Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three part series describing how the BentProp Project has undertaken one of the most noble tasks –Returning WWII MIA’s to their families and country.
“Not all who died in combat died on the biggest and most famous battlefields. But they died no less bravely and they should not be forgotten any sooner. Perhaps filling in a little part of history here will help remind us all of this.”—Dr. Pat Scannon, founder Bent Prop Project
When Dr. Pat Scannon saw the wing of a B-24 sticking out of the water in a lagoon near Palau back in 1993, he never envisioned it would change his life forever.
The 65-foot wing had the markings of “eneral Electric” still showing on its one remaining engine. His sense of curiosity told him there was a story behind that wing.
To Scannon, it was more than just a mangled piece of metal.
Scannon asked the local diving guide he was with: “What happened to the crew?” The guide didn’t know. But Scannon knew—someone had died there. More importantly, the wreckage held the story of an MIA war hero. With that MIA was a family back home in the US that had no real sense of what had happened to their loved one over 50 years ago.
It was at that moment Scannon knew he had to tell the story of the wreckage–undisturbed for more than half a century–because there was a family who needed to find closure.
“It is amazing to think of the chain of events that has led us to where we are today” Scannon said in a 2016 interview with FighterSweep.com.
Scannon set out on a mission to find MIA’s and closure. It was the start of what would become the Bent Prop Project. A tireless search of Palau in an effort to recover downed military aircraft—and most importantly their human remains—so closure could occur for those who gave so much for their country.
Palau–A Forgotten Corner of WWII
Palau is a chain of well over 200 islands. As part of the Western Caroline Islands in the southwest corner of Micronesia, it lies 500 miles north of the equator and 600 miles east of the southernmost tip of the Philippines. Neighboring Yap and Guam lie 300 and 800 miles north and east of Palau, respectively. To say it is remote is an understatement.
A large portion of Palau is protected by a barrier reef. Its lush tropical islands contain some of the clearest waters and most colorful sea life anywhere in the world. This makes Palau a premier spot for sport SCUBA diving.
The Japanese-held Palauan Islands became a significant military objective in the Pacific campaign because of their geographically important position in the central Pacific. Admiral Chester Nimitz had launched an ‘Island Hopping’ strategy to head north. The strategy was to capture the Pacific islands one by one by while leapfrogging towards Japan.
Japan had legally occupied Palau since 1914. Additionally, Palau was an important forward naval supply base for the Japanese and the Japanese forces were well embedded. Due to the leapfrogging agenda and its well defended locations, the Americans did not concentrate firepower all at once on Palau. Instead, American aerial attacks consisted of nine separate unrelated campaigns, from March 1944 through August 1945, on the group of islands.
Over this sustained time frame, a large number of USN/USMC/USAAF aircraft were lost. Whether they were lost from being shot down or mechanical failure, Palau was ripe for finding aviators who were Missing In Action.
Over 83,345 Americans are officially missing in action (there is no distinction between MIAs and missing POWs). Over 73,000 of those were from WWII, but they are scattered across all theaters.
The BentProp Project estimates 300-400 aircraft were lost within the Palau area. At least 40 U.S. Naval aircraft (multiple types), 50 Marine Corsairs and 8 Army Air Corps B-24’s were lost over Palau through combat and operational losses.
So how do you begin searching for these needles in haystacks?
Research, research, and more research. Scannon notes the research process happens year round. Volunteers spend countless hours sifting through historical archival information in an effort to uncover leads that may be worth pursuing. All of the research is documented and then narrowed down to specific sites. The group focuses on sites that are both high probability and SCUBA worthy to pursue.
Dr. Scannon says many of the sites BentProp has pursued are in the littoral areas. Planes that may have crashed in lagoons or near the beach are prioritized for the team to investigate. Sites that go more than 150 feet deep are not really accessible to SCUBA teams.
The team also interviews witnesses. Hunters or fisherman who may have been in the area during the time of a crash could provide clues to where aircraft may be located.
“It’s amazing that they are still Palauan natives around that can remember where and when planes crashed over 70 years ago,” said Scannon.
Eyewitness accounts of “smoke on the water” can be extremely helpful—if they are accurate. During the war, only the islands of Peleliu and Angaur were captured by US Forces from the Imperial Japanese military. Locations of Americans lost beyond these two islands remain highly dependent on eye witness reports and after-action reports written by fellow surviving aircrews.
Unfortunately, After Action Reports (AARs) written by surviving aircrews are sometimes inaccurate in their observations. The simple fact is that when you are under attack yourself, it is difficult to remember precise details accurately. This makes BentProp’s mission even more difficult. However, in recent years advances in technology and partnerships with those who have the expertise have come to the aid of helping BentProp find success.
The BentProp Team
Dr. Scannon leads a group of 20-25 core volunteers. They pay their own way and want to be here. Dives happen in the spring, normally around the March to April timeframe. The mission is considered a working trip—not summer camp—and volunteers know this before signing up.
The day starts early with a brief before any diving has begun. Necessary permits from the Palauan government have been secured, as well as permission from local tribal leaders. The team uses a prioritization list from their research to focus on areas they feel will lead to a discovery.
Many times debris fields are scattered over miles, making one small discovery of wreckage only a small clue towards the final objective. Distances under water are exacerbated; yards apart in the ocean can be like miles apart on land.
It is a painstakingly detailed and precise process—sometimes lasting for years.
The good news: technology has advanced since 1993. The team has been fortunate enough to partner with research groups who are experts in the underwater world. In 2012, BentProp established collaborations with Dr. Eric Terrill and his team at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Dr. Mark Moline and his team at the University of Delaware. The application of oceanographic technologies such as side scan sonar, underwater mapping, and unmanned aerial and underwater robotic technologies have vastly improved BentProps chances of finding aircraft and other war equipment.
No longer is BentProp manually searching for the needle in the haystack. But to be clear, the search for MIA’s is still a supreme challenge. The good news is this collaboration has led to a broadened partnership and a larger search scope. BentProp has made the commitment to go beyond Palau in search of MIA’s across the globe.
It is a commitment Dr. Scannon knows is worth the effort.
Tomorrow in Part II, we go under the water with a BentProp Project member when he discovers and sees wreckage for the first time.
Top Photo credit: BentProp.org