Lelu Harbor Plane Wrecks

Two PBMs, an Albatross and MAYBE one more

Bob Swanson, one of Bruce's Tec diving students, brought his side scan sonar to Kosrae in September, 2009. After his classes were complete we spent a couple of days exploring the Lelu Harbor, looking for "interesting" shadows. (Some of the sonar images are posted on this page.)

The coral monitoring group was due the following week. One of the key members of the monitoring team is Dr. Steve Smith, our Ocean Earth partner. As luck would have it, Steve is very active in marine archeology as well as marine conservation. He and the other team members were very interested in seeing the planes, particularly the two that hadn't seen before. At the same time I was contacted by Mr. Bruce Barth from Martin Seaplanes Historical Research and Mr. Robert Calladine, an amateur historian with a background in air crash investigation. Everyone was eager to get the full story about which planes these were and how they happen to be on the bottom of Lelu Harbor.

After several dives on the plane thought to be a Grumman Albatross, I had the incredible luck of finding the plane's serial number.

Albatross Serial Albatross Emblem

This emblem was just to the left of the serial number.

With the serial number Bob Calladine was able to find this information about the Albatross:

This Albatross was built at the Grumman aircraft factory in Bethpage, NY. It was the 372nd Albatross to have been built and it was for a U.S. Navy contract. In line with this, its manufacturer’s serial number is G372.

It was delivered to the U.S. Navy on the 1st of June 1954 and was designated as a model UF-1. This corresponds to an HU-16C... The U.S. military re-designated all aviation assets in 1962 to correspond with the U.S. Air Force identification system, so all UF-1's became HU-16C's. All UF-2's became HU-16D's.

The main difference between a UF-1 and a UF-2 was the length of the wing. It was determined that a longer wing would increase the single engine performance of the aircraft substantially. A conversion program was set up to modify the short winged UF-1's into long winged UF-2's. This conversion was performed at some point in the service life of BuNo 137899 (U.S. Navy serial numbers are given as Bureau Numbers or BuNo's) which effectively transformed it from a HU-16C to a HU-16D as stenciled on the aircraft.

The service life of BuNo 137899 is still the missing piece of the puzzle. The emblem with "Hippi" on it looks to be the painting identity disc. Our Army Hueys had these as well although with less information. The Japan Aircraft Atts??i Plant is where the aircraft was last painted. I can only assume that 'Hippi" identifies that facility. The sequence of numbers beneath that designated the paint color (MIL-P-33877 and the one under it looks to be the primer coating or corrosion coating) which was used. Now for the most interesting bit...

The aircraft was last painted on the 1st of March 1972! Most military aircraft are repainted every two to four years, so my guess would be that your Albatross crashed between 1972 and 1976, but my hunch is that it's actually closer to 1973/74. As this was a seaplane and constantly exposed to the harsh, corrosive elements I believe that it would have been painted every two years.

We still had the mystery of how the Albatross had ended up at the bottom of the harbor. During the dive when the serial numbers were found, one of our local divers (Ben Frank) recovered a rescue pack from the wreck. Our Historic Preservation office had very little information regarding the plane crash, but we did find faint inspection signatures on the rescue pack that appear to be dated in 1972, which matches up nicely with Bob Calladine's guess of a 1973/74 crash date.

Since verifiable information was not available on Kosrae, I contacted the Micronesian Seminar in Pohnpei. The Micronesian Seminar is a tremendous resource for Micronesian history and culture with an extensive library. Ms. Aletha Chu and Father Fran Hezel found and provided a copy of a news account of the crash from the July 1, 1973 issue of “Highlights” newsletter published by the Trust Territories Office of the High Commissioner in Saipan.

In summary the article reports that the Albatross crashed June 25, 1973 during takeoff while on a US Navy medivac mission. Unfortunately three people died as a result of the crash, Mr. Osamu Abraham and Petty Officer J.C. McGraw died during the crash. Mrs. Kenye Abraham was rescued but later died at the hospital. Fuel from the crash caught fire and several rescue boats were burned. Here is a link to a PDF scan of the original article.

One mystery solved, two to go.

With the information from our dives and from the Historic Preservation office, Mr. Barth was able to identify the other two planes, he also knew their history and why they are at the bottom of the harbor. Fortunately there was no loss of life in either case.

Here is his information on the two PBMs:

There were only two Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes known to have sunk in the Kosrae area. The first is a PBM-5 in 1945 and the second a PBM-5A in 1955.
PBM-5, BuNo 59309 was attached to a US Navy rescue squadron at Kwajalein. After the war the squadron transported members of the U.S. surrender team to a number of islands in the Eastern Carolines to take part in the surrender of Japanese forces.

On September 12, 1945 , BuNo 59309 departed Kwajalein for Kusaie (former spelling of Kosrae) to drop off members of the U.S. surrender team and return. The approach to Lelu Harbor was from the north and required considerable skill to navigate the terrain and the reefs in the murky waters. After dropping off the surrender team the aircraft prepared to depart the harbor and return to Kwajalein. While taxing into position for take-off the aircraft struck a reef, seriously damaging the hull and stranding the crew.

The crew nursed the crippled aircraft back to shore where it was beached to access the damage. It was later determined that the hull damage was beyond local repair and under orders from the Navy it was stripped of all usable items and towed out into the harbor and scuttled. For all intents and purposes this aircraft is completely intact sans only the armament, engines and confidential electronics. No explosive devices were used in its sinking.

PBM-5A, BuNo 122612 was attached to air-sea rescue at NS Kwajalein. The -5A model was an amphibian with retractable landing gear, only 36 were made, several of which were assigned to NS Kwajalein in the mid 1950’s.

On December 8, 1955, following a routine visit to the island, the aircraft struck a reef on takeoff causing serious damage and stranding the aircraft. Unable to remove the damaged aircraft it was destroyed with explosives by a U.S. Naval Demolition Team from Kwajalein to prevent it from becoming a navigational hazard.

A final note, the Albatross rescue pack and all the information regarding these plane crashes have been passed on to the Kosrae State Historic Preservation office.

Oh, and one more thing - did you notice that the 1973 news article refers to *four* plane crashes in Lelu Harbor?
Maybe we need to keep looking...