By Ewan M. Stevenson
SEALARK EXPLORATION INC, 12 June 2021
The Sealark Exploration Group is a small and dedicated group of experts that have conducted many MIA searches in the South Pacific. An area with a high concentration of MIAs is the Western Solomon Islands. Besides the ground troop MIAs, many MIAs are aviators shot down, accidentally crashed, or “missing” in the area for yet unknown reasons.
In the Munda area on the South coast of New Georgia Island, there are scores of precious and historical WWII aircraft crash sites. Some are on jungle mountains, some are in deep water; some are in shallow lagoons; some are scattered on coral reefs, and some have ended up in rivers. The sites are American and Japanese. Some sites are so smashed up with so little remaining archaeological material, they are difficult to identify. The local people speak numerous different Melanesian languages and are understandably are not educated in WWII aircraft types. The Sealark Team has worked in the Solomon Islands for over three decades documenting WWII sites and has established good relations with local people and developed a good understanding of the unique political and geographical landscape. Most sites are not associated with a MIA, so there are lots of false forays. Some sites, known for years and largely ignored, are actually MIA sites but await proper identification. Sorting it out requires a great deal of research, analysis, local knowledge, rapport for local culture and dedication to isolate the rare MIA site.
Figure 1. The SEALARK EXPLORATION team on Rendova Island near Munda on 17 May 2019. Mark Roche, Dave Moran, Ewan Stevenson, Mack Stevenson and CDR Matt Wray, RNZNR.
The Sealark Group gathers data on all aircraft archaeological sites in an area. It’s part of the process for understanding what’s what and where. Some sites are locally known by odd names. There is sometimes much confusion over sites. Typically, no one knows what aircraft type they are. Locations get confused. It is often not known if an aircraft is Japanese or American. Sometimes an aircraft site is not even a plane – it’s a Japanese barge! Sometimes there are two aircraft sites close to one another, but different sources talk about just the site they know. It is this interesting atmosphere that the Sealark Exploration Group works and the reason why we visit and document meticulously every single site.
One submerged aircraft site was reported 600 yards South of Munda Airfield in the shallow, inner, Roviana Lagoon. When Sealark co-director Ewan Stevenson conducted investigations in the area in September 1994, the site had recently been discovered. In early 1992, the Munda Dive shop was run by Dave and Marianna Cooke when American diver “Jimbo” visited. As Munda dive guide Taska Kikololei related, the American had a colour aerial photograph of the area which showed the NELL bomber and Hellcat sites off Lokuloku but also another possible ‘aircraft-shape’ dark smudge slightly further East.
Jimbo [his full name is unknown] and Taska set off to find out what the dark smudge was. Descending in the first attempt, they quickly discovered atrocious conditions. It is the inner lagoon, where there is little water movement. Suspended silt and other matter in the water column block out light so that it is dark and gloomy on the lagoon floor with visibility three feet or less. In such conditions, it is difficult finding anything visually underwater. The object could be four feet away and you swim right past it. With Jimbo on Taska’s right side, they attempted to swim a parallel course roughly Southwards over the suspected target position. Keeping track of each other in the conditions is almost impossible. After swimming a certain distance and not seeing anything, they surfaced.
A second attempt was made. This time Jimbo was on Taska’s left side. Taska held his hand out in front of him as a prudent safety measure. It failed, as the next thing Taska knew was his face mask suddenly impacted a narrow rigid object- an alloy Hamilton Standard propellor blade! At the same time, Jimbo made contact with the right wing. They had found a plane! Wow! It turned into a whole Corsair fighter. They swam all over, excitedly exploring the plane in the gloom. Warily waving antennae reached out from the darkness of the cockpit. The delicate sensitive strands belonged to a large painted rock lobster-- Panulirus versicolor. They vigorously tried to catch the wily crustacean it but it escaped somewhere in the blackness under the pilot’s seat.
Figure 4. White 126, a Birdcage F4U-1 of VMF-222 at Munda, 1943.
The second diver visit to the site is believed to be by Australian diver Peter Woodbury from Sydney, guided by Taska (no other guide knew where the site was!) later in 1992. Ewan Stevenson was probably the fifth diver visitation to the site on 16 September 1994. Don McAllister from Keri Keri, New Zealand, also accompanied Ewan on the dive.
Today, as this site is in dirty water, it is not often visited. Few people know the site and distinguish it as “Jimbo’s plane”. The dubious conditions make photography and video recording very challenging (some might say ‘futile’!). This site was therefore excellent training for the Sealark Team to record and study a submerged aircraft in marginal conditions.
Figure 5. From the hazy gloom of inner Roviana Lagoon, a Hamilton Standard propellor blade and Pratt & Whitney R-2800-8 engine emerges. This is Jimbo’s Corsair. Tasker knows this prop blade rather intimately. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
The Corsair sits level on fine, silty, white coral sand and faces approximately 230° M. There are three nearby coral reef patches that rise off the reafloor. The depth on the seafloor is about 8m. The visibility ranges from approximately one to three meters. The aircraft cannot be seen from the surface because the water is cloudy and green. All fabric on the wings and elevators have long ago rotted away. The rudder is missing as well as the top of the fin. The plane is whole and complete. Both wings, the radio mast, elevators, windshield, pitot tube, guns, and stabilizers are intact. The wings are clear of seafloor and fully exposed. A small opening has been prised through the ammunition locker cover on the starboard wing to expose belted 50-caliber ammunition. This was seen in 1994. The elevators are 45° down. The wooden ailerons have disintegrated long ago- eaten by Marine worms. The fuselage and wing skin is in superb condition. The pitot tube on port wing tip looks new despite over 75 years submerged in highly oxygenated, warm tropical saltwater. Divers have carelessly (or anchor chains) have scraped marine encrustation off the pitot tube tip.
Figure 7. The pitot tube on port wing tip. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
During initial inspection on 16 September 1994, Ewan Stevenson found the main fuel tank filler cap in front of the wind shield. He was able to unscrew the brass fitting. The rubber gasket was still in place as was the brass safety retaining chain. However, no fuel was evident. [This would appear to corroborate Reid’s aircraft]. The cap was carefully re-secured as found. In the latest survey on 12 May 2019, this cap was no longer evident as hard coral growth had completely obscured it.
The birdcage canopy was closed. The cockpit was full to the console level with silt and marine detritus. This created a localised anaerobic environment which significantly helped to preserve the cockpit area. Removal of this material would suddenly accelerate deterioration. Remains of the pilot’s seat can be seen. The main instrument panel is absent. There is just one small piece of broken Plexiglas intact in the canopy. This piece was noted on 16 September 1994 and is part of the small bubble above the rear-view mirror. It is still there 25 years later. The mirror is also intact and covered in beautiful bright orange algae.
Figure 8. Mack Stevenson uses Bigblue video lights www.bigbluedivelights.com to help illuminate the closed ‘Birdcage’ canopy on Jimbo’s Corsair. This is the left side. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
As typical of submerged aircraft of this vintage, the 2000HP Pratt & Whitney R-2800-8 Double Wasp engine has slump slightly forward as the high strength steel engine mounts have given way. (It was like this in 1994). All the fragile cowl flaps have broken away too except the fused cowl flaps on the top which are completely intact. The engine cowling itself is beautifully whole.
Figure 9. The right side of the large Pratt & Whitney radial engine showing missing cowl flaps. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
Cut outs behind the cockpit are present but the Plexiglas covers are missing, allowing hard coral growth to camouflage the cut outs. These cut outs were present on early Corsairs.
It is nice and somewhat unusual to see the solid alloy 6443A-21 or 6525A-21 Hamilton Standard propellor blade standing vertically which Tasker face-planted. Its presence may indicate a low-power or stopped-engine water landing. Many propellor blades are missing on submerged American WWII aircraft. (It is still to be determined if the blades are shed on contact with the water in a powered ditching, or if galvanic corrosion in the hub loosens the blades). The blade, like a heritage marking signpost, is slightly curved rearwards which supports a dead engine water landing, as the otherwise the blades would exhibit some rotational curvature bending.
All the site information indicates a controlled water landing.
Site Identification is problematic
SEALARK combines archaeological information and historical records to make site identifications. It is not easy. The Munda area is a graveyard of Corsair aircraft. SEALARK is tracking seven F4U archaeological sites in the area. Which is which? With more sites being discovered on every expedition. The main difficulty with Jimbo’s Corsair is lack of serial number information from the site. No manufacturer’s plate or Bureau of Aeronautics number has been recovered. Such information needs to be extracted by a specialist as crucial information is lost when amateurs attempt it.
SEALARK has reviewed operational losses in the area including the ditching of a fuel-starved Corsair just off the airfield on 9 September 1943. The young U.S. Marine pilot was 1st Lt. Winfred Orville “Pappy” Reid, USMCR, of the “The Flying Deuces” squadron, officially designated VMF-222. The incident and circumstances look like a perfect match. However, the archaeology does NOT appear to corroborate it. Adding confusion is multiple recorded serials of Reid’s aircraft. A primary document “U.S. Naval and Marine Aircraft Expended Outside the Continental Limits of the United States to all causes, 7 December 1941 to 15 August 1945” list Reid’s plane loss as BuNo. 17501. Another serial for the loss is BuNo. 17594 which appears to come from the pilot’s logbook. Everyone knows how easy it is to make typo errors with numbers. The human brain thinks one number and then inexplicably writes down another! Squadron yeomen who record aircraft BuNo’s, sometimes typed it down wrong. Hand writing is notoriously mis-transcribed. Further research confirms aircraft 17594 was allocated to the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and given RN No. JT172. It is probable that at some point at least the “0” has been erroneously transposed as a “9”. Corsair JT172 was declared a total loss after crashing into a parked Corsair on take-off at Brunswick, UK, on 11 October 1943.
Figure 10. Pilot 2nd Lt. Winfred Orville “Pappy” Reid with one of the first two Corsairs received at MCAS Santa Barbara in late 1942. Note this is the very early ‘Birdcage’ canopy (has flat top) and does not have the small bubble for a rear-view mirror.
Such confusion over aircraft serial numbers is fairly common in MIA investigations. In some cases, parts cannibalized from one aircraft were used in repairs on another so different serials appear on the same aircraft! One can easily see how incorrect MIA identifications can be made from over-reliance on serial number correlation alone, with a subsequent upset MIA family. Great care and incredible diligence need to be undertaken with MIA work.
The aircraft type assigned to these serial numbers is the same- F4U-1A. This aircraft had what some call a ‘semi-bubble’. The canopy on these planes had a single frame running through the bubble, but it was a vast improvement on the multi-framed birdcage. It wasn’t until the F4U-1D model that a fully clear bubble canopy was installed. Jimbo’s Corsair definitely has a bird-cage enclosure, so it does not look like it is Reid’s plane. However, the SEALARK team has learned to keep an open mind at all times with MIA and every archaeological investigation. Unusual things happen during wartime, and anything is possible. For example, F4U-1A, BuNo. 17501, may have had its canopy damaged during unloading or in previous combat and was repaired locally with a spare or cannibalized bird cage canopy.
Further research and archaeology will be needed to identify Jimbo’s Corsair. One clue is the missing rudder and damaged vertical stabilizer top. Could this occur in a water landing? Perhaps the plane was involved in an aerial collision, or the rudder and fin top was completely shot away in combat? Perhaps the damage occurred post-ditching? Further historical research may reveal an incident that more closely matches the archaeological evidence. Numerous wartime craft and post-war vessels (e.g., modern cruising yachts) have used the inner Roviana Lagoon as an anchorage. A heavy anchor and/or chain wrapped around the rudder could easily cause such damage.
Figure 11. The right side of the fixed tail fin. A leading-edge extension is missing from the top of the fin, in addition to the whole rudder. Coralline algae carpeted the fin whilst Brown Demoiselles swim around. The damage to the vertical stabilizer is more significant then realized when viewed from the top. It is looks like a collision impact, but could also be anchor/chain damage. A ship’s chain would tend to wipe out the fragile rudder too. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
Figure 12. Right side of a F4U-1A Corsair tail on 12 January 1944. Two-thirds of the Corsair’s vertical tail was movable rudder. The fixed vertical stabilizer was relatively small compared to other fighter aircraft. This photo depicts BuNo. 17736 of VMF-216 at Torokina Airfield on Bougainville after combat over Rabaul. Note the F4U-1 designation on the rudder. The ‘F4U-1A’ designation was never officially used.
It is interesting that the canopy is still present and closed. Did the pilot have insufficient time to jettison the birdcage? Did the canopy slide shut after the plane nosed over heading for the bottom? Or is the plane been dumped? Lack of time to get rid of the canopy would be consistent with 1st Lt. Reid’s ditching, as he was about to land when his commanding officer began landing from the opposite direction. Reid aborted his landing and swung sharply right and over the bay his engine cut out. His flaps were already at 40°, so he left them there, just managed to pull up his wheels, level off, and made an excellent water landing right next to the strip. But again, if the 17501 serial is correct, Reid’s plane should have a semi-bubble canopy. Reid’s plane may remain to be found and another pilot/squadron/incident revolves around Jimbo’s Corsair.
Figure 13. The insignia of “The Flying Deuces”, U.S. Marine Corps Fighting Squadron Two Twenty-Two. (VMF-222).
Nature Takes over the Site
SEALARK initially surveyed this site in 1994 and more recently in mid-2019. The material condition of the site has not changed noticeably, however, the amount and size of coral heads and strange marine growth was amazing in the 25-year interval between inspections. Despite bad water conditions, sufficient light gets through for hard coral growth. There is significant, increased growth all over the aircraft except level parts of wings and horizontal stabilizers. This may be due to a more permanent layer of silt settling and smothering budding coral polyps. In the other areas, numerous bulbous coral heads grow and are about a foot in diameter.
Swimming around the aircraft, some truly bizarrely-shaped marine growths emanate from the Vought-Sikorsky Corsair. Perhaps the craziest thing ever seen growing on a plane is on the starboard wing. A single conical, hard coral sprout from the top mid-wing. It is dark coloured, and looks like a witch’s hat standing some 2-3 feet high. Jimbo’s Corsair really is like a Salvador Dali inspired sculpture but forget surrealism, this is real nature!
Figure 14. There’s a “witch’s hat” growing on the left wing. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
The windshield is completely grown over by hard columnar coral with several columns reaching towards the sea surface. It is hard to recognise the windshield due the odd appearance. All over the aircraft are stalagmite-like growths. The unique low-visibility inner lagoon environment has contributed to this as corals appear to want to grow vertically towards more life-giving UV light.
Figure 15. A brain coral grows on the right side near the cockpit. Above is the ‘cut outs’ behind the pilot. The Plexiglas covers are missing. Ostensibly to allow better vision to the rear, this was impossible for the pilot due to the seat armour blocking the view. The feature was deleted on later Corsair models. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
A species of brain coral Lobophyllia hempruichii grows on the right side of the aft cockpit exterior. It freakishly looks human. Several tough, black coral sea whips-- Antiphathes cirripathes-- spiral out from the aircraft looking like radio aerials.
There is much fish life on Jimbo’s Corsair, but it is not generally noticeable in the dark gloom. This site is the home of the Brown Demoiselle, Neopomacetrus filamentosus. There are schools of these tiny fish everywhere. As you approach, they all simultaneously dive into recesses in the wings and fuselage for safety. A beautiful Vagabond Butterflyfish-- Chaetodon vagabundus-- turns tail and disappears quickly near the starboard fuselage adjacent the windshield. The broad Circular spadefish-- Platax orbicularis-- does the same, vanishing into the gloom. A small school of reasonable-sized Gold-spotted sweetlips-- Plectorhinchus flavomaculatus-- flutters in and out of visibility. The prettiest fish seen had to be a Longfin Bannerfish-- Eniochus acuminatus-- which appears to live in the engine accessories compartment. The ubiquitous cleaner wrasse-- Labroides dimidiatus-- has set up around the starboard cockpit sill awaiting customers.
Figure 16. Never mind surrealism; take a look at this! Right side of fuselage in front of cockpit; radio mast to the right. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
Figure 17. Mack Stevenson lights up the dark cockpit with the Bigblue Dive lights for aviation expert Mark Roche to study. Left side. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson, 12 May 2019]
In the complex metal mess on the bottom behind the radial engine, a solitary delicate white fan is displayed amongst the manmade mechanical structures. It belongs to a tube worm Polychaeta sabellidae.
Any SCUBA diver can visit the site. If you are flying in from the USA, you can catch the Solomon Airlines www.flysolomons.com Flight from Nadi, Fiji, direct to Honiara on Guadalcanal. From Honiara, catch the Dash 8 aircraft for about an hour or less flight to Munda and stay at Agnes Gateway Hotel. This is the best place to stay and very relaxing. SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com operates out of the hotel! Whilst you relax in the restaurant built over the stunning Roviana Lagoon having breakfast, the SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com staff load your dive gear in the boat. It’s then a 30 second to Jimbo’s Corsair. The site is 535 meters from the SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com shop or 571 meters from your breakfast table, give or take a couple of meters. (Sometimes the staff shift the tables around a bit… 😊 ). The SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com staff are fantastic and lots of fun and help you gear up. The SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com staff then guide you to the site.
Conduct more archaeology and identify the site. Obtain a confirming serial number from site. This needs to be conducted by a specialist, as it is very easy to lose the information in the process.
The Corsair will continue to deteriorate by galvanic corrosion. Any holes in the skin will enlarge, frames will become more exposed, the horizontal stabilizers will collapse to the seafloor, and fuselage will eventually sever and roll to one side…. This process might be delayed by anodic galvanic in situ protection. Considering the economic value of the site, this makes sense to do.
The hard coral growth, although interesting, is contributing to the demise of the site. Although the Vought Corsair was built like a battleship, the weight of coral on the airplane would now exceed 500 kg, and places increasing gravitational stress on horizontal stabilizers, wings and fuselage. A plan on how to manage this, and increase the longevity of this precious archaeological site, should be considered.
3D digitize the site
Develop the history of the site for display at SIDE Dive Munda and in Agnes Gateway Hotel.
Figure 18. The restaurant at Agnes Gateway Hotel is so relaxing in stunning evening sunsets or mornings when the lagoon is like a mirror. The AGH is the best place to stay and relax at Munda and access the Magical Munda Underwater WWII Aviation Museum.
Figure 19. Contact details for SIDE Dive Munda. Figure 20. The friendly and helpful Belinda Botha of SIDE Dive Munda.
Figure 21. Solomon Airlines at Munda Field. See www.flysolomons.com
An easy site for all levels of SCUBA divers to visit
An intact site with interesting coral formations
Original site from WWII
An early model of Corsair
Site Legal Protection
This site is protected by the 1980 War Relics Act with jail time and fines for any site disturbance. Please look, but don’t touch.
All U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft from WWII are still in ownership of the U.S. Government and heavily legally protected from salvage or disturbance.
The Solomon Islands Government hosted the UNESCO regional workshop in 2009 and again in June 2021 on Pacific underwater cultural heritage. It’s expected SIG will sign up to the UNESCO Convention very soon. contributed two presentations to the recent workshop.
The Sealark Team: CDR Matt Wray, RNZNR, Mark Roche, Mack Stevenson, Donna Esposito., PhD. SEALARK also wishes to thank Dave Cooke, Belinda Botha, Taska Kikololei, Jack McKee, Brian Daga, Harold Pao, Mike Parker-Brown, Emma McAlpine, Jo Tuamoto, Mike Fraser and David Pearce. SEALARK acknowledges the grateful assistance of Tourism Solomons www.visitsolomons.com.sb and SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com for their amazing support and expertise in accessing the site.
Figure 3. Munda Airfield on 25 May 2019. Jimbo’s Corsair is in the middle of the bay that indents and almost touches the airfield. [Photo by Ewan Stevenson].
Figure 2. Munda Airfield on 7 February 1945. View looks to the East. At this late war stage there is still a large number of fighters in the dispersal areas. The gasoline tanker vessel regularly crossed Munda Bar and tied up to Munda wharf in the foreground, bulk delivering thousands of gallons of 100-octane avgas.
Figure 6. We use these Bigblue Dive Lights www.bigbluedivelights.com and find them 100% reliable and crucial on a gloomy site as Jimbo’s Corsair.