Divers team up with DPAA to recover WWII pilot’s remains

The Military Sealift Command Safeguard-class salvage ship USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) serves as a support platform for Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 1, conducting underwater searches in the last known position of two Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters off the North Shore of Oahu in this Jan. 18 photo. MDSU-1 is equipped with side scan sonar and a remotely operated vehicle. Photo by Air Station Barbers Point Public Affairs

Grady T. Fontana
Commander, Task Force 73 Public Affairs

A recovery team aboard Military Sealift Command’s USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) completed an excavation, Feb. 25, of multiple aircraft losses shot down in 1944 near Ngerekebesang Island, Republic of Palau.

Although remains potentially associated with the losses were recovered by the team, the identity of those remains will not be released until a complete and thorough analysis can confirm positive identification and the service casualty office conducts next of kin notification.

The project was headed by the Defense POW/ MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which deployed an Underwater Recovery Team (URT) comprised of U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force service members and Department of Defense civilians that were embarked aboard the USNS Salvor. DPAA is headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

“It’s very labor intensive work and they’ve had a large amount of bottom time making this operation successful,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Emge, 7th Fleet Salvage Officer. “The Mobile Diving and Salvage Company 1-6 divers for this job have been pulling more than 12-hour-days for the past two months. The URT spent weeks excavating the area using a variety of archeological tools and meticulously inspecting the bottom sediment in their search and recovery of the missing personnel from World War II.”

The USNS Salvor is a rescue and salvage ship and was the ideal platform to support the recovery mission.

“The biggest advantage the Navy has with us on the Salvor is that we are standing by for them with a decompression chamber on board for divers, and we have heavy-lift capability,” said Capt. Mike Flanagan, a civilian mariner and master of USNS Salvor. “It’s just a robust ship. With our 40-ton-lift crane we can bring large and heavy objects off the bottom of the ocean.”

The Salvor embarked the diving team at Guam and the DPAA personnel at Palau. Once the team was onboard, the Salvor got underway to various recovery sites until they reached the excavation area where the pilot was recovered.

“We did a four-point moor on top of the aircraft and then it really got busy,” Flanagan said. “The aircraft had been untouched for about 74 years. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a military detachment working this hard for this long, seven days a week.”

Excavation was the primary duty of the URT, but MSC mariners were also at hand assisting. In addition to operating the cranes that moved the lift baskets, some crew members assisted sifting through sand while looking for any evidence. The mariners were trained by the embarked archeologist on how to sift through the sand.

“We helped out moving the ship and shipboard equipment around but we also helped screening some of the sand,” said civilian mariner Jean Marien, chief mate of the USNS Salvor. “It’s very meticulous process. There was a lot of sand—a never ending supply.”

The sifting box was a 4-by-8-feet basket that was about 4-and-a-half-feet high. It took about five hours to sift through each basket. The basket was submerged to the bottom of about 90-feet of water and filled with sediments dispersed over a large area.

“It took multiple dives to fill a sifting basket. Each dive lasted about an hour and the baskets took 5-to-6-hours to fill it up,” Marien said. “Sometimes we had two baskets going at the same time.”

The recovery operation had the support of the Koror State Government, the Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation, the Environmental Quality Protection Board, and other Palauan authorities.

According to DPAA, the recovery team is highly specialized and diverse and consisted of a forensic archeologist, diving officer, master diver, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and noncommissioned recovery specialists.

The United States remains committed to recovery of missing personnel from World War II as DPAA continues their mission to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation.

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Category: News