Underwater mystery: Did a diver find a Navy plane that crashed in 1943 off San Diego?

Underwater mystery: Did a diver find a Navy plane that crashed in 1943 off San Diego?

6/30/2020 2:23:00 PM

Underwater mystery: Did a diver find a Navy plane that crashed in 1943 off San Diego?

Witnesses saw the Navy SBD Dauntless spin to the right, then to the left and hit the water. The pilot and radioman were killed.

AdvertisementHe offered to instruct pilots for free, and the success of the training convinced the admirals that airplanes had a future in the service. They eventually shifted their attention to a carrier-led force, basing the first flat-top, the Langley, there in 1922.

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By the time the United States entered World War II after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, North Island had cemented its place as the preeminent spot on the West Coast for Navy fliers. Thousands of pilots trained at what was known then as Naval Air Station San Diego before shipping off to overseas combat.

They trained in seaplanes such as the PBY Catalina, fighters like the Hellcat and dive bombers like the SBD Dauntless. The SBD stood for “Scout Bomber Douglas,” but air crews joked that the initials stood for “Slow But Deadly.” And deadly it was.In early June 1942, at the Battle of Midway, Dauntless bombers flying off American aircraft carriers wrecked four Japanese carriers and a cruiser.

Advertisement“For the first half of the war in the Pacific, the Dauntless was the most effective American weapons system,” said Karl Zingheim, historian for theUSS Midway, the carrier-turned-museum in San Diego that’s named for the battle. “It helped change the direction of the war.”

Aircraft designers kept making improvements to the Dauntless — longer flight range, better armament — and the older planes got rotated back to the U.S. to be used in training. Some of them wound up in San Diego.Training wasn’t as dangerous as aerial combat, but it still had risks. The planes were more worn-out, the replacement parts less plentiful. And the pilots less experienced.

About 15,000 aviators were killed in stateside training accidents during the war. About 2,400 of them are still listed asby the federal Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.AdvertisementOn Aug. 24, 1943, Capt. William Rozelle Parks Jr. and radioman Richard Harold Moore climbed into an SBD-3 Dauntless at NAS San Diego. Parks, who was from New Orleans, had been flying for about a year. Moore had been married earlier in the year in his hometown of Bloomington, Ill.; his wife had just joined him in San Diego.

Their job that day was to “stream a sleeve” — tow a nylon tube that would be used by gunners in other planes for target practice.About 10:30 a.m., they were 2,000 feet up, off the coast of San Diego. They released the target tube. Witnesses saw the plane spin to the right, then spin to the left and hit the water. It burst into flames and sank.

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When a crash boat arrived, it found debris in the water: an oxygen bottle, three rolled-up and singed towing tubes and two gloves.Advertisement‘Hallowed sites’Surfacing from his dive last October, Stalter wondered what kind of airplane he’d found.It was mostly in pieces, but he could make out the fuselage, upside down in the sand. There was a winch on the bottom, with a piece of steel cable still attached. The wings had unusual air brakes, perforated flaps attached along the back edge.

He suspected it was from World War II because of the radial engine — those were replaced on later planes — and started researching. He could find only one plane that had that motor and those flaps: the Dauntless.But which Dauntless?Tyler Stalter ascends after a dive.

(Dan Jackson)“There are lots of planes out there,” said Taras Lyssenko, a Chicago businessman whose A&T Recovery haspulled dozensof World War II wrecks out of Lake Michigan and other places, including an SB2C-4 Helldiver plucked from the bottom of Lower Otay Reservoir in 2010. “Most of them are in bad shape.”

Stalter learned from a friend about some World War II records, and in those he found an entry describing the Aug. 24, 1943, crash of the Dauntless.“Right plane, right place,” he said.AdvertisementThe records included an ID number for the plane, which enabled him to track down the accident report. It described how the Dauntless was towing a target tube that day, and another piece of the puzzle fell into place. Towing would explain the winch on the bottom of the wreckage.

Something else became clear to Stalter from the records: Two men had died in the crash, and their bodies were never recovered. He’d gone looking for a wreck and may have found a grave site, too.He contacted theNaval History and Heritage Commandin Washington, which oversees sunken military craft, and sent the documents he’d found, along with photos of the wreckage.

R.S. Neyland, head of underwater archaeology for the agency, said in a letter last month that Stalter’s research provides “strong evidence” about the identity of the plane but said further investigation is needed to confirm it. He thanked the divers for documenting the site without disturbing it.

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Advertisement“The U.S. Navy considers these wrecks to be hallowed sites,” Neyland wrote, “representative of the courage and sacrifice of U.S. Navy sailors at a pivotal point in our nation’s history.”What happens next is unclear. Requests for comment from the History and Heritage Command and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency were not returned.

There is a large backlog of cases to investigate. More than 72,500 service members from World War II are listed as missing worldwide. Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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