The Real Story of the Body of an WWII Airman Found Hanging From a Tree

A crazy story and discovery that hit the news in 2008.

The story was reported like this: ‘a remarkable discovery, still awaiting confirmation by military authorities, was made by astonished trekkers while hiking the Kokoda Trail, a challenging mountain path known for intense WWII battles between Japanese and Australian forces in 1942.’

There Are Goggles

Trekking guide David Collins, describing the find, said, “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.”

Supposed WWII skeleton found dangling above Kokoda Track
Supposed WWII skeleton found dangling above Kokoda Track. Image Credit: Lisa Fabre

The moss-covered remains, barely visible among dense jungle foliage, were initially spotted by an Australian police officer during a trek led by Mr. Collins. He was using a telephoto lens to photograph plants when he saw parachute harness fragments surrounded by vines and palm leaves.

The trekkers marked the tree from which the object hung for further investigation.

If confirmed as a human body, it likely belongs to an Australian, American, or Japanese airman who remained undisturbed in the forest for over 60 years.

May Have Helped to Preserve the Body

If the find is confirmed, one key question will be how the body survived decades hanging in the tree.
The extreme elevation of the forest in which the body was found – about 2,200m (7,220 feet) above sea could have may have helped to preserve the body.

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Moss would then have grown over it, preserving its shape. Another mystery is the nationality of the airman – whether he was from Japan, Australia or the United States, which also had forces in the area. Fighters from all sides remain unaccounted for.

Papua New Guinea witnessed intense air and land battles during WWII, with the Allies halting Japan’s southward advance. The Kokoda Track, about 60 miles long, crosses the challenging Owen Stanley Range of mountains.

Mr Collins said a lot of planes went missing during the war in the general area where the skeleton was found. “All of them were generally lost in the fog and bang they go in,” he said.
Among those that flew in the area at the time were the Royal Australian Air Force’s 75 and 76 Squadrons, which flew P-40 Kitthawk fighters.

A Lot of Japanese Aircraft as Well

American B-25 Mitchell bombers were also in the area at the time along with P-39 Airacobra fighters.
“There were a lot of aircraft lost up there during the war and a lot of Japanese aircraft as well,” Mr Collins said.

Mr Collins described the location of the skeleton as being on the right side of the track heading north from Myola, about four days walk in from the Port Moresby end of the track. He said the the tree with the skeleton had been marked with plastic to help furture investigators find it again.

The remoteness of the site and the difficulties involving in locating and working with anything in the thick jungle canopy mean that it could be months before any identification of the skeleton is made.

The Australian Defence Force is sending representatives to investigate, and US and Japanese authorities are checking their records of missing airmen. The location of the discovery is close to a flight path used by Allied aircraft, where several planes went missing.

The Kokoda Track holds historical significance, as it was the site of fierce combat, with poorly trained Australian troops resisting Japanese forces attempting to seize the strategic town of Port Moresby.

Months of fighting featured hand-to-hand combat, ambushes, disease, and even cannibalism among starving Japanese soldiers. Eventually, Australian forces repelled the Japanese, driving them out of New Guinea.

As it Turns Out

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.

Today, the track is a popular destination for Australian hikers, trekking firms, and corporate groups seeking adventure and historical insight.