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Although it was lost in Puerto Rican waters, 42-65287 was assigned to the Army’s Second Air Force, 17th Bomber Operational Training Wing, 246th Army Air Force Base Unit, which was home-based at Pratt, Kansas, but all personnel aboard at the time of the loss were assigned to the Second Air Force, 346th Bomb Group (Very Heavy), 461st Bomb Squadron (Very Heavy).
On the evening of 31 May 1945, the nearly brand new aircraft lifted off from Borinquen Army Air Field, crossed the coastline, and headed over the ocean to initiate a bombing and gunnery mission as part of Gypsy Sub Task Force THREE. Shortly after takeoff, oil pressure began dropping in engines one and two, and the propeller blades on those engines jammed in their pitch settings and started to “run away,” that is, run at high, uncontrollable speeds while providing no thrust. Due to the stuck blade pitch settings and the uncontrollable speeds of the two propellers, the pilot reported “two props running away” to the base control tower, declared an emergency landing, and, with the closest land astern of them, began to turn around.
By this time both of the engines were throwing out a substantial amount of smoke. The tower closed the field to all other traffic, and radioed that “287 was cleared to the field.” When the ship was about halfway through its starboard turning leg for its new course back to base, the number three engine suddenly lost oil pressure, and that engine’s prop jammed in its pitch settings, lost thrust, and jumped to an uncontrollable speed as well. The pilots, 2nd Lieutenant James B. Giacomo and 2nd Lieutenant James A. Barrett, and the flight engineer, Master Sergeant Edward Herrick, attempted to “feather” all three props to neutral pitch settings, but the props would not respond.
Due to the loss of the third engine, Giacomo determined that they would not be able to hold sufficient enough altitude to allow them to clear the coastal ridgeline, make the field, and execute an emergency landing. After updating his aircraft’s situation to the base control tower, he turned the aircraft back out to sea and into the wind, and prepared the crew of 13 for an emergency wheels-up ditching at sea. The last interphone communication came from Barrett, who warned the crew to “prepare for immediate ditching.” The last message received by the control tower from the Superfortress was “287 ditching.”
The Superfortress hit the water flying into the wind and waves with the tail low, wheels up, and full flaps on, flaring out just before impact. Giacomo later related that “we flew the aircraft into the water at 110 M.P.H. and in a landing attitude.” The ship met with rough seas, on which six to eight foot waves were running across strong swells. The Superfortress skimmed across the surface for about 400 feet before the nose ploughed into a wave and went under. The impact with the surface of the sea broke the plane’s back, shearing it in half at the radar room. The tail section sank in about 45 seconds, while the forward section floated for between three and four minutes, during which time it rode with the waves, and toward the end of which it stood on its nose as it sank. The gunnery instructor on the flight observed that “the ship went under nose first, exposing the entire bottom torn off, and the tanks and bombs intact.”
The crew, some helping one another and others fighting their way out individually, forced their way through inrushing, shoulder-high water to escape from the rapidly filling and sinking aircraft. Some were knocked unconscious by the impact, and others suffered serious injuries. After escaping from the sinking aircraft, many crewmen had to kick free of debris or disentangle themselves from the loose rigging in which they had become tangled. One airman who became tangled in loose control cables was almost dragged under with a portion of the aircraft.
In the water, the crew tried to assist each other as much as possible. Many crewmembers experienced trouble inflating their Mae West flotation vests because the air chambers in them had been split by the hard impact. Giacomo, perhaps driven by the additional burden of responsibility for the crew charged to his leadership and care, managed to make his way out on the port wing as it was going under, where he successfully removed a five-man life raft from its compartment and inflated it for use by the most injured crew members.
Within about ten minutes, Army crash boats from the Eleventh Army Air Force Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron were directed to the crash scene by overhead aircraft. By the time the Army boats arrived, the two sections of the bomber were already underwater. All that remained on the surface were survivors, some hanging to the sides of a life raft and some adrift, and, according to the crash boat crews, “a lot of equipment floating in the water…oxygen tanks, cushions, and pieces of metal.” Despite the crew’s efforts to help one another exit the sinking Superfortress and stay afloat, and the quick response time of the crash boats, three of the crew, the navigator, radar operator, and tail gunner, were lost at sea.
Based upon the similarities in location and physical characteristics of the wreck, the association between the loss of 42-65287 and the Aguadilla Superfortress wreck seems probable. Specifically, the rear portion of the Aguadilla wreck is missing, which supports the historical account of 42-65287 breaking in half. The nose of the wreck is extensively damaged, which may be consistent with the survivors’ accounts of the wreck sinking “nose first.” Rigging is still visible on the site trailing aft from the wreckage, supporting some survivors’ experiences of entanglement. Finally, the fact that the propellers were removed and relocated in a nearby area, and that no serial plates or propeller control assemblies were present on the motors, may indicate a post-wreck investigation, which would appear reasonable in light of the B-29’s emerging role near the end of World War II as the United States’ premiere strategic bombing platform.
The next research step will be to examine Navy records for any post-crash salvage activities undertaken at the site to determine the cause of the 42-65287 wreck before a similar fate could befall other new Superfortresses. Hopefully, if such records are located, they will also reveal whether any unexploded ordnance was recovered from the wreck. Possibly, future remote sensing activities in the area surrounding the wreck may reveal the rear half of the aircraft