An Extraordinary Mission to Find an American WWII Bomber Crew at the Bottom of the Pacific

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Not necessarily about books and writing, but an interesting story about the credo of those who fight our wars.

Tennyson crew photo taking during stateside training, fall 1943. The pilot, 1st Lt. Herbert G. Tennyson, is second from left on the front row. The bombardier, 2nd Lt. Thomas V. Kelly Jr., is in the front row on the far right. Photographer S/Sgt. John W. Emmer, who wasn’t part of the crew but was assigned to their aircraft to document the mission, isn’t pictured. Credit: Courtesy of the Kelly family.

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the spring of 1944, Second Lt. Thomas V. Kelly Jr.’s mother received a one-page letter at her home in Livermore, Calif., informing her that her son was killed in action. His plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and disintegrated midair during a mission in New Guinea, his commander wrote.

“Unfortunately this is the only information we can furnish,” the letter read. 

Lt. Kelly and 10 other men were aboard the B-24 bomber when it was downed over the Pacific Ocean. Nearly eight decades later, remains recovered from a remote seabed more than 200 feet deep have arrived in the U.S., the result of an extraordinary effort by relatives, scientists and the American military.

Their journey spanned 10 years. Elite Navy divers lived inside a pressurized cabin for weeks so they could stay underwater longer and work at greater depths. About 250 tons of equipment was carried to the site in 17 shipping containers.

More than 81,500 Americans remain missing from past conflicts, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, part of the U.S. Defense Department that is tasked with finding them. About 75% were last seen somewhere in the Indo-Pacific, and most of them perished during World War II. 

Lt. Kelly and most of his fellow airmen were in their 20s when they died. Their bomber, with the words “Heaven Can Wait” painted across its nose, lay shattered on the ocean floor for decades. An unlikely spark ignited a quest to find it.  

A photo of the B-24 Bomber Heaven Can Wait provided by the family of Col. Harry Bullis. Heaven Can Wait was struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashed during a mission in Papua New Guinea on March 11, 1944, with 11 men on board. Credit: Courtesy of the family of Col. Harry Bullis.

A Name

On Memorial Day weekend in 2013, Scott Althaus reflected on a fuzzy childhood memory. When he was about 10 years old, his mother took him to visit the family plot at a cemetery in Livermore. He couldn’t remember the name etched on a small gray stone that they went to see, but he did recall the shape of an airplane carved beneath it.

Mr. Althaus, now 56 years old, is a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he specializes in public perceptions of war. While he knew he had two relatives who died in World War II, he didn’t know much about them.

He asked his mother if she knew their names, and she emailed him a photograph of Lt. Kelly, her first cousin. Surviving relatives said he grew up on the family ranch in Livermore and dreamed of becoming a cowboy. After his death at age 21, his mother kept his boyhood bedroom almost as he left it, but with a folded American flag on top of the dresser.

Mr. Althaus did some more research. Lt. Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in August 1942, trained as a bombardier and was assigned to what became known as the Tennyson Crew, named after its pilot, First Lt. Herbert G. Tennyson.

. . . .

On Dec. 7, 1943, they landed on an island north of Australia where Allied forces were fighting the Japanese, in what is now the nation of Papua New Guinea.

Mr. Althaus gathered as many details as he could about the 11 men who died. Ten of them were the plane’s crew. One was a photographer assigned to document their mission. At least two were married.

The Tennyson Crew was part of the 90th Bombardment Group, known as the “Jolly Rogers.” Fortuitously, a unit historian named Wiley O. Woods had meticulously documented their deployment in a book and a 64-volume set of records housed in a library at the University of Memphis.

In 2015, Mr. Althaus recruited four relatives to travel to Memphis. They spent two days scouring the archives and returned with nearly 800 photographs of documents—diary entries, maps, official army records.

“We learned so many things about that final mission that we never, ever thought we could learn,” Mr. Althaus said. He stitched together a chronology.

Heaven Can Wait took off from an airfield called Nadzab on March 11, 1944, loaded with eight 1,000-pound bombs. It was part of a group assigned to weaken Japanese antiaircraft batteries at several positions along the coast of the island of New Guinea.  

They came under fire as they neared their first target of Boram airfield and dropped some of their bombs. The Tennyson Crew was one of three that were assigned a second target on the island. They peeled off and veered toward an area called Awar Point at the northern edge of Hansa Bay. Visibility was good as they approached. Then came the sudden roar of enemy fire. 

The crew of another aircraft had a clear view of what happened next. Heaven Can Wait was struck near its middle and caught fire. Three men were seen falling but none of their parachutes opened. Part of the tail broke off. The plane and its remaining passengers also plunged into the water.

One eyewitness, identified as “Red” Tonder, said in a 1992 account that just before Heaven Can Wait went down, its co-pilot looked over and gave a final salute.

. . . .

In mid-2017, Eric Terrill and Andrew Pietruszka were planning an expedition to Papua New Guinea when they received a pivotal email from Mr. Althaus. The two work for a nonprofit, now called Project Recover, which was founded 30 years ago to find and repatriate Americans missing in action. 

Mr. Althaus had sent over a 32-page report that was essentially a treasure map leading them to the wreckage. Mr. Althaus had compiled the serial numbers of the aircraft’s engines and weapons, as well as landmark features of the local terrain that helped narrow down the search field. 

Heaven Can Wait was likely resting a quarter of a mile from Awar Point, his report said. The location is so remote that, at the time, it wasn’t searchable using Google Maps.

Messrs. Terrill and Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist who used to work for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, rounded up a team of about a dozen experts and set off in October 2017 to find it. They scoured the seabed with underwater robots, working 16-hour days for almost two weeks. 

. . . .

Two days before their mission was due to end, one of the robots equipped with sonar sensors hovered over an area about a mile east of where Mr. Althaus predicted the plane would be. It detected jagged shapes that looked like they could be part of an engine and wing.

The next day, they sent down a remotely-operated vehicle outfitted with a high-definition camera for a closer look. In May 2018, they announced that Heaven Can Wait had been found. They had located the plane’s tail assembly, fuselage and wing debris—and identified probable crew positions.

. . . .

There were setbacks: An initial dive team sent to sweep for unexploded ordnance and survey the crash had to be pulled out when a nearby volcano erupted in December 2018. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed them again in 2020 and 2021. This year, it was go-time.

Members of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit trained for two months at a base on the Florida panhandle. For the first time, they would deploy what they call SAT FADS—the Saturation Fly-Away Diving System, developed by the U.S. military.

The system uses a custom-fitted ship that houses a small airtight habitat. It connects to a capsule called a diving bell, which is tethered to the ship and transports divers to the seabed. Once they enter the pressurized habitat, they stay inside for weeks.

The divers said the environment distorts their senses. The sound of teeth brushing seems to echo in their heads. Certain foods like fish and bread suddenly smell and taste repulsive. They breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen that makes them talk like Mickey Mouse.

Unable to use electronic devices inside, they passed the time mostly by reading. One diver devoured the book “A Higher Call,” the true story of a German fighter ace who guided a damaged American aircraft out of enemy airspace during World War II.

Eventually, someone had the idea to use a bed sheet as a movie screen. Crew outside the sealed habitat propped a projector in front of their tiny porthole so they could watch the “John Wick” series. The soundtrack crackled through the vessel’s built-in communications system.

. . . .

Each diver carried about 80 pounds of gear, with extra weights strapped to their waists and ankles to ground them to the seabed. They maneuvered slowly through strong currents.

“It felt like you were walking into a windstorm at times,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Kinney, the diver officer in-charge. 

The wreckage was well preserved, with different parts of the plane visible. Six divers alternated on four-hour shifts in teams of three, using a hose that gently vacuumed up whatever they could find. Large pieces were placed in baskets and reeled to the surface.

Each night, the mission’s lead scientist, Greg Stratton, hunched over trays to examine their haul with a jeweler’s loop in search of bits of bones and teeth.

After five weeks of diving, they came ashore with hundreds of pieces of evidence. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said it includes “osseous material,” which could be bone.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “An Extraordinary Mission to Find an American WWII Bomber Crew at the Bottom of the Pacific”

  1. Taps.

    Day is done, gone the sun
    From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
    All is well, safely rest
    God is nigh.

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