Scripps Researchers Find Missing WWII Aircraft

This past week, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment recovered a missing U.S. Navy aircraft dating back to World War II that has been missing for over 70 years. The find was made possible through their collaboration with the BentProp Project and the Coral Reef Research Foundation. 

The U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was found at a depth of 100 feet in a lagoon on the island country of the Republic of Palau. The Helldiver played a part in Operation Stalemate II, a codename for the Battle of Peleliu during World War II, in which U.S. Marines and Army forces clashed with the Japanese to capture a strategic airstrip on the tiny island.  

Mark Moline, one of the lead researchers conducting the search, explained to the UCSD Guardian the impact such discoveries have for the families of missing servicemen. 

“It is important to remember that the remains of over 78,000 service members never made it home from World War II.  That represents almost 20 percent of the total U.S.-combat losses,” Moline said. “The number of family members impacted is even higher and they were never granted closure on these losses.”

The recent find comes at a time when emerging undersea technologies make such recoveries possible. With technologies such as state-of-the-art unmanned vehicles and sonar equipment, wrecks like the Helldiver can more easily be acquired.

“The development of technology and the methods of applying that technology make locating these wrecks possible.  While the technology itself has been around for a decade or so, the particular combinations of technologies, the search methods and application is only recent,” Moline explained.  

Due to the staggering number of servicemen still listed as MIA, Moline’s team hopes to better facilitate future searches. 

“The team’s goals are to increase the efficiency in finding these wreck sites and servicemen,” Moline said. “This will take efforts in technology research and development, adapting and maturing [technological] developments, blending intelligence with search approaches, as well as scaling up the entire process to be able to address losses not only in the Western Pacific, but [in] Europe, Africa, et cetera.”

The team received funding support from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which seeks to use cutting-edge undersea technology to recover lost aircraft associated with servicemen who have been listed as MIA for decades. In addition, Moline’s work translates well into current problems. Through such pioneering efforts, search-and-rescue missions and finding shipping accidents can be better facilitated.  Salvaging these aircrafts may bring closure to the families of lost loved ones. 

“While the generation that fought the war ages, the following generations still feel the emptiness of not knowing what happened to their relatives,” Moline said. “From the wreckages we find, the sacrifices made for us by these young men [over] 70 years ago become crystal clear, and that is something that we as individuals and a nation need to acknowledge and remember.”

In addition to the Helldiver, five other aircrafts are on the expedition’s search list this year.