That responsibility belongs to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB), which manages, researches, preserves and interprets the Navy’s more than 2,500 shipwrecks and 14,000 aircraft wrecks worldwide. UAB staff must first locate these military craft either through painstaking research of archival records and other sources or, in some cases, they simply receive a call regarding an unexpected find.
Such was the case in December 2014 when Rodney Thomas of Osteen, Florida, contacted DeLand Naval Air Station Museum (DNASM) volunteer Scott Storz regarding hundreds of small aircraft pieces he had discovered while metal detecting on his property. In particular, Thomas had found a two-inch piece of bent metal clearly engraved with the identifying mark “SBD-5.”
He wanted to know more.
SBD-5 Dauntless Crash Site Investigation
“When we learned the aircraft might be Navy, we requested that they cease the collection of materials until we could go there to do a survey and see what could be identified and documented,” UAB archaeologist Dr. George Schwarz said. “And upon our recommendation, the property owner turned over a large box of collected artifacts to the museum.”
The Douglas SBD Dauntless, a two-seat, single-engine, low-wing cantilever monoplane, was one of the most successful dive-bombers of World War II. With a steep attack up to 70 degrees and capable of delivering a 1,000-pound bomb, the aircraft is remembered for sinking three Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway and heavily damaging a fourth that was attacked again and sunk the following day.
From Feb. 18 to 20, 2015, Schwarz investigated the crash site and gathered evidence that would lead to the identification of the specific aircraft lost and its pilot. Schwarz was accompanied by the command’s radiation safety officer—along to address the possibility of hazardous materials, such as radioactive gauges—and a public affairs officer to work with local news stations, handle media inquiries, photograph field activities and assist with educational outreach.
The crash debris field spanned at least 250 yards across four properties and was located just 16 miles south of what had been Naval Air Station DeLand, where Navy flight crews trained in various aircraft, including the carrier-based SDB Dauntless, during its four years of wartime operations between 1942 and 1946.
“We heavily suspected it was from DeLand because it was the only air station nearby that flew SBD-5s,” Schwarz said.
In the midst of a Florida cold snap, with temperatures in the 30s, as many as 45 people arrived each morning to work the site, including archaeologists and graduate students, museum personnel, metal detection club members, volunteers, local law enforcement and a cadaver dog team to locate potential human remains.
“It was an interesting case because it involved the local community and the historic DeLand museum,” Schwarz noted. “I remember how enthusiastic the community was to assist and how important it was to them to identify the aircraft and commemorate the young pilot. There was a lot of local media coverage.”
A survey grid was mapped out and divided into 13 lanes, spaced 10 yards apart. Multiple metal detectorists swept each lane, providing sufficient overlap to ensure full coverage.
“When an object was discovered, they’d plant a pin flag,” Schwarz said. “Archaeologists would then excavate, document, photograph, designate a field number, record the GPS coordinates and bag the objects. But before that, the NHHC radiation officer would inspect each piece in the field to ensure it was safe to handle.”
Storz gave the team after-hours access to the DNASM—housed today in the air station’s former Master of Arms Residence—where they worked each evening cleaning, photographing and cataloging recovered artifacts, most of which were found buried beneath 3-to-8 inches of soil.
Once back at the UAB lab in Washington, D.C., the analysis began.
Pinpointing the Aircraft
Although no bureau number (BuNo) was discovered, which would have provided conclusive identification of the specific aircraft, evidence confirmed the crash site was that of an SBD-5.
“We found one object that was analyzed with an X-ray fluorescence device that told us what aluminum alloys were used in its composition,” Schwarz said. “The piece, an information plate describing fuel capacity, was significant because it further confirmed the presence of SBD aircraft remains.”
An original SBD parts catalog, found in the archives at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, also confirmed that many of the 243 pieces collected came from a U.S. Navy aircraft.
Narrowing down the specific aircraft and pilot was a more difficult task and required finding historical records through NHHC aviation archives and the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as the use of online newspaper search engines.
Although NAS DeLand had recorded 25 total losses during its four years of operation, research pointed to one plausible candidate based on aircraft type and proximity to the crash site—BuNo 54112.
The aircraft’s accident history card noted the fated Dauntless was piloted by Ensign William T. Bellmire and crashed Feb. 1, 1944. On a solo familiarization flight, Bellmire apparently “dove into the ground at terrific speed for reasons unknown.”
Further research showed Bellmire had 236 hours of total flying time and the aircraft’s total operating time just exceeded 87 hours. Weather conditions at the time of the accident were satisfactory.
A Feb. 10 obituary found in Colorado’s Delta County Independent reported Bellmire, 24, had been buried with military honors and had received his wings only two weeks before the fatal accident.
Based on other information discovered, it was clear Navy personnel had cleaned up following the crash. The debris found 70 years later was consistent with the type of small pieces that would have been left behind by rescue and salvage operations.
The property owner placed a historical marker to memorialize the lost pilot and commemorate NAS DeLand’s contribution to World War II training efforts. In addition, many artifacts recovered from the site were, fittingly, placed on loan to the DNASM.
Preserving Naval History
UAB’s Underwater Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory is responsible for the stabilization, treatment, preservation, research and curation of recovered Navy artifacts, said UAB Director Dr. Robert Neyland.
“Artifacts in an underwater environment can come up well-preserved,” Neyland said. “Since they were involved in a tragic event, they can be perfect and may actually be whole—which is much different from what we normally find on terrestrial archaeological sites.”
Once removed from the sea mud that helped to preserve them, artifacts begin to deteriorate and require various lengthy-and-complex conservation processes to stabilize them and keep them from corroding, shrinking, warping or completely falling apart.
“There’s a huge responsibility to conserve and preserve anything you bring up, and with that comes a great cost,” Neyland said. “We want to make sure what we recover is adding to the history of the Navy, that it will be used in an exhibit, or that it provides new information about the Navy that has not previously been known.”
More than two-thirds of UAB’s 10,000 artifacts are currently on loan to military and private museums around the nation and abroad for public education or academic research.
Searching for Sunken Aircraft
This summer, UAB will begin a new survey in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay focusing on aircraft downed in the 1950s offshore Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and archival research is underway to pinpoint which aircraft to locate.
“Often after an aircraft sank, the Navy would go out and recover it if possible, but sometimes it would stay down there,” Schwarz said. “We have a list of potential losses but need to do more research to determine which aircraft might still be on the seafloor.”
They will also be following up on fieldwork conducted there last August seeking the locations of three aircraft that went down in the bay during training exercises: an SNC-1 Falcon lost in 1943, an XF8F-1 Bearcat lost in 1945, and an FJ-1 Fury lost in 1947.
“We’ll probably go back and [confirm] targets we discovered then, perhaps by sending down divers or small remotely operated vehicles to verify the existence of aircraft remains before conducting more in-depth archaeological investigations,” Schwarz said.
Staff members, interns and other partners will conduct the two-week survey in August aboard their UAB vessel using remote-sensing equipment such as magnetometers and side-scan sonar.
“Ultimately, the objective of this ongoing project is to locate as many lost and unrecovered aircraft as possible from NAS Patuxent River up through the 1970s for management and preservation purposes,” Schwarz said.
Donna Cipolloni is a staff writer for the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, Tester newspaper.
Japan Returns WWII Corsair Remains to U.S. Navy
WASHINGTON—A representative from Saiki City, Japan, presented the remains of a wrecked World War II F4U Corsair fighter-bomber to the U.S. Navy at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory March 22.
Yoshiro Kishida presented the remains to NHHC Director Sam Cox, who accepted the artifacts on behalf of the command and assured Kishida the artifacts were in good hands.
“The receipt of these artifacts marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another,” Cox said. “The conservation stage will begin. Our archeologists and historians will learn from these artifacts and, ultimately, share the story of these important pieces of naval heritage.”
The lab’s conservation team will assess the condition of the artifacts and determine what treatment is necessary to stabilize them. The parts will be documented and cross-referenced with NHHC records to learn more about them.
Once stabilized, the artifacts will be available for public display through the NHHC Archaeological Artifact Loan Program. Currently 80 percent of the command’s archaeological artifact collection is on loan to institutions throughout the country and in Europe.
On March 18, 1945, 19 F4U Corsair fighter-bombers, including those of Fighter Squadron (VF) 10, took off from aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CV 11). Their target was a naval air base on the northern end of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s home islands. By attacking Japanese airfields in range of that island, they could deny air support to the defending garrison.
The “Grim Reapers” hit their target but at a cost of two aircraft flown by two new pilots. One Corsair hit the ground during the attack itself and the other, damaged in the air raid, made an emergency water landing off the coast of Saiki. The plane sank and, according to U.S. historical documentation, the pilot’s body was never recovered.
The Corsair was rediscovered by accident almost 50 years later when the propeller and engine became ensnared in a fisherman’s net. A local citizen funded an attempted recovery of the rest of the aircraft, but in the end only the engine, propeller and part of a wing were salvaged. These items were put on display in 2007 at Saiki’s Yawaragi Peace Memorial Hall alongside the parts of other aircraft from the Pacific War.
In 2015, the decision was made to return the Corsair parts to the United States as a goodwill gesture on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end. Saiki City intended to return it to Intrepid, the aircraft carrier that launched it 70 years ago, and now a museum ship in New York City.
The curation team at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum redirected the city to NHHC to coordinate the return. All U.S. Navy sunken military craft, including warplanes, remain U.S. government property no matter when or where they were downed and are protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act.
“We are really looking forward to working on these pieces and cannot wait to begin documentation and start the conservation process,” archaeological conservator Shanna Daniel said.
Finders are Not Keepers
Sunken Military Craft Act Prohibits Disturbance
Since 2004, the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA) has protected all sunken U.S. military craft as well as foreign sunken military craft that lie within U.S. waters from unauthorized disturbance.
Per the act, sunken and terrestrial military craft and their associated contents under the jurisdiction of the DoN remain government property regardless of their location or the passage of time and may not be disturbed without permission from the U.S. Navy.
While the act prohibits site disturbance or the removal of artifacts, diving over and around DoN sunken military craft is allowed. The SMCA does not affect commercial fishing, salvage on vessels that do not qualify as sunken military craft, or the routine operation of ships.
Recreational divers, as well as commercial and sport fishermen, may operate over and around DoN sunken military craft without requiring authorization from the Navy as long as they do not, either intentionally or through negligence, disturb, remove or injure the craft or its contents. Such contents include, but are not limited to, a ship’s equipment, cargo, or personal effects.
Unauthorized disturbance of sunken military craft can be penalized by fines of up to $100,000 per violation/per day, liability for damages and confiscation of vessels. The law of finds does not apply to any U.S. sunken military craft or any foreign sunken military craft located in U.S. waters.
The Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) is responsible for the management, research, preservation and interpretation of the Navy’s sunken ship and aircraft wrecks.
“These wreck sites often serve as war graves, safeguard state secrets, may carry environmental or public safety hazards such as oil and ordnance and hold historical value,” said Sam Cox, curator of the Navy and director of NHHC. “That’s why we take seriously our responsibility to protect them from disturbance. I am determined to honor this nation’s obligation to its fallen service members to protect the sanctity of those wrecks constituting the last resting place of American Sailors.”
While the NHHC prefers non-intrusive, in situ preservation on sunken and terrestrial military craft, it recognizes that disturbance and artifact removal may be justified for archaeological, historical or educational purposes. Therefore, NHHC established a permitting program that was revised and went into effect in March to allow for intrusive activities directed at DoN sunken and terrestrial military craft for those purposes.
The new regulations are available at https://federalregister.gov/a/2015-20795.