wheel height. The second vehicle came across and then Matt took a different wider line and we could see water up to the bonnet before the front end of the vehicle reared up out of the water onto dry land. A sigh of relief went up from all watching!
The Old Track
What we now know is that the former old track (part of which I have previously walked) which leads out of the Mevelo Valley and up to the Mumus and Yarras River Valleys, our planned route, is totally overgrown and cannot be used. It is a seven-hour 166 kilometer (106 miles) drive from Kokopo to Lamerien over very rough roads with what we thought were two major river crossings. We had three large rivers to cross, only one of which was bridged.
Change to the Planning
The crossing of the Mevelo River by the ford, which was forced upon us by the closure of the now “overgrown road” out of the Mevelo Valley meant that we had to rethink our carefully laid plans on several aspects: The Americans had appointments to keep on their return so had to get back for their flights. We got to the campsite on Thursday, June 7 and managed to get the tents up before dark. That left a maximum for them of six nights in the camp but in the light of the river fords (particularly the Mevelo River ford) we had to gauge intervals in the rain to get back over the Mevelo River, which was accessed as the biggest obstacle.
1. The American participants had a maximum of seven nights/six days at Wide Bay and had to return to Kokopo, the seventh day had been planned as the “return to Kokopo day.”
2. Originally it had been planned for two vehicles to return with the American participants and then one vehicle return to Wide Bay on the same day. It was now deemed too dangerous for one vehicle to make the trip back due possible breakdown on the rough roads or getting bogged on the mudslide. This planned return trip would take two days if carried out.
3. The drive cannot be done Kokopo to Wide Bay (Lamerien) and back in one day, it had been planned as a one-day trip because “if the river crossings were possible on that day in the morning” then they would still be able to be crossed later in the day. The two-day return trip negated that idea.
4. More importantly, we would have to ford the Mevelo River on a return journey and to that there was no alternative, the Mevelo River had to be crossed in order to get back to Kokopo with the vehicles, that meant the surety of a day when the river ford was at a low point.
5. We also had to make a contingency for the 100-meter-long mudslide in the road at roughly the halfway point, after the Sambei River, which doubtless would not have been repaired by the time of our return. This meant that lengths of logs had to be carried both for ballast in crossing the two main river fords and as fill to drop into the ruts on the mudslide section. The chainsaw also had to return with the vehicles in case of the need for more wood.
Secondary Jungle Visited Three Times
It rained the first night (Thursday) and Friday afternoon we made it up the hill. Since 2012 it has become just a tangled mess up there, the old bulldozer tracks are barely visible and the tree roots across the ground hold pools of water making it treacherous.
The climb up to the top of the hill can be quite steep in places and with the rain it was very slippery and some assistance was needed in paces and the willing hands of the young men of the village gave that assistance. The hill height is around 420 feet and the start level is 150 feet, so it is a tough climb over 270 feet of elevation.
It rained the second night for three hours with lightning and thunder rolls and lashing rain from 12 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then more rain during that new day. June is supposed to be the “drier” month of the year. We went up the hill three times, it rained while we were in there.
Due to the available time for the Americans in the team, the rain, the rising rivers to cross and the vehicles to be got across the rivers, we had to consider getting out at an opportune time with the biggest obstacle, the Mevelo River, at a low point. We watched the Mevelo on a daily basis. The Mevelo went down a bit and we took the opportunity to get out on Monday, June 12. Seven hours later we were back in Kokopo.
“East New Britain Highway” is Atrocious
Back to the mudslide! Yes, the mudslide was still there and still about 100 meters long, but this time on the return, on an upslope. We had to remember that stretch for going back so we cut some logs the length of the HiLux tray and took two layers of 5-foot round logs back with us both as ballast for the river crossing and to patch up the road when we got to the mudslide. When we got there a big truck was bogged in, but luckily off to the side, so we gave them a shovel, then we filled in the deeper parts of one rut with the logs we carried and I went first with one wheel side in the rut and the other on the center “heap of slime,” and in H4 we all got through but it was close-run thing. All the villagers that were working on the road cheered! Most of the road is laterite where a bulldozer has shaved off the top soil and exposed the rock underneath but this section was just mud. The roads must be terrible on the HiLux suspension and most of the journey is in first and second gear with occasional third being used.
Where do we go from here?
It is obvious that we cannot use vehicles again until the roads improve and bridges are built, that means use and reliance on a helicopter again, for “in” and “out,” with additional expense.
The idea was that by using vehicles we could cut down the expense and carry as much as we liked to make the camp comfortable. We had also intended to go down to the Ip River where a World War II wreck had been reported about 10 years ago and to which no one has been to identify, so we had thought that we would do that, but the villagers told us that the coast track was impassable.
All the film taken will now be used to make a documentary concerning the search for the aircraft wreck seen in 1945, which I am convinced on the basis of the documentary evidence on the World War II map and the visual description by the Army veterans, is the elusive Electra. We shall have to wait and see what interest is generated by the documentary.
Queensland, Australia (June 20, 2017)
Billings’ next trip to East New Britain will be his eighteenth, if he indeed makes it, and if persistence means anything at all, perhaps he will finally locate the wrecked airplane he believes was Amelia Earhart’s bird. I wish him the best of luck, as he will surely need it. If you’d like to contribute to his cause, you can visit his website, Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project for details.