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Wreckage of WWII US bomber found at bottom of lagoon ‘most important historical find’ say researchers
ALEX WEBBER SEPTEMBER 19, 2022
Thought to be the remains of a B-17G Flying Fortress bomber, the wreckage of a crashed plane has been discovered at the bottom of Szczecin Lagoon. Cited as one of the most important historical finds of its type, the plane is known to have been shot down on October 7th, 1944, whilst on a mission to destroy a synthetic gasoline factory in the town of Police. Leading (#) 149 aircraft, the bomber’s duty was, among others, to conduct the formation whilst navigating in challenging weather conditions. Of its eleven-man crew, only five survived.
Implemented after a deep research process conducted by employees of the Museum of Polish Arms in Kołobrzeg, the search was undertaken after elements of an American B-17 were found during the modernisation of the Świnoujście - Szczecin fairway.
Speaking to TFN, Wojciech Tułaza, one of those involved in the project, said: “There was a lot of detective work involved; but when we found the engine we assumed there would be more – as it turns out, we were right.” Although work on the fairway has reaped over 100 tons of war debris, this discovery has been hailed as the most valuable of them all. “In historical terms, this is a huge moment,” says Tułaza. “Nothing like this has been found in Poland – or even central Europe – for years.” Untouched since crashing, the wreck, says Tułaza, is something of a time capsule: “Everything that is inside of it has remained in place after it was shot down – I can’t think of anything else like this in Europe right now.”
Known to have been delivered to Tulsa on May 22nd, 1944, the plane was first produced in California before being fitted with a state-of-the-art ‘Mickey’ radar close to Washington DC. Later, it was taken to the UK. Though little is known about its previous missions, detailed testimony has been uncovered with regards to its crash.
“It was hit by anti-aircraft fire that caused engine number two to catch fire,” says Tułaza. “After that, the plane entered a steep dive and began to spiral sharply – the right wing came off, and then the tail section.” Two of the crew provided eyewitness accounts, and so too did other American flyers. “One parachute that was deployed was seen engulfed in flames,” says Tułaza. “We can assume this was an airman by the name of John W. Koehler as we know that the Germans identified one body through the use of dog tags.”
Also among the dead was Major Gordon H. Haggard. “He was last seen with a parachute kit on his back, but he did not have time to jump,” says Tułaza. “I’m certain that if we ever open the plane up, we’ll find his body with a parachute still attached.” James R. Luper, Norman A. Kriehn, William J. Morrow, Frederick N. Asbell, and John H. Derling survived but were immediately taken prisoner. Following a standard filtration process, they were then sent to Stalag Luft III.
Located in what is today known as the town of Żagań, the camp would achieve infamy as the site of ‘The Great Escape’.
Supremely complex, the operation to find the plane was conducted by an Echo II survey vessel equipped three types of sonar and a hydro-acoustic camera. Aside from involving the museum, valuable contributions were also made by the District Office in Kołobrzeg, the West Pomeranian Sea Heritage Association, the Escort Company, and the Department of Hydrotechnical and Underwater Works UW Service.
“We still need to make absolute certain what type of plane it actually is,” says Tułaza. “We’ve got the team, and we’ve got the equipment, but what we really need now is the time, the right type of weather and further funding.” Ideally, he continues, this would lead to raising the plane. “We’d love to lift it from the seabed to place it on display. But more saliently, we think there are still three people there, and it would be wonderful to return their bodies to America so that they can be buried properly.”
“With that in mind, we’re still looking to engage people on this project – not just experts who can help us with identifying the plane, but also the families of those that were on board.”