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P-MAN XVII Progress Report #5 - The new find is an SB2C Helldiver

22 March 2015

It's been a few days since I got here and things have been going at a alternating hectic and frenetic pace. Mostly. Getting my body on the right time zone is always a challenge and does interfere with getting these updates out at the beginning. So let me catch you up.

The players:


Pat Scannon


Flip Colmer


Dan O'Brien


Jennifer Powers-Krasny, serious keeper of the dive log


Val Slocum


Derek Abbey


Mickaila Johnston


Blake Boteler

I arrived in Palau at 0100 on 22 March. Unfortunately, my checked luggage did not. That included all my scuba gear. Occasionally, passenger aircraft get weight restricted in flying long distances. Or as we say in our company, payload optimized. When that happens it means that you may not be able to take all of the cargo and bags that have been scheduled to go. The first bags and cargo to be pulled are employee bags and company cargo. This helps protect the people who pay the bills. So when I arrived in Palau, my bags were still in Portland, Oregon.

However, the next day my bags got routed via Japan and South Korea to Palau and arrived at 0145 on the 23rd. With gear in hand, I could now get wet.

But until my gear arrived, I did boat duties. And our task was pretty simple. Close out the crash site that had been discovered at the beginning of the trip. We can now say that the aircraft we found is an SB2C Helldiver.


File photos: what an SB2C Helldiver looks like BEFORE it's shot down.
Sorry - we don't have underwater crash-site photos to share.

The Helldiver had a crew of two and this crew has been MIA for 70 years. We've done as much work on the site as we can to make this determination, so no further investigations by us are necessary. It's time to write the reports and turn over the information to DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, formerly JPAC). These are the people who, if they ultimately decide to commit resources, will conduct an actual recovery effort for the crew.

This find is a direct result of the cooperation between BentProp, the University of Delaware, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. We met out in San Diego for a joint planning session in January. We reviewed reports, previous data and photos and came up with search plans in defined areas of the harbors. Once in country, and on one of the first days of operations, one of the REMUS underwater vehicles imaged the wreckage in 110 feet of water and over the course of a few days, divers from all three organizations made the determination that it is a Helldiver.

The close-out was just a group of four divers who went down to take one last look at the site, take a few photos and remove our submerged buoy.

When we headed back to shore for lunch, it was obvious everyone needed to get some rest. They had been working hard for the past week, so an easy afternoon was in order.

For lunch, almost everyone ordered the Tsunami burger, which is ginormous, so most just snacked around dinner time. As far as I'm concerned, that is just crazy talk.

A grocery run was made and folks did a bunch of admin tasks, then we went out to the Palau Pacific Resort (PPR) for sunset, and finally headed back to the hotel for debriefing.

Last year we did debriefs almost every night with Scripps and UDEL that lasted way into the night. Mostly because we did it after the sun had set, and after dinner. Using the smart-person theorem, we have adjusted to having these group debriefs every other night, or when really needed, but we do it as a working dinner. It really saves time and gets people to bed at a reasonable hour. Although the dinner portion was skipped tonight, the debrief happened and it was an efficient use of our time. We were given a set of targets to go dive that were developed by Scripps and UDEL.

23 March

We were up early and had our first bacon-and-egg breakfast. When the team arrived on 13 March, the island was out of a lot of normal groceries. There were no fruits, veggies, eggs or bacon to be had. However, the grocery boat came in yesterday and we replenished our pantry.

We had a set of targets to explore in a small lagoon. Although we had searched this lagoon years ago, we only used our eyeballs and the help of a local expat diver Dennis. He knew where there were some things and he showed us. This year, the AUV searched and came up with a lot of interesting looking things. Unfortunately, all the interesting things that were parts of aircraft were things we had seen before, and all the new items were rocks. Take a look at our old mission reports from 2004 through 2006 and you can see more photos of this TBM Avenger debris.


Avenger outer wing with hand for scale.


Leading edge of wing at the bottom of photo, looking at the bottom of the wing.

The good news is that none of the parts in this lagoon belong to the Helldiver. So we still have the rest of another airplane, an Avenger, to be found.

Between BentProp, Scripps and UDEL, we blasted through our target list by lunchtime. So some folks went to town to take care of some admin business (this admin stuff is never ending) and the rest of us went around Ngargol Island. We were scouting places that might allow an easier climb onto the island. These little rock islands are treacherously steep, so easy - or easier - are really relative terms. The island we think is under the flight path of the Avenger, some of whose parts are in that little lagoon. We also found some Avenger-related debris up on top of the island a few years ago and we want to take another look on the opposite side from where we've already searched. A local has reported some more debris up there.

We found a few spots that might make the entry point doable. Derek will be leading that effort on the island.

Tomorrow, we'll be assisted by a Palauan who knows where an aircraft engine is in a place we've never been. It's down south and a boat ride will be necessary. He says it's in 5-20 feet of water. We should be able to see it from the surface. And he's willing to show us where it is. That's a good thing. The odds are better when someone actually takes us there. But that is tomorrow.

24 March

Although we had a pretty boat ride going to and from the "engine" area, we couldn't locate the item. This is not unusual. When a local takes us out to a spot, the odds are better that we'll find something, but that is not guaranteed. He said he would look for it on his own and get back with us.

So here are some photos of Palau.


Mickaila looking all comfy


You just can't find water back home like this


Val and her device, capturing point of view video

We had a couple of good strategy sessions on how to prosecute more likely targets and have developed a plan to attack each of our cases in an orderly manner.

Lovely dinner at The Taj, a great Indian restaurant.

- Flip Colmer

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