The search for lost WWII fighter planes and remains of airmen in the Pacific

Volunteers from around the globe have created a team with the mission of looking for missing World War II planes in the dark mysterious waters of the Pacific Ocean. In Palau in the South Pacific, the team has made a historic discovery of two wreck sites that served as burial site of the remains of three World War II American airmen. The men have been reported missing for 70 years.

The BentProp Project, a nonprofit organization, has made the discovery only last month. For many years, the mission of the group has been to investigate the murky deep waters to look into crash sites of hundreds of American airmen who were shot down by the Japanese fighters in the battles which raged in Palau during the Second World War. They have successfully retrieved the remains of eight members of the MIA.

A long time member of the BentProp Project, Reid Joyce, said that their mission is of high importance. The mission has started since 1999 and the group finds satisfaction in being able to recover the servicemen after 70 years.

This year, the group received the help Texas Governor Rick Perry who said that the marshy jungles of the waters of Palau hold the answers to families of many missing airmen. The governor announced last Wednesday that he and his wife will go to Palau to assist the project.

The governor’s plan to go to Palau may be postponed, however, with the shootings at Fort Hood only last Wednesday. Three were killed and 16 wounded when an Army specialist went on a killing spree and shot himself afterwards at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen.

Governor Perry said that World War II veteran Romus Valton “R.V.” Burgin will be expected to join him in the 12-day trip to Palau. Burgin was said to have experienced the encounters in Palau. ex-Navy seal and writer of “Lone Survivor”, Marcus Luttrell, will also join the trip. The famous survivor experienced the firefight in Afghanistan where he luckily escaped from a doomed mission to hunt Osama bin Laden. Governor Perry said the funds for their trip came from their own personal pockets.

BentProp has indexed two dozen sites in their search with the use of GPS and Google Earth. The University of Delaware’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Advanced Underwater Robotics Program of Stockbridge High School, Michigan, have also extended help to the massive search.

This year, the team arrived in Palau for the search in March 15. The team also made the first wreck site in nine days using the autonomous underwater vehicle from the Scripps Institution. The wreck site held a General Motors TBM Avenger. It was said to have crashed into the waters of Palau while returning from a mission of bombing a power plant. Reports said that the plane flew low when the bomb exploded causing damage to the plane. The plane crashed while the pilot was captured by the Japanese soldiers. He was executed. Two of the crew of the plane crashed with the plane.

The crash site was reported by a local of Palau who showed BentProp with a wing of an Avenger embedded deep in a mangrove swamp. The mangrove trees grew over the years and lifted the wing up revealing it to the surface almost nine years ago. However, Flip Colmer of BentProp said that no other parts were found after the wing. Until this year.

A source from Palau revealed to BentProp that her father has disclosed to her that he saw a plane get hit and crash off the coast. The source also pointed the location where the team eventually discovered the rest of the Avenger. After four days, the diving team also found another wreck site. Resting 80 feet below was the wreckage from a Grumman F4F Hellcat.

The diving team revealed the difficult diving conditions at the time of the search. Colmer, a retired Navy commander, said that the silt which saturated the waters made visibility difficult.

Joyce said that the Hellcat crashed fast and hit the waters hard. The pilot did not survive the crash. BentProp had already made a hunch where they could find the Hellcat due to the post-mission report.

BentProp will make a report of the discovery of the two crash sites and submit it to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command of the Defense Department for appropriate actions including recovery and identification of any remains.

The group, which was founded by Dr. Patrick Scannon, said that it is enough for the team to locate and identify the sites. Dr. Scannon is an executive of a biotech company in San Francisco. He created the Project after making a dive to Palau in 1993. Palau forms part of a group of islands 500 miles from the Philippines. It was a prominent area during the Second World War for its strategic location in the Asia Pacific. The U.S. made a series of bombing runs in the area for six months in 1994. Eventually, American troops recaptured the islands for the Japanese.

Scannon said that many of the airmen have died in combat in the Palau area. Meanwhile, hundreds of other soldiers went missing. BentProp has said to have made a projection of $15,000.00 as their total expenses for the search in Palau this year. The funds, though expensive, are donated by the members.

A member of the 13-man team this year is Casey Doyle, a marine whose grandfather, Jimmy Doyle served as a gunner on a B-24 and got gunned down in Palau in September 1944. He was with seven others when the plane crashed. The site of the crash was discovered in 2004. The remains of the eight were identified and were interred in Arlington in 2010 following the discovery.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE