This is the third article in a series of articles about airplane wrecks around Vis Island in the Adriatic Sea. The first one was about B-17 and the second was about PBY Catalina. This one is about the wreck of a B-24 Liberator named “Tulsamerican” which is accessible to most of the divers.
I dived 2 more airplane wrecks there, one more B-17 and another B-24, both at 100m, but I did not have a camera with me since I was on a 100m CCR course and needed to focus on dive, so more articles will come after I get there again and take some photos.
B-24 is coming from Consolidated, the same San Diego-based shop where the PBY Catalina was. Even if you might not think about it, it was designed with a very innovative approach with the outcome in mind.
Originally it was the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) that requested Consolidated back in 1938 to produce a licensed version of Boeing’s B-17. Instead, they decided to solve the request differently and go for a modern design of their own where they planned to reuse many existing parts. Eventually, together with Ford, they produced over 18 thousand of them and as such it was the most produced bomber and military aircraft in history. Such production at scale is testimony of the US war industrial effort. To understand this scale, by March of 1944, Ford was producing one B-24H every 100 minutes, seven days a week.
The entire B-24 was built around a specially designed wing with the twin tail design from one of their flying boats and engines mounted on engine mounts from PBY Catalina. All of that was put together on a new fuselage designed around twin bomb bays where each was the same size and capacity (3.600 kg of bombs) as in the B-17. Due to this generous load capacity, B-24 was nicknamed “Flying Boxcar”.
This wing was a highly efficient airfoil allowing a relatively high airspeed and long range. Compared to the B-17, it had a 1.8 m larger wingspan, but a lower wing area which allowed for the main goals (higher range, speed, and ceiling). But, the design was a trade-off, since it would become hard to fly at high altitudes and in bad weather when fully loaded. Also, it was more prone to ice formation that would impact the aerofoil section and result in the loss of lift.
It was less tough on battle damage compared to B-17 … which also explains more B-24 wrecks around Vis island. It is because of this that the B-24 Liberator was also nicknamed “The Flying Coffin” by those that flew it. The plane was essentially a death trap in the European Theatre. In 1943 alone, 850 crewmen were killed in 298 B-24 accidents.
The Liberator’s crew of up to ten could have up to seven crew members on guns. Navigator and bombardier operated guns were mounted on the sides of the aircraft nose, a flight-engineer operated upper gun turret located just behind the cockpit and in the front of the wing, and up to four crew members could be located in the waist operating waist guns, a retractable lower ball turret gun, and a tail gun turret matching the nose turret. That’s a lot of firepower! Different designs of Liberator throughout the war years featured different gun turrets.
As part of the B-24 production ramp-up, many factories were opened in 1942–3 and one of them was in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This B-24J was the last one produced in the Tulsa factory and it became a community icon. The citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma community and factory workers purchased that plane to buy war bonds. They named her Tulsamerican, took smiling pictures next to her, and signed their names on her fuselage with messages and wishes to the soldiers she was flying to help. It had a unique art design on its nose with a copy of the art on handmade scrolls at each of the crew’s stations. It became a community icon and remains so to this day.
The Tulsamerican was assigned as replacement aircraft (S/N 42–51430) to the 765th Bombardment Squadron of the 461st bombardment group on 9/17/1944 under Ship Number 24.
On its 151st mission (and just after 3rd month in the service), on December 17, 1944, Tulsamerican was on a bombing mission against enemy oil refineries at Odertal, Germany. It was sent along with every available plane to attack oil refineries around Blechhammer and Odertal to support Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge. 527 B-17s and B-24s launched that day with 300 P-38s and P-51s to escort them.
The attack was at the edge of the plane’s range. The crews were ordered not to lower their ball turrets unless an attack was imminent or the target had been reached to help conserve fuel. Unknown to Allied command, the Germans had placed their best Luftwaffe fighter groups in the area due to the Battle of the Bulge. As the bombers neared their target, they were surprised by the Luftwaffe fighters. They attacked the bombers from below, right where they were most vulnerable without their ball turret guns. The assault lasted only fifteen minutes, and the pilots never had a chance to get their ball turrets lowered.
Tulsamerican was among the ones that took a heavy hit and got heavily damaged. This forced it to turn back. Missing an engine and leaking fuel, the Tulsamerican released its bombs and headed back to base. Over Hungary, it ran into flak guns and took even more damage. The damaged plane successfully reached the island of Vis but was unable to land because it was unable to lower its nose landing gear due to damaged hydraulics. While circling the island, the aircraft lost 3rd engine on the second pass and the pilot crash-landed it onto the sea.
Seven out of ten crew members survived the crash and floated in life vests before being rescued by the local fisherman. The remaining three crew members were killed in the crash and were lost in the bomber’s sinking at the time. One is believed to have drifted away while still on the surface, but the pilot and the navigator are thought to remain within the wreckage to this day.
When B-24 hit the water it caused the fuselage to rip in half, with the tail section eventually sinking into deeper water at around 60m. This was a standard way how B-24s were breaking and sinking upon hitting the water since the bomb bay doors would always just collapse at the moment when it would hit the water and that impact force would break the plane in two parts. The worst part is that water would suddenly get in and block any crew members from getting out quickly so most of those who did not bail out would drown.
In 2009, a civilian diver discovered the missing bomber off the coast of Vis. A year later in 2010, an investigation carried out in the Department for Underwater Archaeology of the Croatian Conservation Institute established that the aircraft wreck is the remains of Tulsamerican.
The cockpit almost completely disintegrated, but the forward section remains relatively intact. One can still notice the pilot’s steering wheel facing outward.
Inside the wing, the spherical oxygen cylinders are noticeable. Occasionally some large fish can be found there seeking shelter.
A bit further from the main section in the direction of the tail section, lies the front gun turret in a very decent condition where 80 years old aluminum still shines very bright in some patches.
Further, after the slope that goes down for another 20m, lies the tail section. The tail section is in one piece with various parts scattered around.
There is a clear sight of waist guns on the sides of the tail section.
Just after the slope toward the tail section, one of the aircraft’s propellers that have detached from the engine during the impact got stuck in the massive rock and stands there for the last 80 years. Next to it lies a parachute. A pretty amazing sight, like a sword in the rock.
Crew Recovery Mission
DPAA (Defence Prisoner Of War / Missing In Action Accounting Agency), is a US government agency formed in 2015 from within the US Department of Defence. Its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for US missing personnel from past conflicts. They search for missing personnel from World War II (WWII), the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and other recent conflicts.
When the U.S. government promises service members that they will never be left behind, the DPAA makes sure it is going the extra mile to make that promise. It’s a commitment taken extremely seriously.
In 2017, DPAA partnered with the Croatian government, the Croatian Conservation Institute, the University of Zadar (Croatia), Lund University (Sweden), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the National Park Service, and the Croatian Navy. The result of the partnership was an expedition of divers, forensic pathologists, and historians to recover the remains of three reminded crew members.
The entire expedition has been filmed by NOVA to make “The Last B-24” documentary.
One of the first interesting finds was a wedding ring. That was the first clue that the pilot Ford, the only married missing crew member, maybe somewhere close. Two weeks into the expedition, the biggest break was when the possible bone fragments preserved under a parachute draped across the seafloor were found.
In the end, and after extensive DNA testing, the team confirmed remains of one crew member (1LT Ford) in 2017. The final two crew members’ remains are still unrecovered.
DPAA has announced that they have located the wrecks of five B-24 bombers that crashed into the Adriatic Sea during World War II, three of which are associated with 23 still-missing crew members. They are all in depths of around 100 meters. They believe there are an estimated 30 US warplane underwater wrecks in the Adriatic Sea close to designated bailout areas like Vis Island.
1. It was named “Liberator” by the British who placed orders for it in 1940.
2. With more than 18 thousand produced B-24s, it is the most produced bomber and military aircraft in the history
3. Ford was producing one B-24H every 100 minutes, seven days a week
4. B-24 could carry twice as many bombs as B-17
5. It was also called “The Flying Coffin” due to its not-so-great survivability compared to other bombers such as B-17. No wonder there is a “How to ditch B-24 guide”
6. B-24s leaked fuel. Crews flew with the bomb bay doors slightly open to dissipate potentially explosive fumes.
7. In the case of the B-24, the Liberator’s tricycle landing gear design mandated that its A-13 model Sperry ball turret have a vertically retractable mount so that the turret would not strike the ground as the plane pitches up for takeoff or during the landing flare.
8. Statistics showed the Ball Turret gunner was the least likely member of the crew to be wounded, as he was surrounded by armour plates, however, he was also the least likely to survive should the plane be shot down.
9. Tulsamerican was the last produced B-24J in the Tulsa factory
10. Tulsamerican was paid for by the workers and community
11. At the outbreak of WW2, with young men going into military service, Consolidated hired 40 women as an experiment, assigning them to work at the San Diego plant, building PBYs and B-24s. These women grew in numbers to several thousand within a 12-month period. By 1943, employment at Consolidated peaked at 41,000, of which almost 40 percent were women.
12. All B-24s upon crash landing on the sea follow the same pattern where the tail section breaks off and comes down after the main section
13. C-87 Liberator Express was a transport derivative of the B-24
14. After B-24 got pulled out of service, PB4Y-2 Privateer (which was a maritime patrol version of B-24) carried on in service with the U.S. Navy in the Korean War.
15. B-24 Lady Be Good failed to return from her very first mission on April 4, 1943. She and her crew of 10 were reported as MIA as her fate was unknown. Sixteen years later, a British oil exploration crew found her lying in the middle of the Libyan desert.
This article is also published on Medium.