Crew of B-24 bomber lost off Long Island to be honored

Seventy years after an 11-man crew of a B-24 bomber went down in the waters off Long Island, the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale will have a flyover ceremony on Monday, April 7, 2014. Last spring, fishermen found what appears to be the plane's landing gear. The ceremony will include WWII bomber pilots and crew, some of whom discussed their experiences on Friday, April 4, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

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Last spring, fishing for porgies at a spot some 70 miles southeast of the Shinnecock Inlet known as "The Lump," Andrew Soleau and the crew of the Viking Pride hauled from 44 fathoms deep an airplane's landing gear. It was a piston longer than a man is tall, rusted and 600 pounds heavy.

Even for Long Island, where the sea floor is dotted with hundreds of wrecks, this was odd, and after the Viking Pride came in, Soleau's friend, Kevin Bartlett, put the thing in his truck and delivered it to the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale.

Museum staff immediately identified the piece as part of a B-24 bomber. More than 18,000 of them were built during World War II, but only one disappeared without a trace off Long Island in the vicinity of The Lump, according to research by museum photographer Fred Freketic: a B-24H with an 11-man crew that made its last, garbled radio transmission on the afternoon of April 7, 1944.

Monday the museum will commemorate that crew with a flyover of The Lump, accompanied by two B-24 crew veterans who will drop flowers into the water.

The dead crew hailed from places such as Eden, Ala., and Harlan, Iowa, population then 3,727, now a shade over 5,000.

Jerald Wigness, 74, a retired heavy equipment mechanic, says there is a small exhibit in the Harlan museum that recognizes his uncle, Lt. Kenneth Wigness, who was the plane's pilot that day.

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The plane's gunner, Staff Sgt. Joseph Jachim, was from Chicago. "Oh, my goodness," said his younger sister, Bernice Jachim, 88, of Chicago, a retired gumball factory worker, when told last week of the find and the upcoming memorial service. "I'm flabbergasted."

She'd seen him last when he was home on a week's furlough to get married. "We were so happy to see him," she recalled. "He couldn't stay long, not even for a honeymoon."

She remembered how proud her mother had been; and how, when news of her brother's death came to them first from the man who sold newspapers out of their neighborhood candy store and then from a government telegram, grief hit her mother so hard it made her sick.

"They said they couldn't find nothing," Jachim said. "They believed it had burst in the air and then fell in the ocean."

The War Department account that Freketic used in his research, dated April 24, 1944, does not offer much more detail. "It is impossible to determine what happened and conjecture is all that remains," it says. "The only reasonable explanation seems to be fire and explosion on board."

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The Navy, Coast Guard and Army Air Forces launched a massive 10-day search after the bomber was reported missing, but that search seems not to have attracted Malaysia Airlines-like attention from the public.

This may have been partly because, historians said, such disappearances were not wholly uncommon in a world at war, with D-Day just months away.

"We were losing air crews at a horrific rate" both to accidents and enemy fire, said Jeff Underwood, historian for the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

A contemporary newspaper account of the incident notes that this bomber was the third to disappear from its home base of Westover Field, Mass., in less than four months. And in 1944 alone, Underwood said, there were 779 B-24 accidents in the continental United States that resulted in 1,268 deaths.

The B-24's fuel tanks were perilously close to its engines, Underwood said, and the design of its high, relatively narrow wings meant the fuselage was unlikely to remain intact during ditching.

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Conditions off Long Island at that time of year were not favorable to survival following ditching. Temperature readings from the National Oceanographic Data Center for April 8, 1944, indicate that both air and water temperature were around 40 degrees.

On the phone last week, Joe Hartzel of Brookfield, Ill., 54, a claims adjuster for a military contractor whose uncle, Sgt. Joseph Hartzel of Chicago, was the radio operator on the plane, said family lore had it that he wasn't even supposed to be aboard, but had agreed to fill in as a favor.

Like Wigness, who recalled seeing a Missing in Action flag in a window of his grandparents' home well into the 1970s, he'd never actually known his uncle, or had known him only in reflection: from family stories or the grief that he saw in his father, also a World War II veteran, when the subject came up.

"How many people are still alive from that era?" Hartzel asked, pointing out that in his own family all of that World War II generation are dead. "That whole family is gone. My father was the last one."

Still, he said, "They're owed the memory of what they did, and the sacrifices they did."

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It was a similar sense of obligation that drove Freketic, whose father flew B-24s during the war, to research the plane's disappearance: "He came back. They didn't come back, and nobody knows."

All three of the family members contacted for this story said they hoped for more definitive proof of the landing gear's provenance, and perhaps a recovery operation for other parts of the plane.

That may be difficult. Larry Starr, the Airpower Museum director, cautioned that much of the aluminum and magnesium that made up the plane's body would have broken down over 70 years, and that currents, storms and fishing nets might have disbursed any remaining material.

In addition, the risk of any sort of recovery is great, Soleau said.

"The currents are strong out there, and I'm sure it's covered -- you probably have a lot of nets out there, which makes it real dangerous," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which conducts search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify Americans from past conflicts, said an operation in this case was not possible because of the depth of the water, 264 feet.

"JPAC hasn't conducted underwater recovery missions deeper than 90-120 feet and does not have the capability to do so," she wrote in an email.

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