The Search for World War II Aircraft in the Pacific

The Search for World War II Aircraft in the Pacific

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Although World War II ended nearly 75 years ago, the oceans are still giving up their secrets of where the dead fell. Last week, the private group Project Recover announced that it had found three U.S. Navy warplanes lost during the February 1944 battle for the island of Truk (now known as Chuuk) in the Pacific Ocean. The lagoon there, long a tourist destination for divers, is still dotted with the wrecks of sunken ships and aircraft that have yet to be identified.

The Times reporter Robert Trumbull filed several reports from the battle, which he observed from the bridge of a battleship under Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance’s task force. In one dispatch, he described a four-hour fight that resulted in enormous losses of Japanese ships and aircraft. “After sinking four and possibly five enemy warships within sight of the Truk Islands,” Trumbull wrote, “the small but powerful striking force of which this brand-new battleship is a unit boldly circled the atoll last night, interposing ourselves between Truk and Japan.”

Trumbull downplayed American casualties in his reporting, but among those lost were the two SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and one TBM Avenger torpedo-bomber that were recently located on the bottom of Truk Lagoon by the Project Recover team. Operating from local dive boats, a team from the University of Delaware and the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego used a small autonomous underwater vehicle to find broken pieces of the planes sitting on the bottom of the lagoon between 100 and 215 feet down. “What we’ve seen is that the cockpit area is somewhat intact, so the potential is that the remains could be there,” said Daniel O’Brien, one of Project Recover’s directors. “The bodies could have been ejected or floated away, but there’s a good chance the remains are still with the aircraft.”

O’Brien said he was about 95 percent sure that his group had positively identified the aircraft through markings they uncovered, which are linked to specific missing Navy sailors. That data has been passed to the Defense P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Agency, or D.P.A.A., the military unit based in Oahu, Hawaii, responsible for excavating such sites and identifying any artifacts and human remains they find. “It’s up to them to decide when a potential recovery mission might be,” O’Brien said.

The researchers are reluctant to discuss upcoming missions, but did disclose that aside from various missions in the Pacific, they plan to return to Kuwait to look for a Navy A-6 Intruder that went down in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Over the past 20 years, Project Recover has located sites where up to 84 missing American service members might be located. All were turned over to the D.P.A.A. for recovery efforts. O’Brien said about 14 sets of human remains have been identified and returned to their families from his group’s finds.


Thousands of African-American troops were sent to a defeated Germany to promote democracy, even as they were confined to the social order of Jim Crow. Read the latest article in our series documenting the end of World War II.

To follow the “Beyond the World War II We Know” series, sign up for the At War newsletter.


At least 103 pro-government forces and 46 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan so far this month. [Read the report.]

That’s the estimated number of small arms the Pentagon has supplied to Afghan security forces over the course of the United States’ 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. Among the weapons are wooden-stocked Soviet Kalashnikov rifles, American M16s, sniper rifles and machine guns — like the M249 light machine gun that was used in the Feb. 8 killing of two American soldiers at a small military base in eastern Afghanistan. The perpetrator, Sergeant Jawed, was an Afghan Army soldier whose betrayal of his American allies was another sign of fraying relations between Afghan and American forces, who have grown increasingly distrustful of each other as the grueling war continues with no end in sight. Read the full Times report here.

—Jake Nevins, Times Magazine editorial fellow


Here are six stories from The Times that you might have missed.

Two motors and an explosive warhead. Iran has developed a new type of antiaircraft missile and shipped it to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pentagon officials announced Wednesday. The weapons were seized by United States Navy warships in two separate shipments in the Arabian Sea. [Read the article.]

“Seize this moment.” A weeklong reduction in violence across Afghanistan, a major condition for the United States to formally sign its initial peace deal with the Taliban, goes into effect early Saturday, right after midnight, Afghan officials said Friday. [Read the article.]

“It is impossible to find a safe place.” At the Turkish border with Syria, tales of the desperation unfolding on the other side, where some 900,000 people are fleeing a Syrian assault. [Read the article.]

“I thank God every day for the peace I have found here.” In California’s biggest city, a nearly 400-acre campus with new housing represents one of the country’s most ambitious plans to address veteran homelessness. [Read the article.]

No qualified lawyer is waiting in the wings. On Wednesday, a military judge ruled that a 75-year-old defense lawyer would no longer have to return to Guantánamo for the proceedings but would have to continue working on the case from afar until a replacement had been hired. [Read the article.]

“You would never diagnose a heart attack or even a broken bone that way.” Traumatic brain injury is a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the military still has no objective way of diagnosing it in the field. [Read the article.]


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