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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 4, 2010

World War II-era wreck off South Maui identified

Ilima Loomis
The Maui News

WAILUKU - A World War II-era wreck off South Maui first documented in January has been identified as an SBC-2 Helldiver, ditched in Maalaea Bay on a training flight by a Navy pilot in 1944.

Maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dived to the site Saturday and confirmed that it was the plane identified by two groups of private divers separately investigating the wreck. He said the U.S. Navy was in the process of making a plaque to mark the site, which is protected under state and federal law, and that officials may also consider installing a mooring nearby.

Van Tilburg said the aircraft was a rare find, not only because the wreck was almost completely preserved, but also because there are very few Helldivers left in existence.

"I'm definitely impressed," he said. "It's remarkably intact. I've seen a number of aircraft like this, and this one is very intact. That makes it very special."

When the wreck was first documented in January, it was initially believed to be an SBD Dauntless dive bomber. But B&B Scuba Maui owner Brad Varney, who first reported the site to government authorities after learning about it from a local fisherman, said he realized after visiting the wreck a second time that it was actually a Helldiver.

Today the plane rests on the sandy bottom of Maalaea Bay in about 50 feet of water, encrusted with coral and surrounded by schools of fish.

According to Navy crash records researched by private divers investigating the site, the plane was making a dive-bombing practice attack Aug. 31, 1944, when high-speed maneuvers damaged the tail fin and jammed the rudder controls. With only limited ability to control the aircraft, pilot William E. Dill, a Navy lieutenant, made a water landing, surviving the crash without injuries.

Varney, a self-described "history nut," said it was exciting to pore over 60-year-old crash reports and other documents as he and colleagues pieced the story together.

"It was pretty cool," he said. "It wasn't that hard to figure out, once you had all the records."

Maui-based documentary producer and photographer Harry Donenfeld, who investigated the site with a group of divers from North Shore Explorers, said he was impressed by how smoothly Dill put the plane down in the water with only limited control. The only part of the plane to break off was the tail fin, which had been damaged during the maneuvers.

"Clearly he did an incredible landing," he said. "It's like he parked it there."

According to Navy records researched by Donenfeld, Dill survived another water landing in a Helldiver just three months later, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where his flight group was assigned to the USS Essex aircraft carrier. Leyte was the scene of the largest naval battle during World War II, and it represented a push by the United States to reclaim the Philippines from the imperial forces of Japan.

Donenfeld said he wanted to research more of Dill's story and hoped to make contact with his family or people who knew him to help "fill in the blanks."

"I would love to hear what the rest of his life was like," he said. "I think it would put an excellent end to the story."

Van Tilburg said the wreck represents an important time in Hawaii's history, when thousands of soldiers, sailors and pilots came to the islands to train and prepare for war before being shipped on to the brutal battles of the Pacific.

As special as this particular wreck may be, the Helldiver off Maalaea is actually just one of 1,484 naval aircraft known to be lost in waters off the Hawaiian Islands, most on training flights like the one made by Lt. Dill, Van Tilburg said.

Pilots like Dill put their planes through extreme maneuvers to prepare for battle, and those steep dives and sharp turns were too much for some aircraft to take.

"That's what happened with this one particular crash - the rudder's broken off completely," he said.

Pilots also practiced how to ditch a plane, and Van Tilburg said he'd seen cases of pilots who'd survived three, four or even five water landings over the course of the war.

The Helldiver was a heavy plane with a large payload, designed to carry 1,000-pound bombs, with a large wing and tail so that it could take off from the short decks of aircraft carriers.

"They called it 'the Big-Tailed Beast' or just 'the Beast,' " Van Tilburg said.

While the dive site may see a rush of visitors now that its location is public knowledge, anyone visiting the wreck should be aware that the plane is still property of the U.S. Navy, and it's against the law to touch or disturb the site.

"It's always exciting to dive an aircraft like that, because that was such a significant period for the island," Van Tilburg said. "It's a bit of history on the bottom of the ocean. I'm glad to see the dive shops are taking a careful approach to accessing the site."