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San Diego Oceanographers Track Down Two Missing WWII Bombers

The gun turret of a downed B-25 bomber recently found off the coast of Papua New Guinea is seen in this undated photo.
Project Recover
The gun turret of a downed B-25 bomber recently found off the coast of Papua New Guinea is seen in this undated photo.
San Diego Oceanographers Track Down Two Missing WWII Bombers
San Diego Oceanographers Track Down Two Missing WWII Bombers GUEST: Eric Terrill, founder, Project Recover

San Diego oceanographers have found two missing World War II bombers. The scientists are part of project recover. It is an effort to locate planes associated with American servicemembers who went missing in action during World War II. David Wagner recently spoke with Scripps institution of oceanography and one of the projects founders. Tell me about the recent discovery. Earlier this spring we mounted an expedition to Papua New Guinea. We have been conducting research as part of project recover. Teams of researchers looking through the national archives going through missing report and we had identified four potential sites that we needed to conduct surveys for during that expedition we uncovered one of the bricks that we were looking for. There were six -- number six MIA associated with that. So you found two missing World War II bombers and is expedition correct? Yes just for efficiency we identified four potential sites to conduct surveys. One of those was a crash site that had never been formally documented. We had identified and found the plane did a full identification on it and focused our efforts on the broader search area missions as well and that is where we found the second bomber. How do you track these planes down? What information is leading you to find these aircraft? Often in our line of work you see the beautiful photos of people scuba diving underwater and robots behind me searching for them. It leads up to the expedition is where a vital -- a lot of hard work happens. We are conducting thorough research to be able to narrow down with our underwater archaeologists that work with us. The conduct searches for national archives are declassified reports. We are able to narrow down the search area and look at the final moments before the crash actually occurred. From that information we reconstruct the final moments and then we can apply our underwater technology that we develop here. It is a combination of historical records what locals themselves now in these areas about possible crash sites and the kind of underwater robots that we are looking at an elaborate. It is a project to recover. When we go off to the missions it is really a confluence of a number of different disciplines. That is one of the things that makes it so exciting to me and so the wording is that we are bringing together these different disciplines of underwater technology search technology as well as history as well as interview processes are getting information from people being able to interview elders and villages to understand what may have happened on that day. I understand it can be kind of hard to find some of these aircraft and that they are not intact. What do they look like when he ultimately find them underwater. They take all sorts of shapes and sizes. The ones that typically make pretty photographs that people can appreciate our when it is an intact aircraft. This is where a lot of forensic activity happens where we actually have to find these parts for them for over 70 years and try to begin to identify which aircraft it may be associated with. We may know that we are looking for a be 25 but if we find a wheel or brother or some piece of machinery associated with it we bring digital copies of all the maintenance manuals for the aircraft so that we can search through the literature we have to be able to understand what is have happened when we start finding clues we know that the main wreckage is nearby we can use it as a free exploit. So you said there were six men missing in action associated. What we know about the men who are flying these. With respect to the family we do not released to the public the name of the aircraft. We know explicitly which aircraft we are looking for in the names of the pilots and what drinks they were and he kind of remotely begin to understand who the word in relationships and then just looking at all the photographs we have a fairly large body of information about who was flying the aircraft. That is the responsibility of the government. Our mission is to find these aircraft and turn over all the information to the US government. Is the defense W and the County agency and they have this package upon which they can start to remain the recovery process. How long has project recover been around at how many aircraft have you found? Some have happened by accident. Mike from the University of Delaware and myself are conducting research in the Republic of Palau and we were using underwater technologies for purposes of climate change assessment. A second year on the large field expedition we were introduced to a group run by an individual named Pat -- Pat Scanlon who runs a nonprofit called [Indiscernible] we have come to learn that they were looking for missing aircraft in World War II. They did not really have access to any technology so they were doing land-based searches the holiday walking through marshes and getting cut up and bloodied and 30. We started to connect a lot of the tools that we need for underwater research was directly applicable to looking for missing aircraft in the water. There is still 70,000 missing in action from World War II. Many of them are see losses. It turns out that there is quite a few of them that exist in the coastal zone which we may be able to dive on and find. They are in close proximity to shore. Got the gears turning with us in 2012. Performed this program called object recover and collectively we have been moving out as a partnership so fast forward to where we are now for 2016 we have expeditions planned for over 20 aircraft associated approximately 100 MIA. To date we have six aircraft this year. There's a lot more to be found out there. Going global we have had missions. I've got a grip right now scripts who just lets you -- who just left yesterday. We have groups in Fiji already this year. We have done surveys in England working in the UK. One thing that is fascinating for me is that child I sort of had a science [Indiscernible]. It sort of reinvigorated my interest in World War II history. Overtime I have become a little bit more interested in history and our role in World War II and the role in the scientific community and how that played me important and strategic role in World War II. On a day like Memorial Day does this work take on a new significance for you? It really does. This is a very humbling program and I feel honored to be part of a project like this and can provide in some small way kind of acknowledge the sacrifices that these people made in their families made in the people that went before us. The program because we are focused on MIA we are really focused on the closure aspect and recognition aspect. It's a very humbling program to be part of. That was Scripps scientist Eric Cahill speaking with David Wagner.

San Diego Oceanographers Track Down Two Missing WWII Bombers
The discovery was made by Project Recover, an effort to track down aircraft associated with American service members who went missing in action.

San Diego researchers have helped locate two missing B-25 bombers that went missing during World War Two.

The discovery was made by Project Recover, an effort launched in 2012 to track down aircraft associated with American service members who went missing in action.

Researchers recently found two B-25 bombers off the coast of Papua New Guinea. One plane was connected with six men, one who went down with the plane and five who were captured as prisoners.

"Through this, it has sort of reinvigorated my interest in U.S. history," said Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Eric Terrill, one of the project's founders.

He said discoveries like this have special significance on days like Memorial Day.

"Because we're focused on MIAs, we really are focused on that closure aspect — that recognition aspect. So it is a very humbling program to be part of," Terrill said.

Project Recover relies on historical documents and knowledge from islanders to narrow down its search, and then deploys underwater robots to find the final resting places of WWII aircraft.

The planes can be difficult to spot — they're often significantly dismantled, partially buried under the sea floor or overgrown with corals and other sea life.

"One of the things that makes it so exciting for me, and so rewarding, is that we are bringing together these different disciplines," said Terrill. "Underwater technology, search technology as well as history, archival work as well as interviewing locals."

The project is a partnership between Scripps, the University of Delaware and a nonprofit organization BentProp, Limited.

San Diego Oceanographers Track Down Two Missing WWII Bombers