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The “Koviki” Corsair

By Ewan M. Stevenson

SEALARK EXPLORATION INC, May 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. The Koviki Corsair submerged outside Vona Vona Lagoon in the New Georgia Group.

It is the best Corsair site to visit in the Solomons.

 

A primary goal of Sealark Exploration is to locate and identify American MIA aircraft sites from WWII in the South Pacific. The experienced Sealark team has been documenting and surveying WWII sites in the Solomons for over 30 years. When working an area, the Sealark team visits known sites, records, surveys, and GPS marks them. The purpose behind this is to create a database and track sites. This contributes to an overall knowledge of an area, which Sealark is constantly building.  It helps interpret the big-picture of aircraft losses in the area- who’s plane is whose and what is where and what might be MIA. It helps in understanding the historical record. It assists us in differentiating known sites from recent discoveries. Sealark regularly receives local reports of crash sites, but often they are already known. Occasionally, we receive reports of a genuine newly discovered site. This is then analysed using our database and scrutinized for MIA potential.

 

There is good reason to study existing sites.  Team members can gain detailed archaeological knowledge and practise site interpretation. The war was a long time ago and the sites have deteriorated and been transformed by marine growth or jungle. How has the subject been affected by ¾ of century of saltwater immersion? What clues are there on site that indicate what happened to the pilot? There is no better education than actually visiting sites and studying them, learning how to identify aircraft from scant materials on sites, learning about the different aircraft models, how they collapse, what might be natural environmental effects or battle damage? An excellent learning process is studying several sites of the same aircraft type. Then you really begin to understand how the aircraft or site has been transformed by the in-situ environment or how the aircraft crashed is evident in the twisted shattered remains. There are big differences between high velocity aircraft impacts on a shallow reef, a slow forced landing in rainforest or a ditching in a placid tropical lagoon. Some submerged aircraft sit in alluvial silt-laden seafloors near river mouths; other sites are on deep, open, coral reefs subject to oceanic swells. Some sites are in high current or calm bays. Others are on the peaks of 8000-foot-high, moss-forested mountains.

 

An additional benefit is team members practise their diving skills and keep them sharp. Diving by itself can be demanding. Add in the archaeological component and it can be super demanding particularly on deep dives. It is all too easy to get absorbed in the survey and forget to manage your bottom time!

 

In May 2019, Dave Moran and Ewan Stevenson of Sealark Exploration studied the submerged site of a known sunken F4U Corsair fighter known locally as “The Koviki Corsair”. It was unidentified, and its history unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. The Sealark Exploration Team at Munda. Dave Moran, CDR Matt Wray, Mack Stevenson,

Belinda Botha (Dive Munda), Ewan Stevenson, Mark Roche, Brian Daga (Dive Munda).

The Site

Sealark has been very fortunate to survey 13 Vought Corsair sites in the Solomon Islands so far, on land and submerged, and the Koviki Corsair is the best Corsair site currently known. There is a similar-conditioned submerged F4U-1 off Koli Point, Guadalcanal, but the water clarity at the Koviki Corsair is far superior-- typically, 80 feet or greater. The Koviki Corsair sits in deep water just outside the South coast of the Vona Vona Lagoon near Munda on New Georgia Island. The plane is upright on clean white coral sand about 12 meters out from the bottom edge of the lagoon barrier reef. The small coral boulder reef nearby is a uniform 45° slope up to the breaking surf on the reef edge at the surface. The reef slope is plain. Due to the gull-wing, a small part of the wings is covered in sand which prohibit coralline growth in that area and helps to preserve them. The plane is very complete and whole and not broken up.

 

There is little current on site. As you descend on the site through the clear, warm, tropical Solomon Sea, the fighter dramatically appears to be flying and emerging from a thick cloud base. It is an impressive sight. The site is original from WWII.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. A Pair of SBD-4 Dauntless dive bombers fly over Vona Vona Lagoon on 22 August 1943 in this photograph by Staff Sgt. G.G. Greitzer. The aircraft are on a strike against nearby Kolombangara Island. The left SBD-4 is over Vona Vona or Parara Island. The Koviki Corsair is submerged in the sea just off its left-wing tip. The point there is called Bighombigho. The point off the right-wing tip of the second SBD-4 is Koviki Point.  On the horizon is Rendova Island.

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Vona Vona Lagoon in November 2014. The lagoon is largely unchanged since WWII. The area was the frontline of combat in 1943 and SEALARK is tracking or surveyed 20 aircraft sites in this area. There are more to be discovered, and some are MIA.

The Corsair is slightly nose down and the depth measured on sand at the tip of the propellor dome is 53.1m (174 feet). The depth is the prime reason the Koviki Corsair is in good condition as it is on the exposed ocean side of the lagoon. The damaging effect of oceanic swells is greatly reduced at this depth. Disturbance would occur with the occasional tropical cyclone. Due to the depth, the ambient light is reduced, and artificial lights work well, revealing beautiful, bright colours of marine growth on the Vought-Sikorsky aircraft. The reduced light also means reduced coral and marine growth, so the aircraft maintains a fairly clean and original appearance. There is little hard coral growth on the plane; rather, every inch of the Corsair is carpeted in tough coralline algae. Unbreakable corkscrews of single-strand black coral Antipathes Cirripathes emanate from the plane in several places looking remarkably like man-made whip radio aerials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 5. The Koviki Corsair nose. The Hamilton Standard propellor blades are missing – dislodged during ditching or later by galvanic corrosion?

The ailerons, elevators, and surprisingly large amount of wing are doped fabric-covered, on the Corsair. All fabric has long dissolved and disintegrated. Rudders, elevators and ailerons are fragile moving surfaces and are often severely damaged in ditching or by environmental forces. The intricate framing is often disrupted by corrosion. All these flight control surfaces (minus the fabric) are very intact on the Koviki Corsair except the ailerons as they were constructed entirely of wood and have long since rotted and been eaten away. There is the odd frame missing from the rudder and elevators which could well be combat damage, but could also be corrosion and environmental damage. The rudder is turned about 20° to port. On many sites, these delicate moving control surfaces have long broken free and missing completely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 6. The port horizontal stabilizer and elevator. Note missing frame from the elevator- indicating possible combat damage. The horizontal stabilizers were interchangeable on the Corsair. To fit one stabilizer, it was simply flipped over. This means on one side the horizontal stabilizer inspection panels are uppermost and then on the opposite side they are underneath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 7. 2nd Lt. Harry S. Huidekoper, USMCR, of VMF-213 with air combat damaged F4U-1 Corsair, side no. white 82 at Munda in September 1943. The damage in the cutaway behind the pilot seat is likely a 20mm HE projectile hit from a Type 99 cannon in a ZEKE. The HE round has surface detonated on the Plexiglas (been blown away) and fragments have projected forward. The armor seat back has clearly saved the pilot from severe injury or fatality. Due to the extensive repairs required, this aircraft looks like it has been ‘parked’ for the moment awaiting ‘repair or strike’ evaluation and cannibalization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 8. Close up of the nose art and detail of the ‘birdcage’ canopy. The Corsairs were pooled in the Solomons and transferred from squadron to squadron and between MAGs as required. The bull dog art sure looks similar to an early insignia proposed for VMF-112 Wolfpack squadron indicating this Corsair could be an old VMF-112 machine. Squadrons VMF-122, 123, 124, 213, 214, 215, 221 and 222 all flew from Munda. It would be interesting to learn exactly the incident behind this photograph.

Figure 9. An early insignia proposed for VMF-112

As usual for a marine-submerged aircraft site of this age, the high-strength, chrome-molybdenum steel engine mounts have severed, probably due galvanic corrosion, and the 2000 HP Pratt & Whitney R-2800-8 Double Wasp radial engine has slumped downwards slightly. A few of the cowling flaps are gone. No Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic solid alloy propellor blades (6443A-21 or 6525A-21) can be seen in place on site. This is common of marine submerged WWII American aircraft. It is not clear how the blades become dislodged. It seems likely there is galvanic corrosion and consequent pressure in the 23E50 propellor hub area which loosens the blades, which then fall onto the seafloor.  Once the blades fall onto seafloor sand, they are covered over or swept away by ocean currents. A search in the sand around the nose may reveal buried loose blades.

 

Video recording of deep-water sites is very useful for archaeological analysis such as on this Corsair. Due to the depth and diving on air, much of the detail on site is not observed or noted by the diver due to Nitrogen Narcosis and brief bottom time. However, subsequent detailed analysis of video reveals much more information. The fuselage skin on the port side of the cockpit was later noticed from the video to be particularly perforated by several small corrosion holes. This is just under the cockpit sill. The skin, typically ‘Alcad’, is very thin and fragile in this area and is actively corroding at a higher rate than surrounding areas. This may be due to galvanic interaction with different metals in the cockpit controls mounted inside this area of the cockpit. A close inspection of the fuselage skin in the video footage shows regular small (30mm or so) corrosion holes interspersed all over the fuselage. In some areas, the pattern of the holes conforms to those pioneering Vought spot welds between the skin and fuselage frames. This may be due to slight metallic composition differences in the skin, rivets, and framing alloys causing galvanic corrosion. Alternatively, it may be due to localised metal fatigue caused by resonance of the fuselage skin flexing with sea water movement. Noting this corrosion damage, the Koviki Corsair is in much more fragile condition than is immediately obvious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 10. Corrosion damage to the skin on the left side of the cockpit.

The Plexiglas cockpit canopy enclosure is missing. Legendary Corsair expert Jim Sullivan in a 21 May 2021 email explained to the author,

 

“Concerning the jettisoned canopies, there were inside red handles on both sides of the

lower front canopy that were pulled sharply aft to release it in the event of bailout or

ditching. While not necessary for a bailout, it did make egress easier and was preferred in

a ditching as the unreleased canopy could slam forward on impact, trapping the pilot

as the plane sank”.

 

The first manufactured Corsairs (F4U-1) had canopies with a lattice of framing and were dubbed ‘birdcage’ models. A quick improvement made by Vought was a canopy change to a more blown ‘bubble’ type, with two simple frames either side. This greatly improved visibility for the pilot. This production batch has been unofficially labelled ‘F4U-1A’. A later revision of the canopy removed the two singular side frames and a complete frameless bubble was installed and the model is known as the ‘F4U-1D’. All these models operated and were lost in the Solomons. The missing canopy from the Koviki Corsair is somewhat disappointing as missing diagnostic archaeological material, but the Solomons was where the Corsair debut in combat and was the main area where the early ‘Bird Cage’ Corsairs were used. The timing of the ferocious Munda Campaign, meant this was the area where the Birdcage Corsair was highly used and most expended. In fact, the Western Solomons might be the most concentrated F4U-1 Corsair graveyard on the planet. Whilst we lack the archaeological proof, the Koviki Corsair is almost certainly a F4U-1 Birdcage model. The windshield is very intact and complete.

Figure 11. 1st Lt. James E. “Jimmy” Johnson, USMCR, of the Wolfpack squadron, VMF-112, with F4U-1 Corsair, BuNo. 02295, on the 7 June 1943 at Fighter I Airfield on Guadalcanal. He has just survived deadly aerial combat in the big dogfight near the Russell Islands. Fellow Wolfpack pilot Harry Harter was also in the fight and suffered combat damage.

Figure 12. The Koviki Corsair fin and rudder.

The aircraft on site is in very good, complete, condition. The flight control surfaces are all present. All this and the missing canopy indicate the plane was purposefully ditched in a very skilled, controlled, gentle, water landing. It is reasonable to assume the pilot survived the landing.

 

The pitot tube is intact although the very tip is damaged and bent sharply outwards towards the port wing tip. It is unclear what caused the bend, but a clumsy diver could be the cause, as on other submerged Corsairs in the Solomons, the pitot tubes are usually in perfect condition. Anchoring directly on site could cause very serious damage to this aircraft. 

 

 

 

Figure 13. The port wing tip and bent pitot tube end. Pitot tubes are very vulnerable to modern careless diver or anchoring on site. The open area of the wing was originally fabric covered. The Aileron is missing.

The forward radio mast is still place, another indicator of an early Corsair.

 

No arrestor hook is present which indicates a land-based Marine squadron. The famous U.S. Navy “Jolly Rogers” VF-17 squadron was based nearby at Ondonga Airfield complex in October 1943, and photographic evidence of their Corsairs show arrestor hooks still in place. In any case, the location of the Koviki Corsair does not match a historical VF-17 loss, whose losses have been thoroughly researched and well documented.

 

The Koviki Corsair was found relatively recently, circa late 1990’s, by local Beche-de-mer diver Tingo Leve. Due to the superb underwater visibility at the site, such a diver working the adjacent reef slope for the delicacy black sea cucumber could easily spot the Corsair due to its dark contrast on the sand nearby. Since the exciting discovery, various tourist diver operators based at Munda and Gizo have regularly taken tourist divers to site. Dave and Marianna Cooke, Danny and Kerrie Kennedy, Graeme Sanson and Jen Wills, and Belinda Botha have taken tourist divers to the site. These operators employ local dive guides, tourist accommodation is required, dive training is conducted, and a whole industry revolves around accessing the precious Koviki Corsair. The site is regularly dived, perhaps on average twice a month. That computes to the site being dived in excess of 500 times. The Koviki Corsair is of direct economic benefit and a rare mode of income in a remote area of the South Pacific. It is an eco-friendly economy source rather than rampant rainforest logging or prolific fishing also occurring in the area. In direct revenue, 500 of $600 SBD average per diver per dive equates to at least $300,000 SBD earned from the site so far.

 

The cockpit of the Corsair is missing a great deal of archaeological material. The seat, all instrument panels, levers, switches, instruction and labelling plates, rudder pedals, gun sight, navigation plotting board, and much, much more. The left console along with quadrant containing throttle, propellor and fuel mixture levers is completely missing. The landing gear lever on the port side is non-existent. The right console with radio and electrical control boxes is missing. The signal pistol was located on the right side too and this cannot be seen. There are dozens of instruments installed in a Corsair cockpit, but none appear to remain on site. The control column is still present. There is one primary explanation for such damage- souveniring.

Figure 14. The cockpit of an F4U-1 Corsair as manufactured in 1942.

Figure 15. The cockpit of the Koviki Corsair.

Whereabouts is all this archaeological material? Instruments and controls are complex intricate pieces manufactured from dissimilar metals. Due to this, they corrode badly. Once they have been recovered and exposed to atmospheric oxygen levels, the corrosion rates explode. Due to the enclosed construction of instruments, they are difficult to treat and conserve even for a trained technician. In addition, such artifacts from the ocean are covered with live Marine growth and animals. All this life dies and quickly begins to rot. Due to the severe corrosion the artifact falls apart and begins to smell very foul indeed. Foul smelling corrosion liquid products combined with rotting animal life exude from the artifact for many weeks and due to ongoing corrosion, typically never stops! With this outcome plainly visible and smelling, almost all such salvage is discarded quite soon after recovery into the trash bin, thrown away or buried. The fact that there are many stripped submerged cockpits in the South Pacific, but almost nil private diver artefact collections on land are testament to this outcome.

Who’s plane is it?

By combining archaeology and the historical record, an aircraft site can be identified. The prime archaeological information is a manufacturer’s data plate from the cockpit, a Bureau of Aeronautics or a manufacturer’s serial number painted on the aircraft in several places. On land aircraft sites it is often difficult to extract this information. On submerged aircraft sites, it is even more so. Marine growth obliterates everything and it cannot be removed easily. The growth is super hard, brittle, calcium carbonate layers. Furthermore, corrosion underwater is severe. Data plates underwater are very difficult to locate and are often missing. This may be due to illegal souveniring, but it also appears that the dissimilar metals of the plate, fixings and substrate cause severe corrosion, and the plates fall off, are lost, or completely dissolved. 

 

In the case of the Koviki Corsair, no serial number information has been obtained from site. The only archaeological information available is the location of the site, aircraft type, possibly some combat damage to tail surfaces and general condition which obviously indicates a controlled ditching.

 

Sealark Exploration is tracking at least 20 aircraft sites in the Vona Vona Lagoon area, and there is more to be discovered.

Table: Three known Corsairs in the Vona Vona area

The campaign for Munda, where the Japanese had attempted to build an airfield closer to Guadalcanal, was the next big battle after Guadalcanal, commencing in July 1943. It was a step closer to the big Japanese base at Rabaul, and a small step closer to Japan. On the 30 June 1943, a major American landing took place on Rendova, a few miles across Blanche Channel from Munda. It was a smart move by South Pacific Commander Adm. William “Bull” Halsey – Rendova was lightly defended by the Japanese and it provided a superb base for U.S. artillery units to pound Munda in support of the ground attack. The Japanese reacted furiously with numerous BETTY, SALLY and VAL bomber strikes on the American beachhead at DOWSER. (the secret codename for Rendova). On the 7 July 1943, Capt. Robert Ewing of VMF-122 was on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) in his Corsair over Rendova when half a dozen G4M1 BETTYs from the 705th Kokutai escorted by ZEKE fighters rolled in. In the air battle that erupted, Captain Ewing claimed shooting down a BETTY before ditching his battle-damaged Corsair in the Vona Vona area. He returned to his squadron on 11 July 1943 but 8 weeks later on an escort mission to bomb Ballalai Island on 16 September 1943, he went Missing in Action (MIA). His case is being tracked by Sealark Exploration.  

 

The American capture of Munda was supposed to use an Army Division and take a couple of weeks. The 5000 Japanese defenders put up such a fierce defence, the campaign ended up swallowing a further two U.S. Army Divisions, and taking five weeks until Munda fell on 5 August 1943. At this rate, the Pacific war was looking a long, horrendous battle. With Munda secure, it was now the urgent mission of the U.S. 24th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) to get the old battered Japanese airstrip operational. This took just nine days. In the afternoon of 14 August 1943, a dozen Vought F4U-1 Corsairs of VMF-123 “Eights Balls” squadron and a dozen from VMF-124 “Death’s Head” squadron arrived for “Temporary Duty” forming the initial Munda air garrison. The timing could not have been better. The following day was the American landing at Barakoma on Vella Lavella Island to the Nor-West, and the first ever by-pass strategic move by Adm. Halsey, the South Pacific Forces Commander. The heavily fortified Japanese position at Kolombangara Island was now behind American lines and the blockade would render it defunct. The Marine Corsairs were very busy shuttling in and out of Munda all day, maintaining a CAP over the US Naval Task Force off Vella Lavella. For once the Corsair pilots should have plenty of fuel to fight as Barakoma (“Sirius Base”) was just 45 miles from Munda (“Diamond Base”). A fighter director (“Cracker Base”) on one of the escorting US Navy destroyers radioed information to the CAP.

 

The Japanese reaction to the big American landing at Barakoma was swift and intense. Several strikes at the beach head and Task Force offshore were made during the day with VAL dive bombers escorted by ZEKE fighters. The Marine Corsairs of VMF-123 and 124 were heavily engaged in protecting the beach head and Naval Task Force. VAL dive bombers, ZEKES, and Allied fighters were falling out of the skies all over Sirius Base. An “Eight-Ball” pilot, 2nd Lt. Herbert Blain, was embroiled in the aerial combat over the Task Force in Vella Gulf,

“I pulled up and over. My fuel pressure had cut out. My motor acted up and continued my dive,

headed for our base. I was then at about 12,000-15,000 ft. I dove under the clouds and gave

it the gas, it didn’t help. I landed in the water on [sic] an island near Wana Wana. The natives

were out to get me in 3 to 5 minutes. There were about 20 natives there”. [VMF-123 War Diary].

Another Marine Corsair pilot also experienced dangerous aerial combat damage on the 15 August 1943. That was 1st Lt. Harry Harter. According to the squadron war diary,

 

“Harter being shot up and running low on gasoline made a water landing

off Wana Wana Island was picked up by a PT boat”. [VMF-124 war Diary].

 

The Koviki Corsair site is 9.3 miles from the friendly base at Munda. It would take perhaps half a day for a downed pilot to cover this distance back to friendly lines. Another single seat US plane reported  to SEALARK is located at the North-Western end of Vona Vona. It might take two or three days at least for a pilot walking and/or paddling and with the assistance of the local Melanesians to make his way back to friendly lines from that position. Lt. Ewing took this similar time frame to get back to his squadron.

Sealark has surveyed another F4U-1 Birdcage Corsair located inside Vona Vona lagoon in 50 feet of water, about 1000 feet from Mandou village on Vona Vona Island. The site is close to smaller Kauvi Island. This Corsair is in excellent condition and complete. It retains its Birdcage canopy. Unfortunately, the plane rests in very murky, still, inner lagoon waters. The visibility is perhaps 3 feet. Mandou village is 7.6 miles from Munda.

 

Vona Vona or Wana Wana lagoon takes its name from the largest barrier island that forms the Southern boundary of the lagoon. It is also known as Parara Island. The description that 2nd Lt. Blain gives of his water landing where he ditched off an island near Wana wana and was rescued so promptly by islanders, strongly matches the Corsair site close to Mandou village. Mandou village is 7.6 miles from Munda. After a night in the village, where the villagers sang him songs, 2nd Lt. Blain was paddled back to Munda the next day by the villagers.

The only candidate remaining that we know at the moment for the Koviki Corsair ­– is 1st Lt. Harry H. Harter. The Koviki Corsair site is literally “off” Wana Wana just as the War Diary describes for Harter’s ditching. The isolated missing frames from the rudder and elevators may be combat damage and collaborates “being shot up”. The ditching site is highly visible and exposed being on the open, offshore, side of the lagoon. It is exposed to observation from Rendova and Munda. With all the aviation activity around Munda on the 15 August 1943, it seems likely that Harter’s ditching (and the big splash!) was directly observed. He would have likely gained his life raft and waiting outside the crashing breakers on Vona Vona Island. Prior to ditching, he probably successfully radioed Diamond Base alerting them about his ditching so close by. He may have had accompanying squadron planes watching over him and reporting his water landing. U.S. Navy PT boats of squadron 9, based at nearby Rendova Harbour, were available for rescue work and rescued many pilots during the Munda Campaign. The Koviki Corsair points approximately Southwest. If we assume the plane still points roughly the way it water landed, then the pilot has flown over Vona Vona Island (which you would do coming from Vella Gulf) and has landed just past the breakers and out to sea. That is a safe direction to take as you have plenty of open ocean to ditch in. Water landing whilst heading straight in for a coastline is riskier, as it is easy to misjudge how far the plane will skid on the ocean surface and one could impact the land. If Harter stayed off the breakers in his boat, it would have been an easy pick-up for the PT boat and only a few minutes ride to return him to his squadron at Munda. The Koviki Corsair had only seconds of flying time to reach the airfield at Munda. It was a very fine line between making it safely to the field or not for 1st Lt. Harter.

Harter evidentially landed away from a native village otherwise he would have been rescued by the islanders. The Koviki Corsair site, is away from local villages, being on the treacherous ocean side of the lagoon. It would have taken the islanders most of a day at great pains to mount a rescue. The open ocean ditching site makes sense that a PT boat would conduct a rescue. If Harter landed inside the lagoon, he would have within minutes paddled or swum to a nearby island and the islanders would have rescued him and transported back to Munda.

 

Who was 1st Lt. Harry Herbert Harter?

On the 7 February 1919, a blond-haired, brown-eyed baby was born in the tiny settlement of Stetsonville in Wisconsin, to Mr and Mrs Harry H. Harter. This baby was named after his father. The family was of three children-- two boys and a girl. Harry Herbert Junior grew up and attended Colby High School graduating in 1935 at age 16. He worked for three years before entering the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His avocation was Mechanical Engineering. Whilst at University, he was in the wrestling club, and also played tackle on the Badger football squad for 1940 and 1941. His 6 foot 1-inch height probably helped with that role (his height also helped with later flying the Corsair too!). Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Harry enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 24 February 1942. He volunteered for flight training at the Naval Reserve Air Base at Glenview, Illinois. He became part of the third squadron of Flying Badgers produced by the University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 16. Harry Harter as tackle on the Badger Football Squad circa 1940-1941.

Following fight training, on October 16, 1942, 2nd Lt. Harry Harter was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from Flight Class 5B-42-C(C) at Corpus Christie U.S. Naval Air Station. By March 1943, 2nd Lt. Harter had been shipped out and was serving overseas. By May 1943, he was serving in the “Wolfpack” squadron - VMF-112 - based at Fighter One Field on Guadalcanal. Although Harter does not appear to have participated, his squadron was heavily engaged in the 13 May 1943 dogfight over the Russell Islands. The next day 1st Lt. Harter along with three squadron pilots, flew a publicity flight for Marine Corps Public Relation Photographers. The photographs of four Wolfpack (VMF-112) Corsairs flying from Guadalcanal have yet to be found and identified. On the 7 June 1943, another large Japanese fighter strike towards the Russells and Guadalcanal was intercepted. This time, 1st Lt. Harter made contact with the enemy and probably experienced his first combat as he was hit and aircraft damaged. He managed to safely return. His final assignment was to the highly experienced “Death’s Head” squadron VMF-124, MAG-11, 1st MAW. When VMF-124 got to Munda, it was on its third and final tour in the South Pacific.

Figure 17. 2nd Lt. Harry H. Harter’s commissioning photo, October 1942.

 

As 1st Lt. Harry Harter successfully water landed F4U-1, BuNo. 02244 off Wana Wana island in the Western Solomon Islands, tragically, he had only about a week to live. At 1230 hours, on Tuesday 24 August 1943, 1st Lt. Harter pushed the throttle lever on the left console to full open to take off from Munda Strip in F4U-1, BuNo. 02281. Something terrible happened, and Harter crashed badly. As per the USMC casualty card, Harter suffered, “Skull fracture, injuries, multiple extreme”. According to the squadron War Diary he “died instantaneously” which would have been of some comfort to his family. He was 24 years old. The Corsair was stricken. Within a few days, his parents at 3722 S. 56th Street in Milwaukee, received the terrible news via official telegram. Meanwhile Harry was buried in Grave 14, Row 21, Plot 3, of the Munda Cemetery on New Georgia Island.

Figure 18. The Munda cemetery on Armistice Day 1943. One of these crosses marks 1st Lt. Harry H. Harter’s grave.

In the late 1940’s, America began uplifting it’s military cemeteries in the Pacific and NOK were given the choice for final disposition of their loved ones. On 2 April 1949, Harry’s father elected Arlington Park Cemetery, Greenfield in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, as Harry Junior’s final resting place. His sister Mrs. Robert Anderson and brother David M. Harter of Chicago were probably at the re-burial. And that is where 1st Lt. Harry Herbert Harter, Jr., 014461, USMCR resides today in Block 16, Lot 67, Space 10-a.

Figure 19. Harry Harter’s grave today.

A Beautiful Aluminium Reef

There might be more than 2000 species of fish, plants, algae and corals living on the Koviki Corsair. When the Vought-Sikorsky Division manufactured-aircraft settled on the sand at 174 feet, it instantly became an artificial reef, providing a superb solid substrate for species to grow and find shelter on an otherwise inert, constantly moving, fine coral sand seafloor. There is probably about 50 fish species living under and in recesses in the Vought airplane. Some of the more noticeable are a pretty juvenile Coral Trout (Grouper) Cephalopholis miniator sheltering in the recess behind the main instrument panel. The first divers on site usually frighten away the resident school of Blackspine Surgeonfish Acanthurus fowleri. They swiftly exit with a radical jerky swimming pattern. An Orange-lined Triggerfish Balistapus undulatus inhabits under the cowling of the Double Wasp radial engine. On the exterior port side of the cockpit fuselage, a dramatically bi-coloured Damselfish darts in and out of its refuge. It’s a small fish but rather noticeable. It’s tail and rear fins are white, whilst the rest is black. It’s properly called a Bicolour Chromis Chromis margaritifer. The comprehensive Fish Reef Guide – Tropical Pacific by Gerald Allen, 2003, states its range to 20m depth; the sighting of it happily swimming around at 52m on the Koviki Corsair might be a new record! There is a pair of incessantly rapid swimming ubiquitous Bluestreak cleaner wrasses Labroides dimidiatus hanging around the left cockpit sill waiting for customers. There is no way Rosie the riveter at the Vought plant in Stratford would have imagined her product becoming a fish cleaning station under the sea. Again, the Fish Reef Guide states it ranges to 40m. There is definitely two of them at 52m outside the Vona Vona Lagoon.

As to benthic sea life, every square inch of the surface of the Koviki Corsair has life clinging to it. Some of the larger species are as follows. Easily spotted are three barrel sponges Xestospongia testudinaria – one on each wing and one on the port elevator. Featherstars are plankton filter feeders and always like to position themselves high and exposed to the current. Appropriately a black one is perched high on the radio mast and three Oxycomanthus bennetti on the rudder. In the early morning dive on site, these featherstars were folded up and not actively feeding. Small black coral Antipatharia antipathes bushes grow atop the horizontal stabilizers. The most beautiful plant by far on site is a small delicate, pale pink soft coral Dendronephthya nephtheidae growing on the right side of the rudder. These soft corals are amazingly pretty.

Figure 20. A soft coral grows on the rudder.

A flaky sea fan Anthothelidae alertigorgia sways in the current from the aft left fuselage. On the top of the rudder, a veritable forest of untidy Hydroids Sertularella diaphana are growing. They really do look scruffy! This might be the deepest record of untidy hydroids growing as Gerald Allan writes they live in 10-30m. A small clump of the stinging Hydrozoan variety Aglaophenia cupressina are attached to the front of the left cockpit sill. Don’t touch!

A Sharksucker interferes with the survey

The idea with underwater video work is slow and steady as you can… whilst the author was in this mode, an elongated quite elegant looking fish, came barrelling out of the wreck straight towards the author. It then made close rushes around the author from various directions…. this was one of the Remora family of fishes which uses a sucker on the top of its head to attach to sharks, manta rays, turtles and divers! It’s called a Sharksucker Echeneis naucrates and its persistence was highly disturbing. Now the author knows how hard it is to shoot steady video at 170 feet with an amorous Sharksucker!. Expert fish biologist Dr Gerald Allen writes “May attempt to attach to divers. If attach, push forward to release…” It would have been comforting to know that before I dived the Koviki Corsair….

Figure 21. Here comes the Sharksucker again…

Site Access

Anyone can access the site and it is really easy. 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 www.agneshotelsolomon.com . This is the best place to stay and so very relaxing.

SIDE Dive Munda  www.divemunda.com operate out of the hotel! Whilst you relax in the restaurant built over the stunning Roviana Lagoon having breakfast, The SIDE Dive Munda staff will load your dive gear in the boat. It’s then a 20-minute run in the boat to the site. The boat does not anchor, but hovers over the site, the SIDE Dive Munda staff are fantastic and lots of fun and help you gear up. It’s quite a dramatic, beautiful site, open ocean, with large swells crashing on the barrier reef nearby. The SIDE Dive Munda then guide you to the site. It is a great dive with awesome visibility. You need to have the right diver qualifications/certifications. The dive is conducted on a single tank on air. About 10 minutes bottom time is typical with associated staged decompression. A dive computer with full deco mode is a must. A thrilling ten minutes swimming around the small aircraft site is usually plenty. You can come back the next day and dive it again if you want! Spare dive bottles are hung under the boat. The SIDE Dive Munda staff monitor the dive very carefully and manage the dive for the greatest safety. Dive duration is about 45 mins or so.

Future

  • 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. The 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 easily makes sense to do.

  • Digitize the site for a 3D model

  • Develop the history of the site for display at SIDE Dive Munda  www.divemunda.com and in Agnes Gateway Hotel www.agneshotelsolomon.com

  • It is not recommended to create a permanent mooring on site. It is not required and any mooring line close to the site will obstruct video and photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                       Figure 22. The Agnes gateway Hotel is the best place to

                        stay and relax in Munda and access the Koviki Corsair

Figure 24. Solomon Airlines at Munda Field.

Site Legal Protection

This site is protected by the 1980 War Relics Act with jail time and fines for any site disturbance.

All U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft from WWII are still in ownership by the U.S. Government and heavily protected from salvage or disturbance.

The Solomon Islands hosted the UNESCO regional workshop in 2009 on Pacific underwater cultural heritage. It’s expected SIG will sign up to the UNESCO Convention on same.

Figure 25. Another view of the Koviki Corsair.  

Site Significance

  • A memorial to a young man …..1st Lt. Harry H. Harter, Jr., 014461, USMCR.

  • The best Corsair site you can visit in the Solomons.

  • An aircraft from a famous South Pacific squadron, U.S. Marine Fighting Squadron One Twenty-Four (VMF-124). This Squadron was the first equipped with the Corsair, the first to bring it to the South Pacific and debut it in combat.

Figure 26. Insignia for 1st Lt. Harter’s squadron – VMF-124.

  • A dramatic site (sight) of dark contrast of the aircraft against a plain background of white.

  • An early birdcage model, a rare version of the F4U Corsair. F4U-1, BuNo. 02244, MSN. 2869, was the 92nd built out of a total of 12,582 Corsairs. It was manufactured in 1942 at Vought-Sikorsky ’s Stratford plant, CT.

The erroneous name of the “Koviki” Corsair

For two decades since discovery, this F4U-1 has been known as the “Koviki” Corsair. It’s been named as such due to its locality. The name and plane have even been promoted and printed on a T-shirt. But the naming appears to be wrong. When the site is plotted on the 1:50,000 scale map 8/157/5 of the Solomon Islands Government Department of Lands and Survey, the site is off Bighombigho Point! Koviki Point is indicated a further 1.2 miles to the Northwest.

Disclaimer

The Munda area was heavily fought over in aerial combat and numerous Corsairs were falling out of the local sky. There are many Corsairs crashed in the jungle or ocean all over this place. The New Georgia area is a graveyard of Birdcage Corsairs. There were lots of operational losses besides combat victims. After the war, it was common practise for the military authorities to dump aircraft in the ocean. During the war, written records are not always thorough and complete. It is likely additional Corsairs are lost in the Vona Vona area, that are not well recorded. Considering all the above and without archaeologically matching BuNo. “02244” or the MSN “2869” from site, it is impossible to 100% say the Koviki Corsair is Harry Harter’s.

Acknowledgements

Professor Richard Muller, Jim Sullivan (“Mr Corsair”), Dave Moran, Graeme Sanson, Dave Cooke, Mike Fraser, Danny and Kerrie Kennedy www.divegizo.com divegizo@solomon.com.sb, Mark Roche, CDR Matt Wray, RNZNR, Belinda Botha belinda@dive-solomon.com, Tasker Kikololei, Brian Daga, Harold Pao, Jack McKee and Donna Esposito. SEALARK especially wishes to thank SIDE Dive Munda www.divemunda.com and Agnes Gateway Hotel  www.agneshotelsolomon.com for their amazing support and expertise in accessing the site.

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Figure 23. Belinda Botha of SIDE Dive Munda.

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