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Divers Examine Wreck of Plane in Salton Sea

By Tony Perry
The Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1999

Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, one of leading planes of World War II, carried pilot, radio operator and gunner. San Diego Aerospace Museum

Sonar image of Avenger at the bottom of the Salton Sea. Riverside County Sheriff's Department

Aviation: Avenger was one of many Navy aircraft that crashed into lake during WWII training. Navy will trace its history.

The Salton Sea, that murky, improbable body of water trapped in a blistering desert, gave up one of its mysteries Monday: the identity of a Navy warplane that crashed into the sea during World War II.

Scuba divers from the Riverside County sheriff's underwater search and rescue team scraped away half a century of barnacles, silt and other aquatic corruption to read an instrument panel number on a long-forgotten Avenger torpedo bomber that crashed into the sea during a training flight.

"The plane was in remarkably good shape, almost as if it had made a water landing," said Bob Royer, a county probation officer and sheriff's underwater squad team leader.

The cockpit and gunner's canopy were open, suggesting that the pilot or gunner may have survived, Royer said. No human remains were found by the divers.

Among the Salton's Sea more notorious features is its status as a graveyard for sunken World War II planes and young men who died while preparing for war: At least 24 Navy planes crashed into the sea and more than three dozen crew members died.

This particular plane sat unnoticed and undisturbed in 50 feet of warm and algae-filled water for at least 55 years before it was discovered by accident in February by divers searching for a Piper Cherokee that disappeared on Christmas with an elderly Escondido couple aboard.

Of the 24 Navy crashes during World War II in or near the Salton Sea, Avengers were involved in 10, the most of any kind of aircraft. Eighteen of 23 crewmen died.

The serial number, which was not disclosed Monday, will allow the Navy to determine the names of the crew members. If there were fatalities, the service will be able to provide additional information to the family members beyond the standard "regrets" telegram that was sent during World War II.

The Navy allowed the divers to explore the plane as a kind of training exercise with two caveats: No pictures be taken of human remains lest they upset surviving family members, and the serial number not be released to the media until the Navy can research the history of the plane.

The sheriff's divers warned civilians and treasure hunters to stay away from the sunken plane, located about two miles from the Salton Sea State Recreational Area.

"This is black-water diving," said Sgt. Wayne Walker, a diving term for water where the visibility is so poor that only the most experienced divers should attempt dives. Visibility around the plane was from six inches to two feet, Walker said.

Although it may not have earned the enduring public acclaim of other carrier-based planes such as Hellcat, a dive bomber, and the Wildcat, a fighter, or of land-based planes like the Liberator, a long-range bomber, or the Mustang, the fighter that protected bombers on their way to Japan, the Avenger nevertheless played a key role against the Japanese and Germans.

In the Pacific, the Avenger helped pulverize the Japanese armada, and in the Atlantic, the Avenger ended the U-boat reign of terror. The Avenger was flown by the Navy, Marines, British and New Zealanders.

"It was the major attack plane of World War II," said Ray Wagner, archivist for the San Diego Aerospace Museum. "It sank more submarines than any other carrier-based plane, and also sank the most heavily defended carrier the world had ever seen, the Yamoto."

To do its job, the Avenger, manned by a pilot, radioman and gunner, flew at low altitudes directly at the flank of an enemy ship, unleashing its torpedoes at close range in hopes the explosives would hit the ship below the waterline for maximum damage.

From bases in Holtville, Calif.; Yuma, Ariz., and San Diego, Avenger squadron members used the Salton Sea as a training spot in locating, illuminating and attacking water-borne targets.

Much of the training was at night, which increased the chance of accidents but simulated the conditions of combat, where many raids were launched under cover of darkness.

"We lost more in training than we did in combat," said Bill Tessitore, 75, a retired manufacturer from Long Island who, as an Avenger radioman, flew in support of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. "It was a great plane, very powerful."

In combat, crews often made their bombing runs directly into the teeth of a murderous barrage of anti-aircraft fire put up by the Japanese.

Former President George Bush received the Navy's Distinguished Flying Cross after his Avenger was shot down by Japanese gunners near Chichi Island in 1944. Bush bailed out of the burning plane and was rescued by a submarine.

Aside from the plane piloted by Lt. j.g. Bush, possibly the most famous Avengers were five that went in the ocean. The five mysteriously disappeared during a training mission out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in late 1945.

The "lost patrol" helped perpetuate the myth of the Bermuda Triangle in the Caribbean as a black hole into which unsuspected ships and planes vanished. The planes were never recovered.

Navy records, which are fragmentary, indicate that four Wildcats, two Corsairs, two Hellcats, four patrol planes, two Helldivers and 10 Avengers crashed into the Salton Sea.

"A lot of good men and a lot of good planes are at the bottom of the Salton Sea," said Ted Darcy, a civilian consultant who assists the Navy with accident reports.

There is little likelihood of any of the Salton Sea Avengers being salvaged.

For openers, it is an expensive undertaking. Also, a plane that has been submerged in the super-salty Salton Sea--25% saltier than the ocean--could immediately become rust-encrusted and brittle when exposed to the air.

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