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Diving for history

Mass. man seeks lost planes, servicemen at World War II battle site

By DOUGLAS MOSER | The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 16, 2015

Kwajalein is a three-by-one-half mile crescent of land in the middle of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and construction crews still turn up skeletons on occasion.

The U.S. Army took the island, the southern tip of a boomerang-shaped atoll in the Marshall Islands, from the Japanese during a bombardment and invasion in January and February 1944, part of the leapfrogging Pacific island strategy during World War II. The Japanese had a landing strip and small base built mostly with forced Korean labor.

Japanese and Koreans on the island were buried in mass graves after the invasion.

And the lagoon within the atoll, measuring 70 miles at its widest, is another sort of mass grave, littered with aircraft and ships destroyed during and shortly after the invasion.

Methuen native Tim Roberge now spends a lot of his free time under that lagoon.

He and roughly a dozen others – active military, retired military and civilian contractors like Roberge – who started diving around the wrecks as a hobby, found themselves caught up in a more powerful mission.

Using historical information about the Battle of Kwajalein, the group is trying to locate aircraft that went down in the atoll's lagoon with crew members who were never recovered and considered missing in action more than seven decades after they were lost.

Roberge, 56, said what began as a hobby by Dan Farnham, a civilian firefighter on the Kwajalein Army base and a World War II history buff, about seven years ago changed in 2010 when Farnham met Maj. Josh Vance, now retired from the Marine Corps, by chance after Vance's aircraft landed at Kwajalein to refuel.

"It started with the Kingfisher," Roberge said.

The Kingfisher was a type of two-man scout plane, and two were sent from the USS New Mexico to the atoll during the battle. One was shot down during the initial bombardment. Radioman Second Class Harrison D. Miller, with no piloting skill, brought the plane down in the lagoon for his wounded pilot, Lt. Forney O. Fuqua.

But the plane began to sink, and Miller was unable to rescue Fuqua.

Farnham and Vance's initial conversations during that refueling stop led to researching the plane, contacting Miller in 2011, then living in Floral City, Florida, and finding two crew members of a minesweeper who rescued Miller in the lagoon, all in an attempt to narrow down the location of the Kingfisher scout and Lt. Fuqua.

Their hobby group began to coalesce into the Kwajalein MIA Project, an organized volunteer effort to locate sunken aircraft and the missing service members who went down with them.

Vance met Miller in Florida as Miller was presented with his battle decorations in 2011, and the two rescuers, Louis "Ted" Sonner and Burl P. Sousa, visited Kwajalein in 2014 for the 70th anniversary of the battle.

Renting an Army boat and diving on their free time, Roberge and his companions searched the areas where they thought the Kingfisher went down, but so far have found no trace of the scout.

But they are by no means unsuccessful.

They made a big discovery in August, locating the rear half of the Gunga Din, a PB2Y-3 Coronado maritime patrol bomber, that crashed in the lagoon during landing exercises in September 1944.

One Army man, Pharmacist's Mate First Class Fred Matson, stationed in the nose of the plane, was lost and never recovered. The other 12 crewmen survived.

Roberge had memorized a photo of the rear of the plane floating after impact in 1944 and recognized the wreckage immediately. "When you realize that's it, it's like wow," he said. "Nobody's seen that plane since it went down."

Locating the nose section of the plane could lead to the recovery of Matson's remains, though the Kwajalein MIA Project cannot do that themselves. Roberge said they provide information and coordinates to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a military agency that handles investigation and recovery of missing and captive service members.

The group will keep wreckage coordinates secret until recoveries are made in order to protect the grave sites from tourists and looting.

The volunteers' search is slow going. They rent boats from the Army, but are restricted on how far out they can go. They rely on a stateside friend with a sonar device for wider sweeps, but he can only come out for a couple of weeks every year. Without it, they basically pick a spot to dive and hope for the best.

The group also has located an F6F-3 Hellcat, in which Ensign John Clem died on Feb. 1, 1944; a PBM-3D Mariner in which Lt. (jg) Wilburne Ennis Piercy died on Feb. 16, 1944; and just last month, the nose section of a PB2Y-5R Coronado in which Lt. Harold Bowman and Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Givens died on Feb. 12, 1945.

Piercy, Clem, Bowman, and Givens have not been recovered and are still considered missing in action, according to the group.

They have identified at least 10 aircraft with 12 missing-in-action service members in the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon, according to the Kwajalein MIA Project.

Roberge said the group is trying to get nonprofit status so it can raise money for its own side-scanning sonar device, which was instrumental in locating the Gunga Din last summer, and its own vessel to scour more of the lagoon. It launched a fund raiser last Wednesday on Crowd Riser, has a web page with a blog about its searches and a Facebook page with photos of the group and their dives.

Roberge, an electrician specializing in fire alarm systems, never served in the military and did not know how to dive before landing on tropical Kwajalein for a job six years ago.

"I was a skier," he chuckled.

After being laid off during the recession in 2008, he looked for work overseas and found an opening on the Army base. "I thought, 'I'll take this for a year and learn how to dive,'" he said.

Life on a tiny island, on which everyone gets around on bicycle, in the vast Pacific consists of the ocean and the community, Roberge said. Definitely no skiing. But diving has taken its place, along with fishing and sailing. Roberge has logged more than 600 dives in those six years.

The diving and the new mission, finding missing service members, have kept him there ever since.

"It's really rewarding to be part of something so important," he said.

Similar groups work toward the same goal of bringing home American war dead buried or lost overseas. Research by a group called History Flight resulted in the remains of 40 American servicemen, buried after the bloody Battle of Tarawa, a few hundred miles southeast of Kwajalein, returning home last summer.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com

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©2015 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Visit The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) at www.eagletribune.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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