November 28th, 2023


Divers find dog tags and a ring in the wreck of a WWII bomber at sea

Michael E. Ruane

By Michael E. Ruane The Washington Post

Published November 20, 2023

Divers find dog tags and a ring in the wreck of a WWII bomber at sea


Florence Darrigan was living with her parents on Main Street in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when her husband's bomber was shot down off the island of New Guinea during World War II. She was 23. They had been married for a year, and their son, Thomas, was not yet 2.

As she grieved, she may not have known that as the B-24 carrying her husband, Eugene, and 10 other men went down in flames that day in 1944, he wore a metal dog tag that included her name as his emergency contact.

This year, Navy divers and Pentagon archaeologists retrieved a corroded dog tag from the underwater crash site where it had rested for 79 years. When it was cleaned, the partly deteriorated name "FLORENC" emerged, as well as the rusted address: "415 MAIN ST," "OUGHKEEPSI."

It was a remarkable find. Much of the wording on the tag, including Eugene's name, had rusted away. But the experts have concluded that this was the dog tag worn by the radio operator when his plane, nicknamed Heaven Can Wait, was shot down on March 11, 1944, killing the entire crew.

Darrigan's dog tag was among artifacts recovered this spring during a five-week expedition that sent elite Navy divers in a diving bell to depths of 200 feet off the remote north coast of New Guinea.

"It's a really weird feeling," said Gregory Stratton, a forensic underwater archaeologist who headed the mission and first examined Darrigan's dog tag. "You know that somebody's family is going to find out for sure what happened to their ancestor. No more generalities."

Dan Schindler, Darrigan's grandson, said in an email that he wished his late father, Tom - the Darrigans' son - had been around to see this. Tom died in 2020.

Items belonging to three crewmen were found, as well as an array of possible human remains, the plane's bomb bay doors, several .50-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns, and both of the bomber's two steering yokes.

Stratton said other items that are still being examined might be connected to the crew.

Family members said they received their relatives' artifacts last month.

In addition to Darrigan's dog tag, the divers and experts from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovered two dog tags and a ring belonging to 2nd Lt. Thomas V. Kelly Jr., and two dog tags of 2nd Lt. Donald W. Sheppick.

Sheppick, 26, of Roscoe, Pa., south of Pittsburgh, was the plane's navigator. Kelly, 21, of Livermore, Calif., east of San Francisco, was the bombardier.

"It's amazing after all this time," said Deborah Wineland, Sheppick's niece, who lives in the house where her uncle grew up and where his wife stayed while he was in the service.

The gold-colored ring that Kelly had been wearing read "Bombardier," a reference to his specialty on the plane, and "USAAF," for U.S. Army Air Forces.

The ring was missing its central stone but still bore images of an eagle and a winged bomb.

Stratton, a scientist with the DPAA, said he soaked the ring in vinegar from the ship's galley and cleaned it with a soft brush. "I could read 'USAAF' and 'Bombardier,'" he said. "Incredible."

Kelly's family, meanwhile, has discovered a wartime photo that shows him wearing the ring.

"The only picture that we have of him and the crew from Papua New Guinea shows very clearly he's wearing a ring on his left hand," a cousin, Scott Althaus, said in a telephone interview. "And we now have that ring in our possession."

Kathy Borst, 69, of Yorkville, Calif., a niece of Kelly's, said she got her uncle's artifacts from the DPAA on Oct. 24, encased in a clear plastic bags labeled "Evidence." She said she received the items because she is the eldest in Kelly's immediate family.

"It's kind of a lump-in-your-throat thing," she said in a telephone interview.

She added, "It's awe-inspiring that anyone could bring something like those . . . tiny bits of anything off the bottom of the ocean, 220 feet, or whatever it is, after 80 years. That's just a remarkable feat, that something was located to that degree on a planet this big."

Another niece, Diane Christie, 66, of Folsom, Calif., said, "When I knew they got delivered . . . my heart kind of, I don't know if it dropped or skipped a beat, or what it did."

She added, "I would be absolutely shocked if they didn't have some of his bone." The DPAA has indicated that DNA might be extracted from any recovered bones and compared to DNA samples provided by family members.

"I don't think it means closure," Christie said of the discoveries, because Kelly's parents and sister are deceased. "We didn't experience the loss, and they did."

But the story of Heaven Can Wait brought the family together, she said. "It reunited us," she said. "And it'll keep us together now in our lifetimes."

Kelly's family started the project to investigate the fate of the crew a decade ago, when Althaus, a first cousin once removed and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began digging into the story.

Over four years, Kelly's relatives gathered a trove of data, and Althaus compiled a detailed report on the fate of the bomber and its crew.

In 2016, the family made contact with Project Recover - formerly the BentProp Project - an exploration partnership between the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Delaware.

Althaus sent the organization his report on July 31, 2017, and the following October, Project Recover launched an expedition and pinpointed the location of the plane in the deep waters off New Guinea.

"They went out on their own effort to see what they could find," he said. "They made this possible."

But the wreckage was too deep for standard archaeology dives, and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit offered to help.

In March, the Navy sent a team of elite divers and its portable SAT FADS - Saturation Fly-Away Diving System - to the site.

The diving apparatus, somewhat like a space station, included a pressurized habitat where the divers lived aboard the ship, and a pressurized diving bell, which they used to reach the bottom.

The system allowed them to work in the pressure of deep water for long periods without having to decompress after each dive, the Navy said. They needed to decompress only at the end of the project.

Once on the bottom, the divers exited the bell. They had to saw some of the wreckage apart and vacuum material from the crash site into big baskets. The baskets were hauled up to the ship and the contents sifted for artifacts.

The team kept the names and pictures of the bomber's crew on a large information board on deck, the DPAA's Stratton said. "It's just a little gentle reminder of what we're doing, and who we're doing it for," he said.

It was the deepest underwater recovery mission to date for the DPAA, the government agency that seeks to account for service members missing in action in past wars. And it was the first time the SAT FADS system was used in such a role, the Navy said.

The outcome is "beyond what I ever completely imagined . . . 10 years ago," Althaus said, adding that the "main feeling that I have is gratitude" for the work of the DPAA and the Navy. The diving was dangerous, hard and taxing, he said.

Heaven Can Wait, probably named after a 1943 movie, was on a mission to bomb a Japanese target in New Guinea when it was hit by antiaircraft fire. The tail broke off, and the plane plunged into the water.

Three figures were seen jumping out as it went down. The wreckage burned on the surface and sank, leaving behind a large oil slick. There were no survivors.

The 11 men on the plane were classified as killed in action. After the war and an investigation by the American Graves Registration Service, their bodies were declared unrecoverable.