Dive beneath the Sea to the Wreckage of a Bomber with Hopes to Recover the Remains of Lost WWII Airmen in "Last B-24"

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03 November 2018
NOVA: Last B-24
Courtesy of PBS
"NOVA: Last B-24"
Premieres Wednesday, November 7 at 9 PM ET on PBS
(Check local listings)

          Seventy-four years ago, an American B-24 Liberator bomber known as the Tulsamerican fell from the sky while returning from a mission over Europe and disappeared beneath the waves of the Adriatic Sea. Seven crew members survived the crash and were rescued. Three men were never found—thought to be lost forever, unrecoverable.

NOVA: Last B-24
Courtesy of Tulsa Historical Society

          Now, NOVA, produced by WGBH Boston, joins the U.S. Department of Defense, the Croatian Navy, and an elite team of underwater archeologists and technical divers as they excavate the wreckage of a WWII icon: the last B-24 ever built in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and paid for by the factory workers. Using science to unlock the mystery, the group embarks on a deep and dangerous expedition—racing the clock to determine what happened to the missing airmen—with the hope of finally bringing them home.

          In December 1944, the Tulsamerican was badly damaged during a fight with the German Air Force, commonly known as the Luftwaffe, over enemy territory. The crew attempted an emergency landing, but crashed into the waters off what is now the Croatian island of Vis. Flight Engineer Charles E. Priest, Navigator Russell C. Landry, and Pilot Captain Eugene Ford vanished with the plane. Tulsamerican bombardier First Lieutenant Val Miller vividly recounts the B-24’s final moments that day. Miller passed away just a few days after his interview with NOVA, at age 94.

NOVA: Last B-24
Courtesy of public domain

          Seven decades later, the Tulsamerican was discovered by amateur divers, nearly 135 feet beneath surface at the bottom of the sea. The aircraft was almost unrecognizable—broken in half and covered in rust and silt. Serial numbers revealed the plane’s identity. A specialized group within the Pentagon was alerted: The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Led by Director Kelly McKeague, the agency is tasked with searching for and identifying the estimated 82,000 missing American service members still unaccounted for and bringing them home to give closure to their families. The DPAA quickly forms an expedition team, including top scientists led by world-renowned underwater archeologist Brendan Foley, and some of the world’s best technical divers handpicked by dive master Phil Short. The Croatian Government agrees to provide a Croatian Navy vessel as the base of operations for the expedition. The only caveat: They have just 19 days to get the job done.

Last B-24
Courtesy of PBS
          With more than 40 people and 15 tons of equipment, both military and scientific, the search begins. Underwater photographer Brett Seymour takes hundreds of photographs of the site and stitches them together to create a detailed, photogrammetry model. The divers work in systematic shifts, searching a wide area around the heavily damaged cockpit. Using the Guardian safety system—a process where every archeologist has a buddy at their back for every dive—they scan around the sea floor with forensic lights designed to detect fragments of bone. Giant vacuums suck up tons of silt, which are bagged and sent to the surface for archeologists to sift through. Artifacts emerge: a radio headset, a .50-caliber cartridge, flight wings, and a gold wedding band, untarnished by the saltwater. These items offer clues about the lost airmen, but are not enough to establish a positive identification.

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