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Searching for Missing Airmen Using Science

Searching for Missing Airmen Using Science

Scientists use oceanography technology to find the wrecks of World War II aircraft.


One of two B-25 bombers recently documented off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Image credits:

 Eric Terrill, Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Project Recover

Monday, May 29, 2017 - 12:45

Joel Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Some 70,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors are still missing from World War II, 20,000 of them airmen. In most cases, all their families received was a telegram informing them their relative was missing in action, and nothing ever more. They were just gone.

A group of ocean scientists are using their technology and expertise to find some of the missing. It's called Project Recover. So far, seven aircraft -- and in some cases the remains of their crews -- have been discovered, two of them recently off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

“It’s a very humbling experience to think that a scientist can actually use his trademark type of applications to visit one of these hallowed sites,” said Eric Terrill, director of the University of California San Diego’s Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. For some families, the work of the scientists eventually brings closure.

The project involves a team of scientists from Scripps and the University of Delaware in Newark. It is in its second year and is funded largely by Dan Friedkin, chairman and CEO of the Friedkin Group, a conglomerate based in Houston. It also operates in conjunction with the BentProp Project, which has been working to find American military personnel who went missing in action.

The scientists, who include oceanographers, historians, and archaeologists, use the same technologies they would employ to map the seafloor, including scanning sonar, high definition imagers, advanced diving and unmanned aerial and underwater robots. They use the remote sensing to construct 3-D images and mosaics that help identify possible wrecks. Then they send down divers, Terrill said.

They do not actually recover anything but pass what they have learned to the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which will bring up artifacts and any human remains for identification.

“We create detailed reports,” Terrill said.

They have operated in both the Pacific and European theaters of the war, and are about to begin a survey off Greece.

New Guinea, where the most recent wrecks were discovered, was the site of a campaign that began in January of 1943. It not only blocked Japan’s determined drive toward Australia, but helped secure areas of the Pacific the U.S. needed to eventually move across Pacific islands towards the Philippines and Japan. It was fought on the land, sea, and in the air.

The twin-engine B-25, nicknamed the Mitchell after renowned general Billy Mitchell, one of the earliest supporters of air power in war, was a medium bomber, ubiquitous in the Pacific Theater.

Five members of one of the planes recently identified off the coast of Papua New Guinea survived and were taken prisoner by the Japanese. A sixth did not. All six crew members of the other plane apparently died in the crash and were reported missing in action.

Wreckage on the sea floor after 70 years is hard to identify as an airplane, said Mark Moline, director of the school of marine science and policy at Delaware. Downed planes have often become the base for colonies of sea creatures and are covered with coral.

The researchers can reconstruct the plane’s last moments from the geography of the debris field.

“Some of them ... have controlled landings on the surface and are intact, and just sink down to the bottom,” Moline said. “There were others where the plane lost parts in midair, and that causes a catastrophic loss. Usually the plane comes down and impacts the water so hard that there is a smaller field and it’s harder to find,” he said.

“The third type is where it hits the surface uncontrolled and parts of it can break off and cartwheel...and in those cases, you have an elongated debris field which is harder to document.”

Occasionally, the searchers will find human remains, usually scattered bones. “Usually with the kinds of accidents, the skeletons are not together,” he said.

Fortunately, the bones can produce useful DNA, which when compared with living family members, can be used to identify the men, Terrill said.

The defense department would make the identifications, track down and notify the families, and arrange burial.

Several men discovered that way have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in many cases with family members born well after the men died in attendence.

The team expects to return to Papua New Guinea in the fall.


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Author Bio & Story Archive

Joel Shurkin, photo by Abigail Dunlap

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore who has also taught journalism and science writing.