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Eric Wiberg – PBM Mariner seaplane sinks near Royal Island

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Martin PBM-3S Mariner.

ON the night of Wednesday, July 19, 1944, at Royal Island, North Eleuthera, Lt (jg) HL Hayes crashed while landing in a turbulent sea. No injuries to the personnel occurred, but both wing floats were torn off the plane and the starboard wing tip bounced on the bottom and finally sank in 20 feet of water. The plane was damaged beyond repair and was later surveyed.

Squadron VP-208 reported that the plane landed at Royal Island, and in doing so water-looped to such an extent that the plane was “Struck Off Charge (SOC). Major damage.” An expert explained to me as I set off to swim and find part of the plane that “usually a water-loop will pitch a wing underwater after it loses its outer wing buoyancy, and crinkle the wing and adjoining fuselage, making it unflyable. “If no resources to repair anywhere near they could have purposely sunk it after stripping it. But they probably would have taxied to somewhere deeper to do so.”

On Saturday, January 14, 2023, I swam a tiny acre of the hundreds where parts might have become hidden in crevices, yet found no clues. The fishermen at Spanish Wells adjacent know every inch of their waters, and I rationalised that if they don’t know about it, it is probably not there. I called Elon Pinder, mailboat captain and owner in Spanish Wells, and he told me he has never heard a fisherman reference a plane wreck near Royal Island. My conviction that there is no wreckage of that crash there was borne out with the following message while we sat at anchor off Royal Island, which now aspires to be an elite resort.

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USS Christiana, IX-80, YAG-32, seaplane tender in Pelican Bay, Abaco, and Royal Island, Eleuthera, for squadron VB-132. Credit: Navsource.org

Aviation historian Doug Campbell kindly shared that “Plane was Peter 19 (P-19).” Additional info: “Pumps have hull leaks under control. Need flotation gear for both wing tips.” So that tells me they didn’t sink right away, but they did sink. Next day: “P-19 sank in 20 feet of water. Salvage operations taken over by Headquarters Squadron 12.” So that’s probably your answer.” Plane salvaged, nothing more than a few nuts and bolts to find, if that after 80 years. We pulled the anchor of our expedition boat Parole and headed south to seek shelter in Hatchet Bay from an impending cold front. The exercise proved how important it is to have experts advising, an internet connection, and persons with you who are experienced divers and mariners. And when to give up.

Between 1943 and 1945 USS Christiana, IX-80, YAG-32, was under the command of Lt (jg) Anthony DeFrances USNR as a seaplane tender in Pelican Bay, Abaco, and Royal Island for squadron VB-132. She was built in New York in 1891 as the Lighthouse Tender Azalea. She was kept busy, as there were seaplane accidents at all islands Christiana was based in The Bahamas, including Walkers Cay.

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Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera.

On September 20, 1943, a Martin PBM-3S Mariner suffered a water-loop while landing, spinning out of contol in proximity to USS Christiana in Pelican Bay. The large amphibian plane was struck from active service in squadron VP-208.

On March 11, 1945, the largest air sea rescue effort in The Bahamas of World War II began with the simple statement in the Gulf Sea Frontier commander’s daily diary that “at 8am Miami advised ComGulf that ATC [air traffic control] Jacksonville reported a PB4Y was lost at sea.”

When a land plane hits the water, usually the search is called off in hours or days. But given that amphibs can float for months, the search can drag on inexorably. Many dozens of aircraft, hundreds of servicement on land, in the air and afloat deployed to find the missing 14 men, who were never found. Liferafts were retrieved not belonging to the same plane, a plane was reported ablaze and sinking a mile west of Governor’s Harbour, Eleuthera, (it was a boat), a large piece of rectangularly shaped metal was reported on Nunjack Cay, Abacos, and lights were seen flashing well east of the islands, all for naught.

The main focus was on Paw Paw Rocks, northwest of Little Abaco and southeast of Walker’s Cay, with nothing conclusive ever found. Airman Charles John Nickerman, from Salt Lake City, Utah, never made his 20th birthday. His parents were informed he was simply “missing in action”, and he was awarded the Navy Gold Star for death in the line of duty.

On Thursday, August 24, 1944, on the open ocean east of James Cistern, central Eleuthera, a PBM Mariner aircraft was given assistance by RAF rescue boats that ultimately were not up to the task. After a distress call was sent from the plane, a B-25 bomber based at Oakes Field diverted to its reported position. Then a signal sent to launch at Harbour Island instructing it to put to sea to locate the drifting Mariner, which the training crew in the B-25 located and returned to base. USS Christiana at Royal Island took over from the RAF air-sea rescue crash boat HMS P-339, which reached the Mariner, but could not tow it to shore, as its tow-rope was unable to stand the strain. P-339 then returned to Eleuthera.

On Thursday, September 21, 1942, US Navy pilot RJ Finnie was skippering his Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina of US Navy VP-92 Squadron towards a sea landing off Stocking Island, the seaward barrier protecting George Town, Exuma. Unfortunately, the landing quickly became a high-speed water crash, following which the aircraft sank and was lost. Captain Finnie was killed, and the PBY damaged beyond repair. The NOB and NAS in Exuma were well equipped and prepared to render salvage to sunken and damaged aircraft; that was part of their training, and with so much traffic between the US, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Canada during the war airborne, afloat, and from carriers and others passing through the nearby channels, they were kept busy in the war.

On Saturday, July 1, 1944, PBM Mariner aircraft was attempting to take off in a ferry service convoy of planes from Exuma to the US. At noon during waterborne climb, the pilot spotted another aircraft in his path. In tight formation and in order to avoid striking it, he made a drastic turn.

His seaplane hit a navigation buoy and sank quickly, killing all six crew members on board. Tragic as it was, such accidents were not uncommon. Less than three months later, on Sunday, September 24, that year an airplane of VP-92 Squadron was trying to land on the sub-sea runway at Great Exuma while the lights on the seafloor were not lit, and it crashed. Although the plane was completely lost and several of the crew were injured, thankfully no one was killed.

A wide variety of tasks are undertaken by the personnel at these remote bases, including destroying what has already been partially sunk. One day a telegram from the Commissioner of Arthurs Town, Cat Island, to the NAS Exuma detailed a wreck drifting between the two islands.

The partially submerged derelict’s mast stuck 50 feet out of the water, was only 20 miles south of Little Exuma. Since it was considered a hazard to navigation, the Naval Air Station agreed to use it as target practice and destroy it. They also went on myriad rescue and scouting missions to all the surrounding islands and served as a welcome landing mat to dozens of disoriented air craft carrier pilots low on fuel or lost.

Comments

truetruebahamian 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Thank you, Eric. Being a pilot this information and history holds great attention and interest.

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