May 24

NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch and MDSU2 Survey SB2C Helldiver Wreck

Thursday, May 24, 2012 4:34 PM


The Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) is currently cooperating with the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) and U.S. Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit TWO (MDSU-2) to investigate a WWII-era SB2C Helldiver aircraft wreck off the coast of Jupiter, FL. The objectives of the investigation are to identify the aircraft using its numbered identification plates, measure and map the wreck site, and document the aircraft.

Investigation operations are being conducted from USNS Apache (T-ATF 172), one of MSC’s four Fleet Ocean Tugs and one of the 14 ships in its Surface Support Program. USNS Apache’s main mission is to render assistance to the US Navy’s numbered fleets by providing towing, diving platform and other services. UAB is also pleased to have the opportunity to once again work with MDSU-2. Their expertise and support were much appreciated aboard USNS Grasp, during the 2011 collaborative survey expedition to locate the wreck of USS Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea. (Photo to the left courtesy of Military Sealift Command Ship Database)

In addition to assisting UAB with its archaeological investigation, this project also provides MDSU-2 divers the opportunity to gain valuable training experience by performing deep water, mixed-gas dives up to 185 ft (56.4 m); collecting measurements of underwater sites; and conducting underwater navigation exercises. Over the previous four days, MDSU-2 divers have assisted with measuring the wreck site, documenting the aircraft, and mapping its disarticulated pieces. All divers are equipped with live video feed in their helmets, which allows MDSU-2 dive supervisor and UAB representative underwater archaeologist Heather Brown to observe underwater operations from aboard Apache in real time.

The wreck was first discovered and filmed by a local dive charter operator late last year, who then contacted NHHC about the find in early 2012. Video footage of the wreck (photo on the right is a still taken from video by Randy Jordan) shows that it is relatively intact and currently rests in an inverted position on the sandy ocean floor. The vertical stabilizer, ailerons, flaps, and elevators initially appeared to be missing, however portions or fragments of those elements have since been located on the site. The propellers and engine have been separated from the fuselage and lie several meters away from of the main body of the wreck. There are a number of ropes wrapped around the propellers and what appears to be a lobster trap lying beside the engine, suggesting the wreck may have been previously snagged by a fishing boat. (Sonar image of the SB2C site shown at the right)

As the wreck is resting in an inverted position on the sandy bottom, the cockpit and the aircraft bureau number were not readily accessible to the divers. However, they were able to locate a model number plate, heavily covered in marine growth and currently illegible, and carefully remove it. The plate is being sent to the Underwater Archaeology & Conservation Lab at NHHC headquarters on the Washington Navy Yard, DC, where it will be treated and examined by UAB’s conservation team and hopefully provide data to help identify the aircraft.

(The heavily corroded data plate)

Stay tuned for more updates as the project progresses!

Click the below link to watch Local News Channel 5 interview with NHHC underwater archaeologist Heather Brown:

  • terri meyerholz

    I am writing in regards to the navy plane found in Florida. My name is Terri and my uncles plane went down on 9/20/43 and he and the pilot and plane was never found. Since the story broke in December 2011 I and my mother have wonder if it could of been his plane. We would love to finally have closer after all these years. I am praying you will find who was in that plane and put closer if not to us but to someone’s family. If you could please keep me informed. My mother is very ill and I would love and hope to give her peace before her end of time.

  • Jim Valle

    Nautical archaeology is fairly expensive given the equipment and manpower required to do it correctly. It is most worthwhile when it teaches us something we didn’t previously know about a historically significant event or shipwreck. I ask, respectfully, what can we learn that we don’t already know about a Helldiver? It is a fully documented and understood artifact with no remaining mysteries or controversies related to it. If this particular one contains human remains it’s a gravesite and analysis could provide closure as suggested in the previous comment but I, for one, can see no reason to do expensive analysis and conservation work on the plane itself. That kind of effort is better spent working some much older site relating to a major historical event or posing an unanswered riddle. The BonHomme Richard site would be an example.

  • Robert M de Poto

    I was a gunner flying SB2c out of Ceicil Field in Jacksonville Fla. .. we lost a plane and never found it .. the gunner was a person named Westley who was a friend of mine ..I do not know the name of the was a nav hop and we searched for quite a while … hope this might be helpful

  • Megan Lickliter-Mundon

    We might think we know all about the aircraft but, especially during the war, we known aircraft weren’t always built exactly to spec. We can analyze the composition to find out what substitutions or innovations were used during periods of materials shortage. Aircraft have come up out of Lake Michigan autographed by their original fabricators- one even with a pair of bloomers stuffed in a wing compartment. Any information we can get from studying these aircraft will tell us more about a human story or history behind it- this is what archaeology is all about.
    As for this particular one- the conservation work will hopefully help them identify the bureau number and allow them to find out if there are any remains or mysteries associated with it.

  • Joe Bardsley

    All my life I was told story’s about my Uncle Gene Bardsley, who was on a training mission for the Navy, flying “blind” between Florida and Cuba, when as the story goes, his plane colided with a Cuban Passenger plane that was off course. Could this be the wreckage of my Uncle. He died I think the same year that my father married, which would have been around 1941. My father is still alive, and might know more. The archeologist working on this search is Heather Brown. Will someone see that she get this post, which may help her locate his story, and verify or rule out if this is the wreckage of the plane piloted by Gene Bardsley.

  • Joe Bardsley

    Sorry, I misscalculated in my prior post. My uncle, Gene Bardsley’s plane would have gone down around 1951, not 1941.

  • UAB is currently working to positively identify the aircraft using data recovered during the project. If we are able to identify the aircraft and it is found to have gone down with its crew, UAB will then inform the Navy Casualty Assistance Division who would then contact the family members. Thanks very much to those of you who shared your stories and for your interest in the project.

  • Jim Valle

    I just read an article on the AOL/Huffington Post home page about a team of German military divers working on the salvage of a Junkers Ju 87 ( Stuka ) dive bomber that has been sixty feet down in the Baltic for seven decades. Their ambition is to bring it all up and completely restore it. If they’re successful it would make this one the third Stuka in existence joining one preserved in Britain and one in the USA. Given the staggering cost of this venture I have to ask once again is what we stand to learn from yet another Stuka worth it? If the Germans want a reminder or a symbol of this era in their military past, why no just build a replica at a fraction of the cost.

  • Charlene Mercer

    I am trying to locate a member or former member of MDSU2 that was on the team to raise the Monitor in 2002. I am not sure if he is still enlisted or has retired. His name is HTC Mike Lutz. If anyone has any information on how I can contact him I would greatly appreciate it. I am interested in interviewing him on the salvage operations he has been a part of over the years.
    My email is [email protected]