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The 'Steak and Eggs' Special: A legend lives on in Plymouth's Joe Long

Plymouth resident Joe Long remembers... Grasping a piece of the original WW II era “Steak and Eggs” airplane, Long relaxes here at home in his favorite armchair and tells the legend of the famous plane. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
June 15, 2011
PLYMOUTH—Adversity is often the mother of invention. For the generation of World War II era heroes who served under some of the harshest conditions, far away from home, in the oppressive heat of the equatorial Pacific Theater during the early1940's, isolation, deprivation and the fear of periodic bombardment from Japanese air forces created fertile soil for the triumph of a characteristic form of resourcefulness and American ingenuity.

Out of the challenges of boredom, stress, and hunger, punctuated by moments of terror, was born a legend that lives on to this day. It's the legend of a remarkable airplane dubbed the "Steak and Eggs," cobbled together by a clever band of desperate — read 'hungry' — mechanics, out of salvaged parts cannibalized from two downed A-20 planes, for the purpose of running provision missions to Australia to relieve the hardships.

Ask Joe Long. He can tell you all about it.

These days, the Plymouth area resident enjoys a rewarding retirement, surrounded by a loving family in a comfortable home in a quiet local neighborhood. If you are lucky, you can find him ensconced in his favorite armchair, and coax him into sharing stories of the nearly five years he spent as a young soldier, serving his country as a mechanic in the 89th Air Squadron maintenance crew of the Third Bombardment Group in Papua New Guinea.

Amongst his memories is that of his brief encounter with Plymouth's legendary Harl Pease, just before Pease took off on what was to be his final flying mission in the South Pacific, for which he would later earn the posthumous Medal of Honor. But that is not the only memory that Joe Long cherishes. Ask him about the 'Steak and Eggs.'

Nicknamed “Steak and Eggs,” the supply plane was cobbled together by extremely clever and motivated (read hungry!) mechanics stationed in remote Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Theater. The plane, a mechanical marvel by any standard, ran supply flights to Australia to provision the men during the war, until crash landing on an island off the coast, where it still rests, nestled in the sand and surf, to this day. (Courtesy) (click for larger version)
"The airplane's manufacturer said that it couldn't be done. It was impossible, especially because we didn't have the proper tools and supplies," remembers a still proud Long. "But our crew of about 45 – 50 mechanics was able to pull off the feat of engineering in our spare time over the course of about six months. Most of us never went to school to learn airplanes. We signed up, shipped out, and had to learn in the field... fast."

His outfit was one of the first American groups to be stationed in the Pacific, charged with the important mission of keeping the Japanese from capturing a chain of island havens with which to build a series of airstrips from which to dominate the theater. Long and his lifelong friend, Kit Hawkins, from Holderness, were part of a legendary group of Americans who answered the call of duty and rose to the occasion with remarkable feats of endurance, industriousness, and even good humor.

After the war, Long and his friend Hawkins, now deceased, would return to New Hampshire to enjoy a long and successful career together in the automotive business, a partnership forged in the brotherhood of their wartime experience. But memories of their wartime ordeal would remain indelibly inscribed in their characters for the rest of their lives.

To hear Long tell it, life in New Guinea during wartime was tough. Mosquitoes and snakes were almost as troublesome as Japanese bombs.

"I have seen grown men jump out of the trenches during a bombing raid because there was a snake in the pit," jokes Long.

If you didn't pull your mosquito net tightly around you when you went to sleep at night, he recalls, you would be liable to wake up with a slithery, unwelcome bedfellow in the morning.

But the scarcity of good food, and the impossibility of enjoying the pleasure of a good, cold beer from time to time, was the main complaint. Without refrigeration, the staple of their diet was something affectionately referred to as "bully beef," a 1918 vintage provision of canned meat, somehow formed into palatable patties by a skilled and invaluable cook. There were no grocery stores on Papua New Guinea, and fresh fruit, vegetables and other "luxuries" like, for example, steak and eggs, were few and far between. But out of the desperation for the simple pleasures we normally take for granted was born the legend of a plane that lives on until this day.

Under the expert guidance of chief engineer Major John "Robbie" Robinson, the "Steak and Eggs," or properly pronounced with an Australian twang, the "Styck and Aigs," was created from the junked fuselage of downed plane number 40166, and the salvaged wing assembly of A-20A number 39724. Long will tell you that his friend Kit Hawkins was one of the real "brains" behind the project. The enterprise became a major team building activity for the clever and competitive group of "can do" airplane mechanics, not to mention a morale booster.

After it was completed, it was playfully christened in a joyful, tongue-in-cheek "egg-cracking" ceremony. Long says that to this day, it remains a mystery where that precious initial ceremonial christening egg came from. But thereafter, for more than a year, the legendary plane, which inspired a string of imitators in other crews across the Pacific, successfully made the overnight flight to the fresh food markets of Australia, returning with its precious cargo to the great appreciation of the eagerly awaiting crew.

Ultimately, however, on one ill-fated flight, the plane crash landed safely on a small island off the coast near Port Moresby after running out of gas in bad weather. There, it enjoys its well-earned rest, in the sun, surf and sand, until this day.

Fast forward to the present. Australian Coast Guard Commodore John Jewell travels to the United States on a mission to thank the surviving veterans of the 3rd Bombardment Group for their role in the defense of Australia during WWII. Jewell was just nine years old when he last met the American Servicemen of the 3rd Bomb Group when they were briefly based in Queensland, where he lived as a boy. But he is filled with fond memories and gratitude to this day for their contributions to cause of his country.

At a reunion of veterans and their families held in Meredith in September of 2010, Jewell tells them of a plan, with fellow Australian Bruce Buchan, to visit the crash site and salvage souvenir remnants of the 'Steak and Eggs' plane. If successful, Jewell promises to honor the surviving American service veterans by returning to each of them a piece of the legendary airplane for them to keep and remember.

Long recently received his own personal piece of history by post from Jewell and Buchan in Australia. Clutching his very own piece of the storied plane, he beams with pride, and his eyes twinkle in amusement. After all these years, decades after the daunting sacrifices that defined his young life, he is glad to be reunited with a small piece of the very large legend that lives on.

AJ Coleman
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Varney Smith
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