Cover (From left) Craig Mitchell, Dr Michael Rivera and Paul Niel. Photo by Christopher Lim.

Almost 80 years after it was shot down in Hong Kong during the Second World War, the recently unearthed US Avenger warplane sheds light on a lesser-known chapter of the traumatising era.

On January 16, 1945, just three months after the success of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, three US Navy airmen were deployed to the USS Hancock––an aircraft carrier––to participate in Operation Gratitude. The mission: to bomb the South China coast and destroy Japan’s sea lanes in the region.

While the exercise was a strategic success, it came with substantial human loss. “The pilots were just getting shot at from the minute they pulled out from the carriers,” says Craig Mitchell, a local amateur historian. “If you read the survivors’ accounts, even the most experienced pilots from the navy said that Hong Kong was the one place they did not want to come back to after the war and that it was not worth their losses.” The US Navy records state that this was one of the heaviest days of loss during the war: 17 warplanes were shot down on that day alone. Lieutenant Richard L Hunt Jr, radioman Eugene W Barrow and gunner Louis William Gahran Jr were on one of them; it was shot at, then it collided with another warplane in mid-air, and crashed in Tai Tam. The trio never made it home: Barrow and Gahran are believed to have died at the site, while Hunt was captured and became a prisoner of war, dying in Japan a few months later.

Of the 17 planes that were shot down by enemy action over Hong Kong that day, six were Avengers, two of which collided in Tai Tam. Two ended up in Victoria Harbour and one each crashed into the coastline by Central and Tsim Sha Tsui. It isn’t known what happened to the other planes.

Almost 70 years later, in January 2012, Mitchell stumbled across machine parts that would prove to be from Hunt, Barrow and Gahran’s aircraft; in November 2021, it was finally dug up. Mitchell set up Project Avenger, and brought on board Dr Michael Rivera, a biological anthropologist and bioarchaeologist; Paul Niel, a Royal Geographic Society fellow and a founding member of the Explorers Club Hong Kong; and Adam Janikowski from the Explorers Club to manage the project.

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The two-week excavation ended on December 1 last year. The wreckage is currently being analysed by archaeologists at the University of Nebraska, and the Project Avenger team hopes some of the pieces will be put on public display in 2023.

Mitchell, a physical education teacher at Hong Kong International School by day who enjoys searching the city’s hills and gullies for artefacts during his downtime, found the crash site through a mix of chance and pure determination. Ten years ago, a friend gave him a wartime map of the Japanese trench line in December 1941, sourced from the Japanese Historic Archives website. He packed his metal detector and set out with the map, bushwhacking through dense forest along a barely traceable footpath that branched off from the Tai Tam Country Park hiking trail.

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After an hour or so, he found a big piece of metal that was very much out of place in the undergrowth. “There were a lot of bolts and nuts that were holding it together,” Mitchell says. He returned the next day, carried it home, polished it and traced the numbers and letters on the metal back to the manufacturer. He discovered they were “close tolerance” bolts—a type of bolt used specifically in aircraft construction—made between 1939 and 1946. He continued to scout the area over the next four months, and would also discover bullet shells, labelled with the year 1944, that had been exposed to intense heat, indicative that they had been in a plane crash, rather than fired from a gun.

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Mitchell headed to the Hong Kong Mapping Office in North Point, where he found an aerial photograph of the Tai Tam area in 1949. “There was a very clear scarring which looked suspicious to me,” he says. “I superimposed it on Google Earth and zoomed in on the area. The next day, I followed the coordinates into this opening in the forest. I caught my foot on a vine and fell. As I looked up, it was almost like a classic scene from a movie: I was looking at all this metal here, exactly where the plane crashed.” Mitchell kept the site secret for years while he looked for the funding and the expert team he needed. In 2018, he was connected to Niel, who was researching the next expedition project for the Explorers Club Hong Kong and hoping to organise a community venture looking into local Second World War history. Mitchell’s project was a perfect fit. The project was finally funded by the American Club, and received approvals and permits, including from the US Navy History and Heritage Command.

As well as the core team, they brought in Wallace Lai from Hong Kong Polytechnic University for photogrammetry and Lidar scanning of the artefacts; aviation archaeologist Dr Andrew Pietruszka and Professor William Belcher to assess aviation elements; and the Boy Scouts of America as volunteers, with support from the US Consulate. Like detectives, they pieced together information and worked out that the wreckage was of one of the two US Avenger warplanes that collided during Operation Gratitude.

Mitchell and Niel say that the discovery of this plane sheds light on a lesser-known chapter of Second World War history in Hong Kong: the US involvement in the war in the territory. To them, the archaeological find is about far more than recovering an old plane. “Early on, when we started planning this, we wanted to maximise our exposure to the public and particularly schoolchildren, to let them know there’s history here in the hills that people don’t even know about,” Mitchell says. The team has conducted live webcasts directly from the fieldwork site and talks in the American Club and a school about their project and the plane’s history. They also recruited volunteers in November to help dig up parts of the propeller shaft, cockpit, fuselage, struts and armour plating for protecting the pilots’ legs.

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After packing up their gear, the team and 26 volunteers gathered for a moment of silence in front of a small plaque erected at the site in memory of the airmen. “It was a very difficult decision for the three airmen who went to battle, knowing that they probably wouldn’t come back,” says Steven Alexander, the US Department of Defence representative who coordinated Project Avenger’s planning and recovery. “However, they know we will do everything we can to bring the remains back, and when that’s not possible, we bring their stories back.”

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