Aviation Archaeology: Unearthing the WW2 treasures of “Project Lusty”

Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific treasures

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos: David J. Gray/Freeman Field Recovery Team

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Additional reading:

Planehunters: Finding WW2 crashed aircraft and keeping the memories alive

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Shot down but not forgotten: The search for lost WW2 airmen and their crashed aircraft (PHOTOS and VIDEO) 

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Aviation enthusiasts and archaeologists unearthed possibly the largest “treasure trove” of WW2 aircraft parts and equipment, some of which are rare and unique worldwide.

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“Project Lusty” was an attempt by the US Army Air Force to glean technological information from the high-tech aircraft captured during the war, coming from both the European and the Pacific theatres of operations.

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www.ww2wrecks.com contacted David J. Gray to learn more about this project, which was conducted in an exemplary manner, thus preserving a forgotten part of WW2 aviation history.

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The Freeman Field Recovery Team was established in 2009 by David J. Gray, a professional pilot and noted aviation artist.

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David J. Gray

David was born in Seymour, Indiana and had heard the stories about buried aircraft and equipment at the local air base since he was a boy.

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Other teams had tried to find the legendary treasure, but only one had met with modest success about 15 years before.

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David assembled a team based around himself, Terry Gunter of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and writer Scott Cooper.

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Volunteers inspecting recently unearthed aircraft parts

Additional personnel were drawn from a never-ending supply of very talented volunteers.

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In addition, a group of college history and archaeology students under the direction of Professor Rick Fish from Utah Valley University jumped into the fray. An agreement between the City of Seymour and the team was soon reached.

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Extensive research including sources from the National Archives, The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and personal interviews of surviving veterans ensued. A picture soon developed.

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The buried treasure was part of “Project Lusty”, an attempt by the US Army Air Force to glean technological information from the high-tech aircraft captured during the war.

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This process began in the Summer of 1945 and continued for over a year. Excess aircraft and materiel were broken up in 1946 prior to the closure of Freeman Field and dumped into burial pits at different locations on the field.

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Freeman Field was the repository of over 70 captured and foreign aircraft from both the European and Pacific theaters of operation.

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In addition to the aircraft, over 42 buildings were filled with captured equipment such as antiaircraft guns, aviation support equipment, uniforms, and avionics.

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With this information in hand, the team began initial search attempts using aerial surveys and ground penetrating radar.

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In the first year, burial pits were discovered, but most were pits for disposal of the everyday trash of a military base.

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There were aircraft parts to be sure, but mostly from AT-10 trainers which had been used at the field between 1942-44.

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Within the next two years, notable objects began to surface.

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Terry Gunter

While clearing heavy brush in a likely area of the air base, the operator noticed aircraft aluminum on the surface.

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Scott Cooper

Photos were taken and forwarded to David Gray and his then-14 year-old son, Eric.

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Eric identified one of the objects as a “starboard cannon bay door cover from a Focke-Wulf 190. He was right!

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The team had found the area of one of the main pits without even putting a shovel into the ground.

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Terry Gunter with POTUS George W. Bush

During the Summer of 2011 the team brought up tons of parts from dozens of aircraft types, including WWII German, Italian, British, and Japanese examples.

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The atmosphere around the team was electric. Of particular note was a Heinkel-Hirth S-001 engine, which was a developmental powerplant meant to replace the Jumo 004. Less than 10 were built.

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By 2013 the team had gained international recognition for their finds. This success drew the attention of several TV production teams.

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The History Channel, National Geographic, and the independent Hemlock Films produced episodes based upon the Freeman Field Recovery Team.

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This, as well as international exposure in news sources and in print have helped the local Freeman Army Airfield expand and broaden their own exposure.

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The majority of dig finds now rest within the museum, which is located in the original WWII simulator buildings at Freeman Field.

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The project officially ended in 2014, although many artifacts surely remain buried under the Field.

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The team remains active in aviation circles, lecturing and advising other aviation archaeology teams.

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The cleanup and identification of parts continues to this day.

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David Gray is now Chief Pilot for a large Chicago corporation, Terry Gunter has retired, and Scott Cooper is still an active writer.

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They are still approached with ideas and rumors of buried or crashed aircraft. They are all still open to the idea of new projects and adventures.

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