Project RECOVER team discovers downed WWII aircraft

Mike Sandler signed a confidentiality agreement before he joined the BentProp expedition this year in the Republic of Palau on a

Mike Sandler in Palea

Mike Sandler in Palau

mission with Project RECOVER to find downed planes and vessels that may contain remains of MIA’s from WWII.  Project RECOVER is a partnership with BentProp, Scripps and the University of Delaware.

Sandler, a resident of Navarre, and a retired Chief Master Sergeant from Hurlburt Field,  was one of only three new selectees this year for the task after a nationwide search by BentProp.  Sandler returned in mid-April and when asked if he found anything, he would say, “We found a lot of places where there isn’t anything.”

However, Sandler had a secret that he could not divulge until it was made public today. The expedition which was part of Project RECOVER, found what would later be confirmed as a U.S. Navy TBM-1C Avenger, missing since July 1944. Avenger’s typically had three aircrew on-board. “It was really difficult not being able to tell anyone until now,” Sandler told Navarre Press today. “We had to keep this confidential because it could potentially involve human remains and we did not want the site compromised in any way.” Sandler added

Advanced Imagery made possible by donors to Project RECOVER.

Project RECOVER is a collaborative effort that includes BentProp, to combine cutting-edge advanced oceanographic technology with advanced archival research methods to locate aircraft and Americans missing in action (MIA) since WWII.

Before Sandler left for Palau in March, he had a lot of homework which included going to Pensacola NAS researching airplanes and boats from WWII so that he would know what he was looking at underwater. However, nothing looks the same after 72 years underwater at 100 feet which is where the wreckage of the Avenger was found. “When we returned, we had more research to do by looking at the pictures and clues,” Sandler said. One teammate went to the National Archives and others are continuing to look into when and where Avengers are declared missing. “When the plane was found, we had an idea of what it might be but you have to put that out of your mind and find the real evidence of what it is.”  Sandler wasn’t on the dive of the original discovery but he made subsequent dives to assess the wreckage and gather more data.

Sandler’s expeditionary team was given 400 targets to assess but only were able to assess about 200 targets. “Most of the time we just find junk and things that are not WWII related,” Sandler said.

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Wreckage of a U.S. Navy TBM-1C Avenger located by Project RECOVER off Palau. Photo: Eric Terrill, Mark Moline

Though the find was what Sandler describes as, “incredible,” there is more work to do. “It will be more incredible when we find out which one it is. We wish we had a tail number. This isn’t over yet.” Sandler said.

In fact, Sandler was at NAS Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum Library this week to pore over files from WWII. “There are a lot of notes, but there are not a lot of detailed notes from the different aircraft carriers. Sometimes you don’t know who was on which aircraft, though you may know who was in a squadron,” Sandler said.

For now, the recovery effort has been turned over to the Navy. “The Navy doesn’t give up possession of their aircraft or ships. The aircraft and ships out there will always belong to the Navy and they are the responsible entity for the recovery,” Sandler said.

“It is highly likely there where three U.S. service men on that plane when it went down and hopefully we will find out who they were and notify family members,” Sandler said. However, Sandler wants to get it right the first time. “The worst thing would be to make an assumption – that it was one crew – only to find out years later it was someone else. Until it is positive – it won’t be released. “

“This isn’t about finding the wreckage. It is possible we can repatriate three U.S. Service members that have been missing for 72-years. That is what it is all about.”

TBM Avenger at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla

TBM Avenger at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla

The TBM-1C Avenger

The aircraft was originally the TBF Avenger and was manufactured by Grumman and gained the designation of TBM Avenger when General Motors entered into the production of this aircraft in 1943.

The Avenger is associated with the famous “Rosie the Riveter”

According to Acepilots.com there were 2,291 TBF’s and 7,546 TBM Avenger’s manufactured.

“Undoubtedly, the most famous man to fly an Avenger was George H.W. Bush, later the 41st President of the United States. He joined the Navy in 1942, and became the youngest naval aviator ever in June, 1943. He flew Avengers with VT-51, from USS San Jacinto. On September 2, 1944 he was shot down over Chichi Jima. While Bush parachuted safely and was rescued, neither of his crewmen survived. Bush earned a DFC for delivering his bomb load after his Avenger had been hit.”  Excerpt from Acepilots.com

Original press release can be found here.

You can read more about Avengers, here.

You can see an Avenger fly, here.

See a 1944 Avenger training film here.

You can read more about Bent Prop, its mission and about Mike Sandler in the first article we wrote before Sandler left on his trip – here.

About The BentProp Project

The BentProp Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, has been searching for American MIAs for two decades. This team was created by Patrick Scannon and has consisted of dedicated volunteers, who conduct historical and archival research to support annual month-long searches, focusing primarily in the jungles and waters of Palau. The BentProp Project has been successful in locating and identifying numerous MIA crash sites, which has allowed DPAA to conduct recovery and repatriation missions for these missing Americans. http://www.bentprop.org/

About Project RECOVER

Project RECOVER is a public-private partnership to enlist 21st century science and technology combined with in-depth archival and historical research in a quest to find the final underwater resting places of Americans missing in action since World War II.

Established in 2012 with initial support from the Office of Naval Research and now private funding, Project RECOVER is a partnership among researchers at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, and the BentProp Project.

The work blends historical data from many different sources to narrow underwater search regions with scanning sonars, high definition and thermal cameras, advanced diving, and unmanned aerial and underwater robotic technologies. While the bulk of the project to date has focused on searches in the Pacific Islands of Palau, the methods will now be applied to the many regions across the globe where servicemen are still missing.

For more information visit: www.projectrecover.org.

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