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Using robot, scientists find World War II bomber

A University of Delaware oceanographer helped find the plane, which had a crew of six servicemen when shot down more than 70 years ago.

A University of Delaware scientist and colleagues found this debris from a downed World War II aircraft, a B-25 bomber that had been missing for more than 70 years, in the waters off of Papua New Guinea.
A University of Delaware scientist and colleagues found this debris from a downed World War II aircraft, a B-25 bomber that had been missing for more than 70 years, in the waters off of Papua New Guinea.Read morePROJECT RECOVER

Using a sonar-equipped underwater robot, a University of Delaware scientist and colleagues have discovered the wreckage of a B-25 bomber that was shot down in the waters off what is now Papua New Guinea during World War II, the team said Tuesday.

Historical records indicate that the plane, found in February on the west coast of the South Pacific nation, is associated with a crew of six servicemen missing in action, the Project Recover team said. The nonprofit group has provided the Department of Defense with detailed documentation of the wreck for a possible mission to recover any remains.

The team found the tail section of the aircraft first, then located additional debris several hundred yards away – giving clues about its final moments before impact, said Mark Moline, director of Delaware's School of Marine Science and Policy.

"The aircraft was moving at a pretty fast clip when it hit the water," he said.

The find marks the 12th time since 2012 that the group has documented the remains of aircraft from the war. In addition to Delaware's Moline, other project members hail from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and a nonprofit organization called BentProp.

The locations of several of the planes were already known, but no one had done the necessary site surveys for possible recovery missions.

In February, the team went into an area off Papua New Guinea to investigate one of those known locations.

Using scuba gear, underwater cameras, and other tools, team members recorded the wreck's dimensions and where various pieces were scattered, as well as the water depth and other conditions.

Moline was gathering information on that B-25 wreck, working from a boat in Papua New Guinea's Madang Harbor.

Meanwhile, colleagues in a second boat were looking for another downed B-25 whose exact location was unknown. Using military and historic records, they had narrowed the search to an area measuring several square miles. Then it was up to the robot – a torpedo-shaped device that swam back and forth, scanning the ocean floor with sonar.

About a quarter of the way through the designated section of harbor, the robot's sonar lit up, indicating a manmade object that sat in more than 130 feet of water.

Moline, an oceanographer, quickly joined his colleagues at that site.

He donned scuba gear for a closer look, and saw right away it was part of a plane.

Further scrutiny revealed it to be the tail section of the B-25 that had been missing for more than 70 years, felled by Japanese fire.

Moline has been involved with many of the group's finds since 2012, and they always come with the same mixture of excitement and somber reflection, he said.

"To know that we've found it is really exhilarating, but then you also know it's part of an accident with six individuals," he said.

The project received initial funds from the Office of Naval Research, then stepped up its efforts in 2016 with support from Dan Friedkin, chairman and chief executive officer of the Friedkin Group, a consortium of automotive, hospitality, and entertainment companies.

After documenting the two B-25 planes in late February, the group continued its efforts in the first week of March, scouting other possible wreck sites in Papua New Guinea.

One looked promising but was too deep to tackle, Moline said.

The group is headed back in the fall to take another crack at it.