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WWII planes discovered – Solomon Islands

The slight current tugged at my body as I gripped the anchor line, where was Ewan? Was he in the water yet? I lifted my head above the water, he was there alright only two metres away! Oh yeah, the visibility was non-existent!

We commenced our descent. I’m thinking, “Another dive into blackness” which had been the case on the last two dives to investigate unknown targets that may have been fragments of the USS Serpens a US cargo ship that literally disintegrated on 29th January 1945 while crew were loading depth charges, all 255 on board were killed.

I had taken Brian Bailey’s advice “Dave you’re wasting your time taking a camera it will be BLACK, the nearby river makes sure of that, trust me!”

At 20 metres, bugger me! Out of the swirling white milky blindness we burst into three metres of visibility. It was amazing!

We could now see the anchor line that we were holding, only another 25 metres to go. The sonar image we had of our target was amazing. It was as clear as a photograph.

A plane sitting on the bottom in 45 metres. The question was: What type of plane? Would it be American or Japanese?  Had it be shot down in an aerial dog fight? Had it just been dumped? Would we find the pilot’s remains? The anchor came into view, resting on a muddy bottom. Would we be doing another circular line search to see if we could locate the target?

Oh my God is that a wing tip just standing proud of the mud? oh yes it was.

I think I could hear Ewan’s heart accelerate to 150 beats a minute! She was just beautiful, an American Corsair fighter completely intact sitting as if it had just landed yesterday, not 70 odd years ago.

Not being a WWII plane expert I was surprised by how small and robust she was. Only 10 metres from her tail to the propeller. Her wings spanned 12.5 metres.

I could only imagine what an aggressive fighting machine she represented. Even in the subdued darkness you could still sense her fighting pedigree “don’t mess with me!”

A bullet exit point was clearly visible just forward of the cockpit.

No human remains were present. A beautiful cowrie shell lit up the pilot’s dashboard. It was a sober reminder that life carries on.

The 2,000hp 18 cylinder radial engine had slightly broken away from the plane’s fuselage. A graphic reminder of the plane’s final moments. The twisted 13.4ft (4.08m) diameter propeller blades seemed to be crying out to return to the blue skies above. Twisting and diving like an eagle——–free!

Finding this downed fighting bird told a story of a moment in history that in a way was partial closure for Ewan Stevenson in his never ending quest of researching the Solomon’s World War II history, in particular locating the remains of planes that took part in the conflict.

During my diving career it is rare to have the opportunity to be on a research expedition to locate and identify remains of WWII planes.

I still recall my first meeting with Ewan in February 1998 when this young guy knocked on my door with a pile of marine charts and research documents spilling out from under his arms. “Hi I’m Ewan I would love to write an article for your magazine about the WWII wrecks in the Solomon Is!” We ran his USS John Penn article in the Aug/Sept 1998 Issue # 47)

Ewan was born in the Solomons. Having a very curious nature to “find out things” it was the ideal playground for a young boy/teenager. So much visible WWII (1942–45) history to discover and document, including skeletal remains of planes and ships during the historical, Battle of Guadalcanal (August 1942 – February 1943), the turning point in stopping the Japanese war machine’s goal of capturing Australia and New Zealand.

Being on board SV Wyuna with its legendary skipper Brian Bailey was also amazing.

He was one of the original salvage divers back in the late 60s and early 70s when he and the likes of the late Wally Gibbins (Issue J/J 2005 # 88) were licenced to remove nonferrous metals from numerous WWII wrecks. It was an amazing time in diving history!

Brian knowns the “Sol” waters like the back of his hand.

He has four marine shells named after him. Wally was the diver who in 1969 discovered where the once very rare Glory of the Seas, (Conus gloriamaris) were most likely to be found.

The other two divers on board Wyuna were Matt Wray, NZ Navy and his diving buddy, diving instructor/farmer Jeremy Hedley. I was in good company!

“Today guys we hunt for a Mavis” said Ewan as we had breakfast! A Mavis?—–what’s he talking about? My mum’s name was Mavis but she was never in the Solomons! I had no idea that Mavis was the code name the Americans gave these huge Japanese equivalent of the USA’s flying boats, the Catalina,

Can you imagine sitting in a beat-up tinny (Wyuna’s tender) slowly motoring over calm blue water as Ewan calls out, “10 metres to go, – Jeremy chuck the anchor we are on the spot”.

That SPOT had been obtained by research and local knowledge.

As we geared up, Ewan recalls the morning of 7th August 1942. US Wildcats swooped in out of the glare of the morning sun, swinging around the corner of Tanambogo Island and pounded the anchored squadron of Mavises. The total squadron sank beneath a hail of machinegun fire!

Ewan was on the hunt for one that had eluded previous hunters. The others are regularly dived by visiting divers

Again we descended wondering what we would encounter.

The anchor lay just metres from the starboard wing of this massive plane. You just have to love GPS!

With her 40 metres wingspan draped over a reef she reminded me of a slaughtered duck blasted by shotgun pellets—lifeless. Her starboard wing bent completely upside down from the fuselage. Its massive floating wing pontoon reaching skywards was confusing! Machine guns lay silent.

But there was life! She is a beautiful example of how nature transforms chaos into an orderly assembly of marine life enjoying the territorial protection that a wreck provides.

A lone scorpion fish patrolled the pilotless cockpit.

On her port side her two massive 1000hp, 14 cylinder radial engines had smashed into the seabed, grotesquely twisting her three bladed propellers into useless metal objects, but in a strange way now rather artistic!

We located four new wrecks and of course we had to drop onto the iconic dive sites such as the USS Aaron Ward (Ewan was the first to locate this wreck), the HMNZS Moa,  a US Wildcat fighter and a US Catalina, which are all popular dive sites.

The adventure continues!

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Corsair squadron.

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Ewan Stevenson inspecting the pilot’s cockpit on a US Catalina.

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Hull section of a Japanese midget submarine type “Kohyoteki” off Florida Islands.

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HMNZS Moa. Rear gun.

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Ewan Stevenson locating the remains of a Japanese ‘Mavis’.

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Tail section of the US Wildcat fighter

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Legendary salvage diver Brian Bailey returns to the USS Aaron Ward. Brian was the first to dive this wreck in 1994.

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