Warbirds on the Seafloor: Sunken Aircraft Archaeology and the Search for Lost Planes at Midway Atoll

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In this video, the NOAA Martime Heritage Team investiages a sunken Brewster F2A-3 site at Midwall Atoll. Video courtesy of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument & World Heritage Site. Download video (mp4, 92.5 MB).

 

Kelly Keogh, PhD
Maritime Heritage Coordinator/Maritime Archaeologist
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

An underwater filmmaker documents the wing section of a F4U Corsair at Midway Atoll.

An underwater filmmaker documents the wing section of a F4U Corsair at Midway Atoll. Click image for credit and larger view.

Maritime archaeologist Jason Raupp documents the engine of a P-40K Warhawk Discovered outside of the reef at Midway Atoll.

Maritime archaeologist Jason Raupp documents the engine of a P-40K Warhawk Discovered outside of the reef at Midway Atoll. Click image for credit and larger view.

Maritime archaeologists document the remains of a Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo at Midway Atoll.

Maritime archaeologists document the remains of a Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo at Midway Atoll. Click image for credit and larger view.

VMF 221, a Marine Corps fighter squadron at Midway Atoll in January of 1942. The Brewster discovered in the lagoon was part of this squadron.

VMF 221, a Marine Corps fighter squadron at Midway Atoll in January of 1942. The Brewster discovered in the lagoon was part of this squadron. Image courtesy of John Powell. Download larger version (jpg, 216 KB).

This project focuses primarily on the exploration for sunken aircraft sites and the niche of aviation archaeology. Aviation archaeology is a relatively new field of study. Despite the fact that most sunken aircraft sites are relatively recent (<100 years old), and the technology is contemporary enough to include the type of background information that provides details about construction, etc., the unique opportunity that aviation archaeology presents is the ability to open windows in to significant moments in history where pilots and their relatives may still be alive to compliment the material culture discovered on the seafloor. The opportunity to combine first-hand accounts with dynamic sites discovered via exploration creates an emotional connection that inspires us all and reinforces the lessons and relevance of history.

The lost aircraft of Midway are not just aviation archaeology sites – they are war graves and tangible reminders of the sacrifices of brave young aviators who took to the skies during World War II.

This project will contribute to the field of aviation archaeology via discovery, documentation, and interpretation of several sites that will provide the public with compelling stories that make connections to World War II activities in the Pacific. Even more significant is the timing of this project, which will take place in advance of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway in June of 2017.

Aircraft discoveries are significant because of how much they differ from shipwreck sites, and the broader implications for the nascent field of aviation archaeology for this proposal lies in a battlefield approach to surveying multiple aircraft sites representing a famous battle like the Battle of Midway.

Questions developed to address the unique survey of sunken aircraft sites include:

  • How did each side configure and adapt their assets to confront both strategic and tactical challenges before, during, and after the epic clash in June of 1942?
  • What modifications from “factory stock” can be seen in the material assemblages of downed aircraft and what does that tell us about individual and collective agency on a battlefield that spanned a significant portion of the northern Pacific?
  • While American aircraft were technologically inferior at the outset of the war, were the materials used in their construction superior to those of the Japanese? If so, do we see the earliest traces of American industrial excellence that would ultimately prevail in both the Pacific and in Europe?
  • How do archaeologists document a widespread scatter of material? Are there properties of the material used in constructing aircrafts that affect site formation processes, and what can we learn from what remains on site and from what is missing? How are artifacts from these types of sites conserved and what are the best ways to protect these sites?

As the generation of pilots that flew these aircraft continues to dwindle, there is a compelling need to incorporate their first-hand knowledge of these planes and how they were used into the discussion of how to document and interpret the wreckage.

Scientists involved in this project have collected dozens of first-hand observations about aircraft wreck locations at Midway Atoll (in addition to aircraft loss locations based upon archival research). Based on discoveries made in 2014 and 2015 of sunken aircraft within Midway’s waters, we have a large degree of confidence in the locational accuracy of historical accounts of aircraft losses. Due to the chaos of the conflict, some of the most accurate information about location of sunken and lost aircraft sites has come from the first-hand observations of the men who fought for this tiny atoll in 1942.

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