Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, were part of a team that has found a U.S. Navy aircraft lost in World War II and missing for over 70 years. The plane was discovered resting in the tropical waters of the Republic of Palau. The find is one of several made in recent years by a group of university-based oceanographers working with a nonprofit organization that seeks to recover lost aircraft and aviators listed as missing in action for decades.
The carrier-based dive-bomber was flying missions in support of Operation Stalemate II, a fierce battle that took place during a U.S. Marine landing on Peleliu. The dive-bomber was lost with two aviators onboard. The location of the aircraft and a detailed site survey will be turned over to the government of Palau and the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the U.S. agency responsible for recovery and identification of remains and the notification of families.
The aircraft was found by a multi-disciplinary team leveraging a public-private partnership between Scripps and the University of Delaware, and the not-for-profit organizations the Coral Reef Research Foundation and the BentProp Project. State-of-the-art undersea technologies including unmanned undersea vehicles and high-frequency sonar were used to search the seafloor after a high-probability search region was identified through months of archival research and the team’s scientific analysis of historic data that BentProp has collected in the past 20 years.
"The testbed we developed in this public-private partnership appears to be paying dividends in our ability to find crash sites associated with those missing from past conflicts," said Scripps oceanographer Eric Terrill, a co-leader of the search mission.
The March 20 find took place during an expedition that continues through April. After a few days of missions using the undersea vehicles, sonar targets were identified and later verified by divers to be the missing airplane at a depth of 30 meters (100 feet) in a murky lagoon. Terrill and University of Delaware oceanographer Mark Moline were the first on-scene at the historic find, along with members from BentProp.
Five other aircraft targets are also on the team’s priority search list for this year’s expedition.
The academic and not-for-profit teams were brought together three years ago under a chance meeting while the oceanographers were conducting marine research in Palau, and they were able to obtain seed money support from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) to apply emerging undersea technologies for purposes of finding aircraft associated with MIAs and provide a platform for public Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) outreach. Last year’s expedition supported by ONR yielded the finding of two other missing aircraft, a TBM Avenger and a FSF Hellcat, and the remains from those two aircraft are now slated for recovery by the DPAA later this year. More about the public-private partnership can be found at www.projectrecover.org. This year’s expedition was able to continue through private donor support, in part as a result of the visibility the project received after being featured in 60 Minutes and in a popular GoPro video in 2014.
"It's a great feeling to be involved in an effort that develops and applies new scientific and technical approaches to a problem of national interest," said Terrill, "and that in some small way, our efforts may help bring closure to those who have lost loved ones."
– Robert Monroe