UD Uses Tech to Help Hunt for WWII Planes and MIAs - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

UD Uses Tech to Help Hunt for WWII Planes and MIAs

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LEWES, Del. (WBOC) - In November, "60 Minutes" shared the story of the BentProp project. Since the mid-90's its members have given their time and money to searching the waters and land of Palau, a small island nation in the south Pacific, for planes lost during World War II and the final resting places of men who were in them.

And in the middle of that story Anderson Cooper said this:

"BentProp has now been joined by a team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Delaware. They bring high technology to the hunt."

WBOC went to find out more about that technology and the University of Delaware's role in this extraordinary effort.

When you think about WWII and torpedoes, you probably conjure up images of ships and submarines exploding.

But you could also picture this one of the UD's, autonomous underwater vehicles. It's not actually a torpedo, but it sure looks like one. AUVs are helping with a WWII search mission.

Dr. Mark Moline directs the UD's School of Marine Science and Policy. He showed off the equipment for WBOC in Lewes. But his part in the search mission started 8,700 miles away from here.

Moline was doing science research in Palau in 2013 when he and a colleague met the team from the BentProp project and learned about their search for downed aircraft and men declared missing in action.

"It became quickly apparent that what we brought to the table would help them significantly," said Moline.

Moline's multi-million dollar technology can use sonar - sound - to map the ocean floor.

"The only other approach you would have is to go simply dive," he said. "This is what teams have used in the past. You basically go arm in arm, and the dive team works a whole area."

Moline says that's challenging process for divers. The water can be deep - nearly 100 feet. And the work can be very slow - taking weeks, even months, to cover a small area. An AUV is much faster.

"Because these fly at four knots or something, you can actually cover that area reasonably within a day or two," Moline said.

Plus the water isn't always as clear and blue as you see on travel brochures.

"The inner lagoons of Palau, for example, are very murky," said Moline. "They're cloudy environments. Sound is a way to cut through that."

But AUV Operations Manager Hunter Brown points out faster, more efficient work doesn't necessarily mean less or even less time-consuming work.

"You start off very early in the morning and work late into the night - 24 hours almost a day for the full 30 days we were there last year," Brown said.

Moline says just the first time he helped BentProp they were able to quickly locate two never before found planes.

It should be noted BentProp doesn't hunt haphazardly. It narrows its targets and target areas prior to each to trip Palau through months of prep work - searching archives before searching water - combing through info on some of the more than 70,000 Americans declared MIA in WWII. Some estimates say more than half of those were in the Pacific theater.

Moline has started helping with the prep work, too. And it turns out he has a small WWII archive of his own - tons of photos, documents, even a journal from his grandfather, who was a military chaplain.

"On one page I turned to it said 'Attack on Palau.' So, I got chills reading that," said Moline. "He documents actually having one of the pilots leaving - he was on the USS Princeton - having one of the pilots leave the Princeton and never come back."

Amazingly that pilot turned out to be one of the MIA's BentProp is looking for.

"Seeing the list from BentProp and then seeing my grandfather's journal, it was pretty emotional. We're still searching for that individual."

Moline says finding that person and plane would be - finding any missing plane is - also pretty emotional.

"You know somebody probably lost their life in that event and deserves the recognition of that," said Moline.

"Recognizing what you've actually found, the historical significance and the personal significance and how many lives will be forever changed because of the discovery we've just made," Brown said.

"So, it's a solemn time," Moline said. "But it's also a time of excitement, because the time and effort you put into it has been worthwhile."

It's moments like those that keep BentProp and the UD team zooming forward.

In its two decades of searching in Palau, BentProp has found dozens of planes. After it locates american wreckage, bentprop turns its information over to the US Navy. The navy decides on and undertakes any recovery missions.

Click here to see the original "60 Minutes."

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