Why is a University of Delaware team searching for lost World War II planes?

A small team of University of Delaware researchers spent days diving to the bottom of a lagoon in the western Pacific Ocean to investigate remnants of World War II aircraft.

As part of an ongoing effort to locate American servicemembers missing in action, the team discovered pieces of three missing U.S. aircraft scattered across the seafloor in Micronesia's Chuuk Lagoon.

In December, a group of six from Project Recover — a partnership between UD and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — spent 10 days on the water searching for planes for up to 12 hours at a time. The researchers made three other trips to the region in 2019, after spending a year in Delaware researching the site.

Information gathered by Project Recover is given to the U.S. Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency, which plans recovery efforts, identifies missing soldiers and contacts families of repatriated soldiers.

Most of those families don’t know much more than the information their relatives received via telegram in the 1940s until groups like Project Recover locate long-lost remains.

“It’s a really long process,” said Mark Moline, cofounder of Project Recover and director of UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy. “The personal payoff is getting to know families, helping affect the next generation of folks, and educate them on the sacrifices their relatives made for them.”

The researchers found two SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers and one TBM/F-1 Avenger torpedo bomber in Chuuk Lagoon, known then as Truk Lagoon. The aircraft were flown from the USS Enterprise and USS Intrepid during Operation Hailstone on Feb. 17, 1944.

That day, in what is considered a significant victory, Americans shot down more than 200 Japanese aircraft and sank nearly 50 Japanese vessels. The U.S. lost roughly 30 planes in the attack.

Colin Colbourn, a postdoctoral researcher at UD and the lead historian for Project Recover, identified Truk Lagoon as a target area for its high density of sunken aircraft and relatively shallow waters. The group decides on its own where it will search for lost aircraft.

Once on the scene, Project Recover starts its searches by establishing a grid over a specific area. Using sonar and underwater robots, they scan the seafloor to reveal where man-made materials are located. The researchers then dive down and work with the technology to further interrogate the site.

This process is repeated day after day as divers cross-reference their findings with records of lost planes to see if they’ve found a match. They discovered almost a dozen Japanese wrecks across 61 sites before identifying the U.S. aircraft.

“What you’re looking for doesn’t look like an airplane at all,” Moline said.

They estimate about 30 U.S. aircraft containing roughly 100 missing Americans are still in the area. Through their research, the team becomes familiar with the people involved in each wreck — learning the details of mission assignments and battle action helps locate the lost aircraft.

“Once you find the aircraft you do have that feeling of relief,” Moline said. “You’ve spent so much time from a research perspective, from a search perspective trying to look for these things ... We get to know a little bit about these losses. There’s a real solemness in that.”

‘It drives you every day’

In eight years since its founding, the nonprofit has identified more than 70 U.S. aircraft, leading to the recovery of close to 600 soldiers missing in action.

Project Recover has completed missions in more than a dozen countries including Guatemala, Kuwait and Hungary.

Project Recover will likely return to Micronesia in 2020, since it has already received approval from the country and gone through the travel logistics.

Each year the group attempts to reach five or six locations. It is looking to expand into areas affected by the Vietnam and Korean wars.

Moline helped start Project Recover after working on a Navy project on the Pacific island Palau. He thought his technology could help a group he met on the island that was searching for MIAs.

Colbourn learned of Moline’s project after working a fellowship with the government’s accounting agency. With a PhD in military history, Colbourn wanted to use his historical research to “have an affect on people and bring people home.”

“Once you start doing this sort of stuff it’s in you and you can’t get rid of it,” Colbourn said. “It drives you every day.”