Found Wreckage of WWII Aircraft Brings Hope for ID of 7 MIA Americans

Avengers of VT-6 flying from the USS Intrepid in 1944. (United States Navy Museum of Naval Aviation)

At the bottom of a lagoon in the Central Pacific, the scattered wreckage of two dive bombers and a torpedo bomber lost in battle against the forces of Imperial Japan has been found, offering hope that the remains of seven MIA crew members “associated” with the aircraft can be identified.

“This is the first time they were seen since they were first shot down 76 years ago,” said Dr. Mark Moline, who led the Project Recover expedition that discovered the two long-missing Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers and one General Motors TBM/F-1 Avenger torpedo bomber.

The project’s interest lies not primarily in the aircraft, Moline said, but in the possibility that the remains of seven Americans might eventually be removed from the lists of the missing-in-action from World War II.

He said the next step is to the share the findings with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to coordinate a possible search for remains — at depths ranging from 100 to 215 feet in the Chuuk (formerly Truk) lagoon in the federated states of Micronesia.

“That’s what really drives us, is identifying aircraft that still have missing aircrew,” Moline, director of the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science and Policy, said of the efforts by the nonprofit Project Recover in partnership with the University of Delaware and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The expedition team is putting together reports “to potentially set into motion a process for recovering and identifying the remains of up to seven crew members associated with these aircraft,” said Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at Scripps and Project Recover’s lead archaeologist.

More work needs to be done to find other U.S. aircraft known to have gone down in the archaeology best lagoon, Derek Abbey, a retired Marine aviator and president of Project Recover, said in a statement.

“We remain committed to locating more Americans missing in action in Chuuk and around the world,” he said.

Approximately 30 U.S. aircraft, carrying a total of about 103 crew members, went down in the lagoon during Operation Hailstone on Feb. 17 and 18, 1944. The operation was a massive air and surface attack on the main anchorage of Japan’s Combined Fleet in the Caroline Islands, about 1,100 miles northeast of New Guinea.

The Navy’s powerful Task Force 58, led by Rear Adm. Marc Mitscher, had been given the mission by Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of the 5th Fleet. The objective: to attack the Truk atoll, known to the Americans as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Most of the warships of the Combined Fleet had already been withdrawn, but the two days of attacks in Operation Hailstone destroyed about 250 Japanese aircraft and sank about 40 ships, including two light cruisers and four destroyers.

U.S. Avengers, Hellcats, and SBD Dauntless aircraft aboard the USS Intrepid, 1944. (United States Navy Museum of Naval Aviation)

The array of ships and aircraft at the bottom of the lagoon has made what is now known as the Chuuk one of the world’s most popular sites for wreck diving, but Moline said the three U.S. aircraft found by Project Recover were in sites well away from the spots favored by recreational divers.

Between April 2018 and December 2019, Project Recover, using divers, side-scan sonar and remote underwater vehicles, mounted four expeditions in the expansive lagoon, covering 70 square kilometers to find the three aircraft that flew off the carriers Intrepid and Enterprise.

The first two expeditions produced no results, but the third made discoveries. The fourth was conducted mainly to document the findings, Moline said.

Based on the condition of the wreckage, Moline said that the U.S. aircraft were “definitely going at high speed” when they were shot down.

“All three of these went in fairly hard,” he said.

He speculated that what’s left of two dive bombers and the torpedo bomber no longer “look like aircraft at all. And maybe that’s partially why they haven’t been discovered before, because they aren’t fully intact planes and basically look like any other debris field.”

The expeditions to the lagoon were made possible by the financial support of Dan Friedkin, chairman of Project Recover and chairman & CEO of The Friedkin Group, according to a Project Recover release.

“Our search efforts for the more than 81,000 American service members still missing from past conflicts, including more than 72,000 from World War II, will continue as we seek to bring closure to the families impacted by their loss,” Friedkin said in a statement.

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