University of Delaware
The World War II Helldiver, missing for over 70 years, was discovered in the waters of Palau. Pictured is the bent propellor.

Helldiver plane found

UD researchers locate another WWII aircraft missing in Palau for over 70 years


3:31 p.m., March 30, 2015--A United States Navy Curtiss SB2C Helldiver aircraft lost in World War II and missing for over 70 years was recently found resting in the tropical waters of the Republic of Palau. 

The carrier-based dive bomber plane was discovered by a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (UD CEOE), Scripps Institution of Oceanography: University of California-San Diego, the Coral Reef Research Foundation and the BentProp Project.

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Scientists used state-of-the-art technologies including unmanned underwater vehicles and high frequency sonar to search a high probability region of the sea floor, based on months of archival research and the team’s scientific analysis of historic data collected by BentProp over the past 20 years.

The Helldiver was lost with two aviators onboard while flying missions in support of Operation Stalemate II, a time period of fierce fighting during the U.S. Marine Corps’ landing on Peleliu. The location of the aircraft and a detailed site survey will be turned over to Palau government and the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the agency responsible for recovery and identification of remains and the notification of families.  

The discovery follows on the heels of an announcement last fall of the location of two other missing aircraft, a TBM Avenger and an FSF Hellcat. The remains of those two aircraft are now slated for recovery by the DPAA later this year, according to BentProp. 

The new find was part of an expedition that began mid-March and continues through April. The Helldiver site was a priority search target as the historic data analysis suggested there was a high probability of finding the aircraft within a narrow search window. 

After several days of missions using the undersea vehicles, sonar identified targets, which divers later verified to be the missing airplane in 100 feet of murky water.

Oceanographers Mark Moline, director of UD CEOE’s School of Marine Science and Policy, and Eric Terrill of Scripps were the first on-scene at the historic find, along with members from BentProp. Five other aircraft targets are also on the priority list for the team to search for during this year’s expedition.

"We were really surprised about the find as it is something we passed over last year and only found after re-reviewing the acoustic data," Moline said. "Given the short period of time we are in country, I have felt an urgency to push and find these sites. It means long hours with technical underwater gear and repetitive actions, but it does pay off. Of course we are exhilarated about the find, but also mindful of the sacrifices made by these young men. We hope our work will in some way bring closure to the families of these fallen heroes."

About the partnership

A chance meeting brought the academic and not-for-profit teams together three years ago while the oceanographers from UD CEOE and Scripps were conducting marine research in Palau. Seed money from the U.S. Office of Naval Research enabled the researchers to apply emerging undersea technologies for purposes of finding aircraft associated with MIAs and to provide a platform for public science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach.

More about the public-private partnership can be found at this website. This year’s expedition was able to continue through private donor support, in part as a result of the visibility the project received after being featured on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes and in a popular GoPro video in 2014.

Photos of the Helldiver airplane by Eric Terrill

Photo of the divers by Project Recover

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