|I DIDNT BELIEVE THE RUMOURS AT FIRST. For years I had searched for crashed aircraft along the Croatian coast, and had always ended up with piles of metal so twisted and destroyed that the aircraft type could be identified only in the details. I also know that divers tend to exaggerate, and especially so when it comes to aircraft wrecks. |
Then I came across Borut Furlan, a well-known Slovenian underwater photographer. He too told me about the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber near Vis, and said that he had been one of the team that had recently discovered the wreck at 72m.
He had also taken some photographs, and was happy to show them to me.
I examined them carefully and couldnt believe my eyes - it was a B-17 all right, and it appeared to be in a perfect state. Even the propellers and engines were in place. I had to see it with my own eyes!
During World War Two, the Adriatic Sea was a battlefield for the Italian and German navies confronting oncoming Allied forces. The Croatian islands were held by Titos partisans, while the mainland was dominated by Germans. Partisans had fought the Germans and Italians since their uprising in 1941, and from 1943 they were aided by the Allies in many ways.
Food, arms and ammunition from Allied bases on the Italian coast were transported by sea to the Croatian mainland via Vis island, where a garrison of partisan and British troops were preparing to fight off a threatened German invasion.
In the spring of 1944, a US engineering team built an auxiliary landing strip for damaged US bombers to use in an emergency. Landing on this small airfield became the last chance for many USAF bomber crews who couldnt make it back to their southern Italian bases, but they werent all so lucky. The aircraft I wanted to dive had been one that nearly made it.
We arrived in Vis the following May. We were all trained for deep air diving and, although this dive would certainly be safer on trimix, we decided to use air [not recommended]. The wreck lies in 72m only about 100m from the shore, and our RIB was soon moored above it, in clear water.
Borut led us down along the thin mooring line. Light blue tones gave way to a deeper blue background, and the visibility worsened. Beyond 45m I could discern a darker, cruciform shape below me, and my heart started to beat harder. As we passed 50m, the visibility suddenly improved and I could see the entire aircraft.
It was the sort of sight you seldom see in your diving career, and one to remember for the rest of your life.
An intact B-17 was lying on the sand as if it had just landed, and it seemed as if it was still standing on its wheels! I landed on the starboard wing and noticed that it was resting on the sand, while the port wingtip was several metres above the sandy bottom. Visibility was more than 30m, and despite the depth I felt quite safe - from any part of the wreck you could clearly see the white mooring line.
We started to inspect the wreck. It was so different from every other aircraft wreck I had researched, so marvellously intact that it left me breathless. I started taking pictures. The propeller on number three engine was feathered, a sign that the engine had stopped in flight.
We swam slowly past the cockpit. The open pilots and co-pilots windows were slid back and locked. Through them I could see the instrument panel, throttles and seats, with cushions still in place. The upper window was missing and I took some shots of the cockpit.
The nose from the cockpit forward was crushed, probably damaged when the plane struck the sandy bottom at the end of its final glide. Poking under the port wing, I could see that the main wheel leg was in down position, while the other leg had collapsed.
The bomb-bay doors were open. We disturbed a large grouper, which fled to take shelter under the wing. The upper turret was intact, with two half-inch Browning machine guns still in place. Marine growth covered the Plexiglas dome and nothing could be seen inside.
The radio-room hatch was missing, as this was the emergency escape route in case of ditching. The room itself was intact, with only the wooden floor missing, and the large vertical camera installed below the radio compartment was visible.
Through the large waist windows we could see the interior of the waist-gunners area. It seemed that the crew had got rid of everything that could be removed in an attempt to lighten the plane, as both waist-guns and ammunition boxes were missing.
I managed to push my bulky camera through the window and aimed, simply hoping for the best. The aircrafts tail turret still had its two Brownings installed, their barrels adorned with a bouquet of yellow sponges.
Barely rounding the aircraft tail, Borut signalled that it was time to go up. Ten minutes of bottom time was not enough to examine the aircraft in detail, but for me this short dive was precious.
Back home, I immediately started researching to identify the aircraft and its crew. I was convinced that US archives must hold some data about this particular B-17 lost on a bombing mission.
I contacted several US veteran groups and some American researchers, and sent them photographs and a detailed description.
A few weeks later, I received a message from Scott Burris of the Heavy Bombers Association, a fine researcher and very enthusiastic about my project. He started discouragingly, reminding me that at least a dozen B-17s had been lost over the Adriatic and Vis area. However, he had soon narrowed the search down to five aircraft ditched around Vis.
By November he had managed to identify the aircraft and its crew. My description and photos of the wreck had been crucial. He also contacted the pilot and other surviving crew-members, who were able to reveal the amazing story of their B-17 bomber in detail (see panel).
|THE B-17S STORY || |
|A shiny new B-17G, serial number 44-6630, arrived on 3 November 1944 at Amendola in Italy and joined 340th Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, 15th USAF. |
There was no time to paint any squadron or group markings before the Flying Fortress had been checked in flight and reported ready for combat missions.
On 6 November it was scheduled to bomb Vienna under Lt Irving G Emerson. Merrle C Sieling, the waist-gunner, takes up the story:
After take-off, we climbed to join the formation in our number two position, slightly behind the commanderÃ‰ at 32,000ft we watched the vapour trails starting to form behind the planes, knowing it was only a matter of time before the Germans spotted the formationÃ‰ then we heard that Vienna was covered by clouds, so we proceeded to Maribor, Yugoslavia.
After a while we heard the pilot call to the bombardier that we were approaching the target area. He reminded everybody that our escort was beginning to fall back, and to keep a sharp eye out for German fighters.
The wall of flak really started to come up. The black smoke was so thick that you felt you could almost get out and walk on top of it. Just as we heard the bombardier say bombs away a shell exploded right beneath us, severing our hydraulic line to the controls to the bomb-bay doors. Soon the plane rocked again, this time with a burst below the number three engine, setting it on fire.
The fuselage quickly filled up with smoke, and the flames were streaking out past my gun position and past the tail of the plane. Lt Emerson was able to get the fire extinguished, then he feathered the propeller.
Now we had another near-miss. This shell exploded below the number two engine, severing the oil line.
It looked like an oil gusher, spewing out of the engine very fast. The pilot stopped the engine, trying to feather the prop. The group started to pull away for fear that we would blow up. We discovered that the left wheel had dropped down from the engine nacelle, increasing the wind drag.
Lt Emerson called me to go forward - our new co-pilot was wounded. I grabbed the walk-around oxygen bottle and the box of battle dressings, but I couldnt cross the open bomb bay with both hands occupied. So I took a big gulp of oxygen, left the bottle and somehow crossed the bomb bay.
The co-pilot was unconscious and I managed to free his feet, which were jammed under the rudder pedals. We laid him down on the flight deck so I could attend to him. He had been hit in the head by shrapnel and unfortunately, there wasnt much I could do for him.
We tried to head for Switzerland, but we were losing altitude too fast. As we couldnt cross the Alps, the pilot requested the heading for the secret airstrip on Vis Island, off the coast of Yugoslavia. We were told to lighten the plane, so everything went that could be pulled, pried or jerked loose. This meant guns, ammo, flak vests - everything but the radios.
Vis came into view, and as we were lining up for the runway, the number four engine stopped, out of fuel.
As soon as we had lined up, a red flare came arcing up - a go around signal. I felt the nose of the plane pull up sharply. Lt Emerson yelled: Sieling, get back to your position, prepare for ditching!
As we were making a left turn over the Adriatic, the final engine quit, out of fuel. I went on the catwalk again, and all I could hear was the wind noise coming through the bomb-bay area. As I gazed down into the water passing rapidly below me, my parachute harness snapped into the bomb wires, holding me captive to the bomb racks.
I hit the release button, jumped out of the harness and had just opened the radio-room door when we hit a wall of water. It pushed me into the radio-room and slammed me against the wall. I stood up and we all managed to climb out of the plane.
One life raft was usable; the other had been shredded by flak. Some of our crew went into the raft, while the others were swimming towards the shore. Standing on the wing, I quickly decided to get back to the plane to get the body of the co-pilot out.
But before I reached the fuselage, the nose suddenly tilted down and I dived into the water.
The plane stayed afloat for about 10 minutes, before finally going down nose-first, taking the co-pilots body with it. We were about 500ft from the shore but fortunately we were soon picked up by a local fisherman and British soldiers from the radar unit stationed on the island.
We were transported to the airstrip, and the next day we flew in a repaired B-17 bomber back to our base in Italy. We received credit for two missions completed.
|The tail turret with gun barrels overgrown with a bouquet of yellow sponges. |
|The cockpit was photographed through the missing upper window. |
|The number four engine and propeller |
|1st Lt Irving G Emerson (third from left) with some of his aircrew at Amendola, Italy 1944. |
|Merrle C Sieling in 1999. |
|The grape field where the emergency airstrip was constructed, converted back to its former use after the war. |
GETTING THERE: Fly from Gatwick to Split and catch a ferry to Vis.
DIVING: Vis has eight shipwrecks, most easily accessible by boat. Some date from Roman times and this is an archaeologically protected area, so can be dived only through certified dive centres. Diving with nitrox and trimix has to be arranged in advance as there is no permanent facility. Try Issa Diving Centre, www.diving.hr/idc or Manta Diving Centre, www.manta-diving.com
WHEN TO GO : Summer, when a 5mm wetsuit should be sufficient.
COST: Bond Tours (01372 745300, www.bondtours.com) is one of the few UK tour operators to organise packages to Vis, which is off the usual tourist route. A weeks holiday, including flights and transfers with overnights in Split, and three-star B&B accommodation, starts from£419. A 14-dive package with Issa costs approximately£160.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 8563 7979, www.croatia.hr, www.diving.hr