Ninety minutes before daybreak on February 17, 1944, Operation Hailstone was launched from three U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the South Pacific. Hundreds of American warplanes ravaged the Japanese-held island airfields and harbors of Truk Lagoon, one of the most formidable Japanese naval air bases in the Pacific.
The low-flying torpedo bombers and dive bombers did not show up on Japanese radar, and so were a complete surprise to the Japanese forces, with many of their personnel on shore leave. Over the next two days, Operation Hailstone stormed the Japanese defenses, shot down and destroyed more than 250 warplanes, and sank nearly 50 Japanese merchant vessels in addition to the few fighting ships that were left. An important victory for the United States, Operation Hailstone also resulted in the loss of 30 U.S. aircraft and 23 missing aviators and crew members.
Seventy-six years later, Project Recover has found three of these missing 30 planes: one TBM/F-1 Avenger torpedo bomber, and two SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers that flew from the aircraft carriers USS Intrepid and USS Enterprise. These three aircraft, missing in action since 1944, are associated with seven missing servicemen.
“Finding these three aircraft was only possible with the dedication and tireless efforts of our team members and the support of the host country,” said Mark Moline, co-founder of Project Recover, expedition leader, and director of the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware. “While the discovery of these sites is exhilarating and validating, these feelings are mixed with the humbling emotions of the sacrifices made by these service members and their families in protecting our freedoms.”
Now known as Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia, Truk Lagoon was targeted by Project Recover in 2018. “Our research included historical eyewitness narratives from official military reports, mission documents, maps, images from the battle, and interviews with local Chuukese. This effort narrowed potential search areas for specific aircraft and motivated the expeditions,” said Colin Colbourn, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware and Project Recover’s lead historian.
From April 2018 through December 2019, Project Recover partners from the University of Delaware and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego made four expeditions to Chuuk to search for Operation Hailstone missing aircraft. After a combined 50 days on the water and a search that covered nearly 27 square miles of the sea floor, the team found the debris fields of the three aircraft in depths ranging from 100 to 215 feet. To start, the team went out in small dive boats and launched autonomous underwater robots equipped with sonar to survey the area. They detected manmade debris in 61 locations, which were examined more closely by the divers and underwater remotely controlled robots with advanced imaging systems. Three of these sites contained the missing U.S. aircraft.
“After completing archeological surveys of the crash sites in December 2019, the team is now assembling reports for review by the United States Government to potentially set into motion a process for recovering and identifying the remains of up to seven crew members associated with these aircraft,” said Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at the Scripps Institution, and Project Recover’s lead archaeologist.
Project Recover will share their site documentation with the Federated States of Micronesia and the United States Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which is tasked with evaluating the sites for possible recovery and repatriation efforts, including notifying the families of the missing.
Dan Friedkin is the chairman of Project Recover, and the chairman and CEO of the Friedkin Group, which provides substantial financial support to the organization. Mr. Friedkin said, “This discovery is an important step toward our ultimate goal of identifying and returning home those who bravely served our country during Operation Hailstone.” He added, “Our search efforts for the more than 81,000 American service members still missing from past conflicts, including more than 72,000 from World War II, will continue as we seek to bring closure to the families impacted by their loss.”
An Ongoing Mission
Even as Project Recover launches expeditions this year in various locations in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, their work in Truk Lagoon is not completed.
“Our research indicates that there are an additional 28 aircraft from WW II still missing in Truk Lagoon, associated with 103 MIAs,” said Derek Abbey, a retired U.S. Marine aviator and president and CEO of Project Recover. “Project Recover is honored to play our part in keeping our nation’s promise of returning our fallen service members home, and we remain committed to locating more Americans missing in action in Chuuk and around the world.”
BY DEBRA CLEGHORN | PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK MOLINE/UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE