World War II set the Pacific ablaze in March 1942. Things looked bad for the Allies, the Japanese Imperial Army was on the advance and the fast Zero fighters dominated the skies. A group of Dutch people wanted to escape from Java to the safety of Australia with one of the PK-AFVs called “Pelikaan”. But the Douglas DC-3-194 aircraft encountered Japanese aircraft that had attacked the city of Broome. The plane was hit and crashed in Carnot Bay.

The inmates were still lucky. Their pilot, Ivan Smirnov, was a Russian fighter pilot from the First World War who had been sent to the Far East by the revolution. During the war he shot down eleven German planes. But he had no chance against the three Mitsubishi Zeros under the command of flying ace Zenjiro Miyano. The port side of the DC-3 was riddled on the first approach and Smirnov was badly hit. In cold blood, he pushed the burning machine into a spiral and plunged towards the ground.

Surprisingly, Smirnov did not attempt a belly landing in shallow water, but wanted to land on the beach using the landing gear. But a tire burst and the machine ended up in deep water. At least the fire was extinguished, but then the Zeros arrived and fired at the wreckage again. The flight engineer and three passengers, including a baby, were killed and the rest were seriously injured. They couldn’t leave the wreckage and had to hope for help.

The next day, a Japanese flying boat dropped bombs on the survivors. The people were rescued after a few days, but the most valuable thing on board remained missing: the pilot had a small package in the cockpit full of diamonds. At today’s value, the stones would be worth $20 million.

Smirnoff knew nothing of the valuable contents, at least he was not privy to the secret. He was only told that he would have to hand the package over to the Commonwealth Bank upon arrival. So he didn’t pay much attention to the package, it was lost in the crash. Apparently it broke apart and the stones were scattered throughout the machine. Philipp Cox was one of the first men to find the plane after the crash. “He told me they had to wait until low tide because the plane was in the water,” said his daughter Leonie Kelly. He saw the diamonds. “Dad said they just thought they were colored stones with no value.”

Later, sailor Jack ‘Diamond’ Palmer came to the beach. He examined the wreckage more thoroughly. Most people stayed away because of the stench of the four dead people who had only been buried on the beach. He is said to have hidden the stones in salt and pepper shakers and later brought only a fraction of the find to the authorities.

“He definitely didn’t return all the diamonds,” local tour guide Tomas told a reporter from ABC TV station. “I think he assumed that the Dutch government didn’t know how many diamonds there were… But it’s likely that the Dutch government did know every stone in that package – but I think he had no idea how much money he had in his hand.” Legend has it that Palmer exchanged diamonds worth £5,000 at the time for rolling tobacco. Later he went into the office of District Attorney Major Cliff Gibson, pulled a salt and pepper shaker out of his pocket, unscrewed the lids and poured £20,000 worth of diamonds onto the table.

Jack Palmer and two others were later charged with diamond theft, but he was acquitted. In the middle of the war there was little interest in pursuing the matter. Naturally, it was also impossible to prove how many diamonds Palmer actually found and how many were carried away by the waves. Palmer even tried to get a reward from the Dutch government for the return of the diamonds. In the end, Dutch authorities only received 7 percent of the diamonds back.

The previously penniless sailor is said to have kept a considerable sum back. After the trial, Palmer was able to afford a house and a car and was said to have lived very comfortably.

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