An introduction to the U.S. WW2 aircraft wrecks of Kwajalein Atoll by Dan Farnham – Part 9

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission


The Japanese WW2 aircraft wrecks of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham PART 8


Kwajalein Atoll is a veritable underwater museum of World War II American aircraft, and many types lie scattered around the bottom of the lagoon. They comprise examples which were either lost as a direct result of combat action, accidents, or were intentionally taken out and scuttled when they were no longer needed.

SBD Dauntless
SBD Dauntless

In December 1943, the month prior to Operation Flintlock, a SBD-5 ‘Dauntless’ crashed into the lagoon while dive-bombing a Japanese cruiser that was anchored southwest of Roi Island.

Both crewmen went down with the plane and were reported as missing-in-action. The following month, during Operation Flintlock, six American planes went down in the lagoon during the battle, resulting in additional air crewmen being reported as Missing In Action:

Three were SBD-5’s that collided in mid-air with each other, one was a F6F-3 ‘Hellcat’, another was a OS2N-1 ‘Kingfisher’, and the sixth was a SOC-3A ‘Seagull’.

F6F Hellcat
F6F Hellcat

And in the years between the seizure of Kwajalein Atoll by American forces and the end of the war, two PB2Y ‘Coronado’ flying boats were lost in landing accidents- one was a PB2Y-3 and the other was a PB2Y-5R. Both of these crashes also resulted in crewmen being listed as missing-in-action.

PB2Y Coronado
PB2Y Coronado

But the vast majority of the plane wrecks were intentionally dumped. The largest concentration of American plane wrecks in the lagoon, by far, is near Mellu Island at the north end of the atoll, in what is referred to as “the aircraft graveyard” where many planes were pushed into the lagoon shortly after the end of World War II.

OS2U Kingfisher
OS2U Kingfisher

It’s been estimated that there are anywhere from 120 to 150 planes scattered on the lagoon floor in depths ranging from 50 to 125 feet. The planes in the “aircraft graveyard” comprise one of the most complete underwater collections of American World War II naval aircraft anywhere in the world- almost every type of U.S. plane that flew from the deck of an aircraft carrier during the war can be found near Mellu Island.

There are also some land-based aircraft near Mellu Island, and elsewhere in the lagoon as well.

Curtiss SOC Seagull
Curtiss SOC Seagull

Just after U.S. troops invaded Kwajalein Atoll during Operation Flintlock in early 1944, the former Japanese airbase on Roi was of course taken over and put into use by the Americans.

An aircraft maintenance unit called Combat Aviation Service Unit (Forward) #20, or CASU-F-20, was brought in to service and maintain the aircraft that were stationed on Roi. CASU-F-20 was in operation by late February 1944, and the first American planes that would be permanently assigned to Roi landed on March 1st.

Besides servicing and maintaining the aircraft on Roi Island, and to some extent planes on Kwajalein Island, CASU-F-20 also provided maintenance support as needed for Navy and Marine squadrons assigned throughout the Marshall Islands and the Gilbert Islands areas.

Listening first-hand to the veterans’ stories of what it was like on Roi, both during the invasion and through the rest of the duration of the war, is an experience never to be forgotten.

Beginning in July 1944, CASU-F-20 began receiving damaged planes from the fleet that were in need of repair or salvage. CASU-F-20 also prepared new planes for the rigors of frontline combat flying.

It would be the job of aircraft stationed on Roi and Kwajalein to patrol the seas around Kwajalein Atoll and perform harassment attacks against bypassed islands and atolls still held by the Japanese. They would also attack Japanese ships attempting to resupply the bypassed areas. This work continued until the Japanese surrender in August of 1945.

C47 Skytrain
C47 Skytrain

Shortly after the end of the war, it was decided that the base on Roi was to be mothballed, and the planes and other equipment were to be abandoned.

And with the rapid demobilization of the American military, many of the ships in the US Navy were needed to transport the fighting men back home to their loved ones. Many aircraft carriers were rapidly converted into troop transports for this purpose. At sea, the crews of many aircraft carriers simply pushed their aircraft over the side into the water.

F4F Wildcat
F4F Wildcat

At the airbase on Roi, aircraft, parts of aircraft, trucks, jeeps, and all forms of equipment, right down to crates of brand-new leather flight jackets, were loaded on barges and taken out into deep water. There they were shoved overboard to join the remains of Japanese ships and aircraft sunk in the lagoon prior to and during the American invasion of the atoll.

Curtiss C-46 Commando

At the southern end of the atoll, off Naval Air Base Ebeye Island, a number of PBM ‘Mariner’ aircraft were also scuttled. At least three, and possibly more, were scuttled mostly intact after having their engines and other equipment removed.

More PBM’s were cut up into pieces before being dumped, and one was intentionally blown up in the disposal process. The intact planes, and the parts of those that were cut up, lie on the lagoon floor west of Ebeye.

PBM Mariner
PBM Mariner

As mentioned earlier in this series, I arrived on Kwajalein on December 17, 2005, and I’ve been here for 13 years. While I’ve been here, I’ve been able to meet several World War II veterans who served on Kwajalein Atoll.

Two of them, Bill Armstrong and Glenn Toms, both served in CASU-F-20 on Roi. I had the honor of coordinating a visit by Bill and Glenn to Kwajalein and Roi in January 2015, for the 71st Anniversary of Operation Flintlock.

The community rolled out the red carpet for these men, and they had a whirlwind five-day visit, giving talks to the community at the American Legion post, the school, participating in a ceremony to scatter the ashes of a Marine veteran who fought on Namur Island in the invasion, and other activities.

Listening first-hand to their stories of what it was like on Roi, both during the invasion and through the rest of the duration of the war, is an experience never to be forgotten.

Bill Armstrong
Bill Armstrong, CASU-F-20 veteran. At left is a photo from late 1943. At right is a photo taken during his visit to Roi-Namur on January 31, 2015 for the 71st Anniversary of Operation Flintlock. He had not been back to Kwajalein and Roi since the end of World War II.

Bill wrote a book about his experiences on Roi, called ‘Survival On A Coral Planet’, and the cover of the book features a photo of Roi-Namur as it appears today. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of CASU-F-20.

Glenn Toms
Glenn Toms, CASU-F-20 veteran. At left is a photo from late 1943. At right is a photo taken in January 2015, right before he made the trip to Kwajalein Roi for the 71st Anniversary of Operation Flintlock. He had not been back to Kwajalein and Roi since the end of World War II.

In the first seven parts of this series, we explored the different types of Japanese aircraft wrecks at Kwajalein Atoll which have been found over the years since the end of World War II.

And now, starting with PART 10, we will begin to explore the thirteen types of American aircraft, which are also scattered around the lagoon seabed.

Recommended additional reading:

Survival On A Coral Planet: CASU-F-20 in WWII 1943-1946, by Billie R. Armstrong, available through