Researchers Locate Two Wrecked Bombers from WWII


A team of scientists from Project Recover have located a World War II-era twin-engine bomber plane under the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Sometimes researching one plane will uncover clues to the location of another. Locals and divers are often aware of the location of other wrecks that have not been officially researched or documented. Such a wreck was described to the researchers while they looked for the plane they just found. Local residents informed them of a wreck in Madang Harbor, not far from where the team was working on the plane they had found. This plane was the sixth one discovered, identified and documented by the team since 2012.

Project Recover’s stated goal is to provide closure by using the latest science and technology to locate the final resting places of Americans who have been missing in action since the last world war.

The team researches plane wrecks by checking the National Archives for any clues about missing planes. Then they interview local citizens and veterans. Once they narrow their search area to 3.8 square miles (10 square kilometers), they use sonar, thermal cameras and underwater robots to search for the wreckage.

In the process of researching the first plane, locals informed them of a second plane that crashed in the same area. Records indicate that the two planes were shot down during a battle in WWII. One of the B-25 bombers had a crew of six, all of whom have been missing since that day. The other plane had a crew of 6, but five members were captured by the Japanese. The sixth man on that crew went down with the plane.

Twin-engine B-25 bombers were developed by the North American Aviation Company. Their versatility soon made them standard for all of the Allied air forces. B-25s flew almost 10,000 missions in WWII, performing everything from bombing raids to photo reconnaissance. At the beginning of the war in the pacific, B-25s bombed Tokyo in the famous Doolittle raid.

The planes that Project Recover found took a little legwork from the team in order to properly identify. According to Katy O’Donnell, who is an oceanographer with the University of Delaware and was working with the team, planes that crash into the ocean don’t typically settle nicely and intact onto the ocean floor. The warplanes that this team finds have usually been damaged before crashing into the ocean. Then the impact of slamming into the surface of the water generally breaks the plane into more pieces. Then the sea water and ocean creatures take a toll on the structure of the plane for decades before the researchers discover it. It takes training in order to be able to spot part of a plane after 70 years under water. The researchers identify and document each of the wrecks they find.

All the information gathered by the team from the planes they find is given to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). The DPAA is responsible for repatriating the remains of fallen soldiers and notifying surviving family members.

According to O’Connell, there are more than 73,000 US service members that have not been accounted for from WWII. The Recover Project hopes that their services can bring closure for the families and honor for the fallen.

Papua was the focus of battles in WWII from January 1942 to August 1945. The US sustained massive loss of lives and aircraft in those battles. Many of those soldiers were never found.

The Japanese saw Papua New Guinea as a strategic location to place an air base for their eventual attack on Australia. The Allies responded by sending troops to defend the island. In June 1942, there were over 400,000 Allied troops in Papua, most of them Australian. General Douglas MacArthur led the Allied defense of the island.

The mountainous terrain and the stifling heat of the tropical summer forest made fighting difficult for both sides. The Australians were eventually forced to retreat by the vast number of reinforcements sent by the Japanese.

In September, the Japanese were ordered to stop their advance in order to focus on the battle in Guadalcanal. The Allies began a counterattack that would ensure that the Japanese would not advance any further.

The Japanese would eventually surrender in New Guinea but not after enormous loss of life on both sides. Some of those lost are only now being found by Project Recover expeditions.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE