Mark Musselman was deep in the bottoms of Four Holes Swamp searching for signs of rooting feral hogs when he spotted a mystery.
The whitish thing sticking up could have been a fungus-covered log, a discarded piece of logging machinery, a remnant of an old still. But it looked for the world like the tail end of an airplane — in a remote stretch of the 17,000-acre Beidler Forest sanctuary.
Couldn't be, the land manager thought. He would have heard tell of it. But there it was.
Once Musselman made his way over, he picked out other shards of the plane. He could feel fragments underfoot. Sometime in the forgotten past, a military fighter jet had smashed an alley through the trees, only about 220 feet from an old logging road but in a nook usually underwater and unreachable, virtually lost.
"If you didn't happen to walk right up on it, you didn't see it," he said.
Not only that, when he asked around about a jet crash, he was met with blank stares. Norm Brunswig, the longtime sanctuary manager now retired, said when he arrived in the 1970s he heard what sounded like a tall tale of one. In 40 years combing the bottoms, he never found wreckage.
"It was pretty obvious it had just dropped out of the sky," Musselman said. He wanted to know when and why, whether the pilot had survived. "You find a military jet, you want to be able to tell the story."
He had a few clues beyond an identification plate for a F-84F fighter and an Air Force insignia. He worked at it in his spare time, off-and-on for five months. The pre-internet, typewritten Air Force records had been sent to storage long ago. The sheer number of crashes made web searches overwhelming.
In the 1950s, in the new age of jets, having them drop from the sky wasn't a rare occurrence. In one day alone in 1951, eight F-84s crashed simultaneously while on maneuvers over Indiana.
"Early models of the F-84F were plagued by control and stability problems," according to the website Airplanes of the Past and other sources.
No story could be found about Musselman's plane in an archives search at The Post and Courier. But at least a half-dozen others were found in the Lowcountry region that involved F-84 designs or similar jets, including a 1955 search based in Walterboro for a jet out of Turner Air Force Base in Georgia.
Finally, working off the jet's serial number, Musselman isolated a crash in December 1956 that might have been this plane. It wasn't, but with the date narrowed down, the Air Force found a Jan. 7, 1957, crash "in a dense swamp northeast of Dorchester, S.C."
The pilot, John West, was British. He reported hearing a loud explosion. His wingman, in a nearby jet, noticed a ball of fire erupting from the tail pipe, followed by leaking fuel. West ejected and landed in a tall pine tree in an area near the swamp where a Volvo plant is currently under construction. He went on to an impressive career that included flying the vertical takeoff AV-B Harrier. He died in 2008.
The jet, worth $5.6 million in today's money, slashed a narrow corridor through the swamp's hardwoods as it came apart. Now its tale will be part of the lore of Four Holes Swamp. Unfortunately, it won't be much more than that. Beidler staff will leave the wreckage where it is, as it is.
"A lot of it's not recognizable," Musselman said.
Today it's underwater again. Channels have been re-opened across the old logging road that leads to the crash, so it would be a slog even in the driest times, he said. "It's not any place anybody can get to."