Wreckage of World War II-era dive bomber found off Maui
By Ilima Loomis
WAILUKU — A Maui scuba tour operator may have made the dive of his life Wednesday when he found what appears to be the previously undocumented wreck of a World War II-era dive bomber off South Maui.
Brad Varney, owner of B&B Scuba Maui, said the aircraft appears to be a nearly intact Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless. Both canopies were open, with the plane's gauges clearly visible on the console, and the back flaps are down. The only part missing was the plane's top tail rudder, which Varney found resting on the sand not far from the wreck.
"I'm an old military history buff, and it's in very good shape for 70 years old," he said.
Varney would not immediately identify the location of the sunken aircraft, saying he wanted to make sure the site was protected and not stripped by looters. He said he was waiting for guidance from federal authorities on what to do next.
"Part of me wants to keep it a secret, but on the other hand, when this gets out, I don't want to see it desecrated," he said.
Varney said he learned of the wreck while he was chatting with a local fisherman.
"He was frustrated that the fish were 'hiding under the wings,' " Varney said. "I said, 'What wings?' "
The man told him about the aircraft and drew a rough map to the site, and Varney went to check it out. What he found stunned him.
"I've gone to Chuuk Lagoon. I've gone to Palau to dive military wrecks, and this is in as good condition as any of them," he said. "It's amazing."
Varney said the wreck was an easy dive, but that the site probably had not been seen by anyone but local fishers because it was "off the beaten path," in an area not frequented by divers.
The SBD Dauntless — nicknamed "Slow But Deadly" by some — was a compact, low-speed workhorse for Navy fliers through much of World War II, performing reconnaissance missions, dive-bombing enemy warships and even serving occasionally as low-level fighters.
Dauntless squadrons sank four Japanese aircraft carriers at the battle of Midway in 1942, a critical victory for the U.S. in the Pacific theater.
Hans Van Tilburg, a maritime archaeologist and historian in Honolulu for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuaries program, said he could not confirm details about the site because he had not yet visited it. But he said based on Varney's photograph, it appeared the wreck was, indeed, a Navy aircraft with the Dauntless' "distinctive" cockpit shape.
Naval records indicated only six Dauntlesses were lost in waters near Maui, he said.
Van Tilburg planned to check details of the wreck against crash records maintained by the Naval History and Heritage Command to learn more of the aircraft's story. Those records could reveal whether the plane took off from an aircraft carrier or the Puunene Naval Air Station, and what happened to its pilot and gunner.
The fact that the canopies were open and the wreck was intact suggested the Dauntless did not crash but instead was ditched in the ocean — something its crew may well have survived, he said.
Van Tilburg said the wreck's good condition and the fact that it did not appear to have been looted were an indication the site was previously unknown.
"It's a great chance to look at that period and also understand how much you can learn from an aircraft find like this," he said. "It's kind of exciting stuff."
He warned that the plane was still Navy property, and that tampering with or removing artifacts from historic sites in state waters is prohibited.
Varney was eager to see the wreck preserved.
"I want people to enjoy it, but also to respect it," he said.