Sixty-five years after an American P-38 fighter plane ran out of gas and crash-landed on a beach in Wales, the long-forgotten World War II relic has emerged from the surf and sand where it lay buried.
Beach strollers, sunbathers and swimmers often frolicked within a few yards of the aircraft, unaware of its existence until last summer, when unusual weather caused the sand to shift and erode.
The revelation of the Lockheed "Lightning" fighter, with its distinctive twin-boom design, has stirred interest in British aviation circles and among officials of the country's aircraft museums, ready to reclaim another artifact from history's greatest armed conflict.
Based on its serial number and other records, "the fighter is arguably the oldest P-38 in existence, and the oldest surviving 8th Air Force combat aircraft of any type," said Ric Gillespie, who heads a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to preserving historic aircraft. "In that respect it's a major find, of exceptional interest to British and American aviation historians."
Gillespie finds romance as well as historic significance in the discovery of the aircraft, long forgotten by the U.S. government.
"It's sort of like 'Brigadoon,' the mythical Scottish village that appears and disappears," he said. "Although the Welsh aren't too happy about that analogy — they have some famous legends of their own."
Museums express interest
Gillespie's organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, learned of the plane's existence in September from a British air history enthusiast and sent a team to survey the site last month. The group plans to collaborate with British museum experts in recovering the fragile but nearly intact aircraft next spring.
The Imperial War Museum Duxford and the Royal Air Force Museum are among the institutions expressing interest.
"The difficult part is to keep such a dramatic discovery secret. Looting of historic wrecks, aircraft or ships, is a major problem, in Britain as it is worldwide," Gillespie said.
British aviation publications have been circumspect about disclosing the exact location, and local Welsh authorities have agreed to keep the plane under surveillance whenever it is exposed by the tides of the Irish Sea, he said. For now, the aircraft is again buried under sand.
Officially, the U.S. Air Force considers any aircraft lost before Nov. 19, 1961 — when a fire destroyed many records — as "formally abandoned," and has an interest in such cases only if human remains are involved.
The twin-engine P-38, a radical design conceived by Lockheed design genius Clarence "Kelly" Johnson in the late 1930s, became one of the war's most successful fighter planes, serving in Europe and the Pacific. About 10,000 of the planes were built, and about 32 complete or partial airframes are believed to still exist, perhaps 10 in flying condition.
Another P-38, part of a "lost squadron" of warplanes marooned by bad weather in Greenland while being flown to Europe in 1942, was recovered and extensively restored with new parts. Dubbed "Glacier Girl," its attempt to complete the flight to Britain earlier this year was thwarted by mechanical problems.
The Wales Lightning, built in 1941, reached Britain in early 1942 and flew combat missions along the Dutch-Belgian coast.
Second Lt. Robert F. "Fred" Elliott, 24, of Rich Square, N.C., was on a gunnery practice mission on Sept. 27, 1942, when a fuel supply error forced him to make an emergency landing on the nearest suitable place — the Welsh beach.
'A monumental discovery'
His belly landing in shallow water sheared off a wingtip, but Elliott escaped unhurt. Less than three months later, the veteran of more than 10 combat missions was shot down over Tunisia, in North Africa. His plane and body were never found.
As the disabled P-38 could not be flown off the beach, "American officers had the guns removed, and the records say the aircraft was salvaged, but it wasn't," Gillespie said. "It was gradually covered with sand, and there it sat for 65 years. With censorship in force and British beaches closed to the public during the war, nobody knew it was there."
It was first spotted by a family enjoying a day at the beach on July 31.
The discovery was stunning news for Robert Elliott, 64, of Blountville, Tenn., the pilot's nephew and only surviving relative. He has spent nearly 30 years trying to learn more about his namesake's career and death.
All he knew of the Wales incident was a one-line entry saying Elliott had "ditched a P-38 and was uninjured."
"So this is just a monumental discovery, and a very emotional thing," said Elliott, an engineering consultant. He said he hopes to be present for the recovery.