An endeavor to employ a suite of oceanographic research instruments to find downed World War II aircraft and the remains of troops listed as missing in action for nearly 70 years are the subject of a film by camera maker GoPro and the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.”
Supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, oceanographer Eric Terrill and colleagues from the University of Delaware have teamed up with the nonprofit group BentProp Project in a public-private partnership to bring closure to families that have waited for several generations for final word on the fate of their loved ones. At the same time, the project provides a test bed for developing underwater search technologies and methods, and is a platform for inspiring public interest in science and engineering.
Earlier this year, the team logged a major success during a month-long expedition in the Republic of Palau, finding wreckage of two U.S. aircraft that were associated with airmen that have been listed as missing in action since World War II.
“This program has been a rewarding opportunity for the chance to recognize the sacrifices our servicemen have paid and give back to families who have lost loved ones,” said Terrill. “It is rare in scientific research to be involved in activities that will have direct personal impacts; our participation and successes in this effort have been humbling.”
BentProp’s effort is chronicled in a video released Nov. 7 by GoPro, the camera company founded by UC San Diego alumnus Nick Woodman, and on the Nov. 23 episode of “60 Minutes."
“I applaud Scripps’s efforts, in conjunction with the BentProp Project, University of Delaware, and GoPro, to help locate the remains of our missing airmen and sailors,” said U.S. Representative Susan Davis, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We have a responsibility to locate those who are missing and remain unaccounted for, and return them home to their families and loved ones. As Congress and the Department of Defense identify ways to more effectively locate those who are missing in action, I hope we can look to creative partnerships like this to bring closure to the families of these service members.”
Since 2010, Terrill’s group has conducted oceanographic research in the waters around Palau. The islands that make up the small country were the locale of a Japanese airfield during World War II. The strategic Pacific position was also the site of several World War II dogfights, aerial bombing and ground missions. One of World War II’s bloodiest battles was the landing at Peleliu, a 1944 attack ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur that ended in the deaths of 10,000 Japanese and 1,700 American troops.
Terrill’s group at Scripps Oceanography, the Coastal Ocean Research and Development Center, has been deploying sensors in Palau to measure temperatures, waves, currents, and sea level to better understand the influence of the complex terrain on circulation. The autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) equipped with high-frequency sonar allowed rapid surveys of large areas and provided a means to map the distinctive seafloor’s contours that challenge modern forecast models. Before collaborating with BentProp, Terrill’s initial interests had more to do with understanding mapping the reefs, ocean circulation and phenomena such as sea-level rise – a matter of special interest to low-lying western Pacific island nations.
Scattered among the lagoon waters and coral reefs surrounding Palau’s island chain, and concealed within its dense mangrove forests, are believed to be several dozen U.S. and Japanese aircraft and the remains of perhaps as many as 80 U.S. airmen.
The mission began in 2012 after an introduction by local scientist Pat Colin of the Coral Reef Research Foundation at a popular meeting spot in Koror, Palau’s main city, and brought together Terrill’s science mission with that of Pat Scannon, BentProp’s founder. Scannon had become interested in searching for MIAs after a 1993 dive trip through the country’s islands.
“I was told there’s a really cool guy over there with all these cool toys,” said Scannon in reference to Terrill. “This really is a partnership where there’s integration with our search mission with Eric’s technological and oceanographic capabilities. It’s a two way street. We’re able to advance what we’re trying to do in terms of our search and they’re learning more about the technology aspects of working in interesting and complex settings.”
After the chance meeting, Terrill and his colleague Mark Moline from the University of Delaware approached the Office of Naval Research to develop a two-year pilot program that would include both Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) outreach and demonstrate the utility of the Navy’s investment in unmanned underwater systems to the national mission of searching for MIAs.
Project RECOVER was formed as a means to formalize this partnership. STEM outreach was extended to include a high school robotics team from Stockbridge, Michigan who built their own remotely operated vehicle to survey wrecks.
BentProp and Terrill’s group have worked closely since the meeting, with the organization frequently visiting the Scripps campus to go over recently uncovered historical information that could aid future searches. Scannon describes a year of BentProp activity as one month of on-scene searching and 11 months of data collection, whether scientific or historic.
The instruments used by Terrill and Moline turned out to be perfect for the kind of seafloor surveys needed to search for missing aircraft in the lagoon waters of Palau and complemented BentProp’s exhaustive review of World War II text and photo archives. These historical records, along with interviews of veterans, have proven invaluable for providing clues to guide the searches.
Scripps’s own history of collaboration with the U.S. military extends back before World War II. During the war, Scripps researchers worked closely with military planners to create surf and swell forecasts that helped time amphibious landings and lent other expertise that gave the Allies an advantage in warfare at sea.
“I couldn’t be prouder or more impressed with the Scripps team and the partnerships we established and traveled to Palau with. The diversity of skills we bring to this problem is unprecedented and spans almost all fields of science and engineering. The small team environment has allowed us to be remarkably nimble and productive in our field work, and the entire nation of Palau has been fantastic to work,” said Terrill. “Scripps participation in this effort is full circle to our institution’s research efforts to support Allied troops 70 years ago.”
The AUVs used by the groups, known as Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS (REMUS) were actually developed by colleagues of Terrill and Moline’s at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but now commercially manufactured by a spin-off company called Hydroid. The systems are equipped with sidescan sonar that can image the seafloor with great detail. Scripps engineers Billy Middleton, Myles Syverud, and Andy Nager are experts at running the vehicles, and adept at rapidly analyzing the data for wrecks – distinguishing metal debris from natural seafloor relief. Multi-rotor aerial systems deployed by Terrill’s group are used to conduct aerial surveys over land and shorelines and also provide a bird’s eye view of dense island foliage that enables detection of wreckage. This year, Scripps engineer Evan Walsh integrated an infrared camera into the aerial system to provide aerial maps of temperature differences. A huge challenge to all the new technology is the fusing of information. Fortunately, said Terrill, Scripps computer scientist Paul Reuter remains at the cutting edge of handling and visualizing large data sets and integrating 70-year-old reconnaissance photographs into the search analysis.
Inexpensive GoPro cameras are mounted to nearly all the science instruments used by Terrill’s group, contributing directly to research and providing the raw material for video outreach, which have been incorporated into Project RECOVER. Scripps engineer Shannon Scott even integrates the cameras with the handheld diver sonar he uses when reconnoitering underwater targets revealed by the vehicle surveys.
GoPro cameramen filmed a portion of search operations and used the searchers’ own footage to create the 13-minute film “Palau – Searching for Heroes.”
“We are honored that GoPro is part of this effort to search for and recover missing airmen from World War II. We are always interested in learning how our cameras are used for more than just documentation, to see and learn how the GoPros are used as a tool to complement the sonar technology is very inspiring,” said GoPro Director of Global Media Relations Rick Loughery. “Personally, this was an amazing experience for me and I am proud that GoPro is able to support it and hope that our video will create more awareness for the noble efforts put forth by the BentProp Project, Scripps Oceanography, and the University of Delaware.”
“It’s something very special that feels nearly surreal,” said Travis Schramek, a Ph.D. student in Terrill’s lab who has taken part in the search fieldwork and whose footage appears in the film. “These problems are not easily solved and can get pushed by the wayside, but this shows that when people get together, they’re capable of accomplishing something truly unique and people like that coalesce around places like Scripps and the University of Delaware.”
Other UC San Diego researchers joined the search in different ways. Terrill collaborates with Mark Anderson of UC San Diego’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering. Anderson has a background in aeronautics, flight trajectories, and statistics and was asked by Terrill to help with developing a predictive model for a missing B-24 that remains to be found. A group of engineering students was enlisted to run what are known as Bayesian models, using the best-known historic information collected by BentProp over the last decade. During the most recent expedition, the probability maps for areas where the plane might be located were routinely updated by the students (during their Spring break) based upon data collected by Terrill’s group that was relayed to them in San Diego. The plane remains missing, and teams remain focused on planning for a 2015 mission to complete their search.
Further help comes from the U.S. Navy, which provided light detection and ranging (LIDAR) imagery for the search area. The data, originally created to create navigational maps, offer more detail on seafloor features to guide future search missions and was used previously by CORDC to assess sea-level rise impacts. The raw data has been re-examined to look for topographic anomalies (wrecks) and has been invaluable in mission planning for the underwater systems.
In the case of the two planes found last spring, a TBM Avenger and an F6F Hellcat, BentProp had been searching for them for nearly 10 years. It took the REMUS-mounted instruments to see them at a depth of more than 100 feet, hidden from plain view by the persistent murk of the seafloor.
“There was the pre-Scripps era and the post-Scripps era,” said Scannon. “Our technology before Scripps was scuba gear and that has extreme limitations especially because what we’re looking for lies below 100 feet. We could have gone by those planes two or three times without even seeing them.”
In a story propelled in large part by chance, one of the two warplanes discovered earlier this year turned out to have personal connection to Terrill. It was constructed in a Tarrytown, N.Y., General Motors factory at which Terrill’s grandfather served as the paint and body manager. Terrill was unaware of the family connection to plane production until talking with his father a few days prior to departing for the last expedition, and learning that during the wartime effort, the Navy called upon General Motors to support Grumman in the production of the much-needed and versatile torpedo bomber. When he dived to the wreckage, he became the second person in his family to study the plane, separated by a span of more than seven decades.
“With details from the missing plane’s After Action Reports recorded during the war, we were able to place the planes production in the same plant that my grandfather worked as the paint and body manager, I learned he would have inspected all bodywork coming from the plant.”
BentProp gave detailed information about the two discovered planes and possible links to airmen listed as missing in action to the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which may undertake recovery efforts next year. When JPAC’s work is complete, these will be the first successful recoveries involving this newly formed partnership. If remains are returned to loved ones, and if Scannon is present for the encounter, he has an idea of what to expect from his previous experiences.
“An MIA family never forgets,” he said. “When I walk into a home, there’s often still a shrine. A second- or third-generation family member can still feel the loss very strongly because they never knew them.”
More information on Project RECOVER can be found at projectrecover.org.
BentProp Project is a group of individuals and entities that have come together to solve the problem of the 83,000 Americans considered officially missing in action by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel office. The group includes volunteers, scientists and engineers dedicated to this mission.
Founded by Patrick Scannon, the BentProp team has grown to include public-private partnerships with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Delaware and the government of Palau, as well as interactions with several U.S. federal organizations.
BentProp has spent the last 20 years developing expertise in search methodologies in the Pacific Islands of Palau, work that is applicable to many regions across the globe. Establishing a university-based initiative for developing and testing search technologies for finding MIAs illustrates the power of interdisciplinary public/private partnerships that support the search for missing Americans.
Related Video: GoPro Video: Palau - Searching for Heroes