The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham Part 10 – The U.S. Navy PBM “Mariner” flying boat wrecks

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission

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

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

 

Designed in 1937, the Martin ‘Model 162’ was the replacement for Martin’s earlier open-cockpit P3M flying boats, which had been in service with the US Navy since 1931.

Seabees_use_pontoon_lighter_barge_to_move_PBM-5_on_Okinawa
Seabees use pontoon lighter barge to move PBM-5 on Okinawa

The new Model 162 was a massive design and Martin built a quarter-scale, single seat model known as the ‘162A’ to test its flight characteristics. On June 30, 1937, the U.S. Navy ordered a single full-size prototype for flight testing. It was given the designation XPBM-1.

Marin
Mariner flying boats in the assembly line

The first flight of the prototype was on February 8, 1939 and in December the U.S. Navy placed an order for 20 of the new planes and it was given the name Mariner.

PBM stands for Patrol, Bomber, and the ‘M’ was the letter assigned by the U.S. Navy to all aircraft built by the Martin Aircraft Corporation. The PBM had two engines, each with a three-bladed propeller, and the elongated engine nacelles also had room for four 500-pound bombs or depth charges, or auxiliary fuel tanks.

The "Mariner" was a massive aircraft. Note the men
The “Mariner” was a massive WW2 aircraft.

The wingspan measured 118 feet and it was just under 80 feet from nose to tail. Defensive armament consisted of six machine guns located in the nose, dorsal, tail, and waist positions on the aircraft.

Later versions of the Mariner had improved engines with a four-bladed propeller, and they could carry up to eight 500-pound bombs, depth charges, or mines in the nacelles. The Mariners could also carry two torpedoes under the wings of the plane. A total of 1,366 PBM’s were built until production ceased in April 1949.

Crew of_downed PBM-5 board liferafts off Korea in 1945
Crew of_downed PBM-5 board liferafts off Korea in 1945

VP-202 was the first PBM squadron to become operational in the Pacific. In early January 1944, VP-202 operated from Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands (today known as Kiribati) to patrol the Japanese-held Marshall Islands.

On February 6th, just two days after Kwajalein Atoll was declared secure from invasion operations, VP-202 arrived with the seaplane tender USS Casco (AVP-12). The ship and squadron set up operations at Ebeye Island, where the Japanese had built a seaplane base prior to the outbreak of the war.

PBM_squadron_list

On February 16th, a PBM-3D of VP-202 crashed on landing at night while returning from a sector patrol mission.  The plane broke apart, burst into flames, and sank. Of the 11 personnel on board, six survived the crash and five were killed.

One of the pilots, LT (j.g.) Wilburne E. Piercy, was listed as missing-in-action following the crash. The wreckage of the plane, broken into several pieces, was found in the summer of 2009 by several Kwajalein divers, some of whom would later go on to help formally organize the Kwajalein MIA Project.

LT (junior grade) Wilburne E. Piercy
Lieutenant (junior grade) Wilburne E. Piercy

On March 11th, VP-202 rotated back to Kaneohe, Hawaii for repairs and crew rest. VP-202 returned to Kwajalein Atoll in June 1944, and provided daily mail flights between Kwajalein Atoll and Saipan. This was the only air contact with the outside world for the troops on Saipan during the early days of the invasion of that island.

Tail section of the PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944 (photo courtesy of Bill Remick/Kwajalein MIA Project)
Tail section of the PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944 (photo courtesy of Bill Remick/Kwajalein MIA Project)

In April 1945, VH-5 arrived at Naval Air Base Ebeye Island, and also had detachments at Majuro Atoll and Eniwetok Atoll. The squadron performed air-sea rescue, casualty evacuation, anti-submarine patrol, and various other duties.

Flight deck of PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944
Flight deck of PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944

After the Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945, VH-5 participated in the negotiations, formal surrender, and occupation by American troops of Mille Atoll and Jaluit Atoll. The squadron was disbanded in June 1946.

Wing section of PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944
Wing section of PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944

In September 1945, VPB-32 was transferred from the Atlantic and based at Saipan, establishing mail and passenger flights to Truk Lagoon, in the eastern Caroline Islands. VPB-32 formed detachments at several locations, including a detachment at Kwajalein Atoll.

Remains of nose turret from the PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944. The barrels of the twin .50 cal guns are buried in the sand, but the breeches are clearly visible.
Remains of nose turret from the PBM-3D which crashed on February 16, 1944. The barrels of the twin .50 cal guns are buried in the sand, but the breeches are clearly visible.

In the summer of 1946, 15 PBM’s from VBP-32 and VH-1 were based at Naval Air Station Ebeye Island, and flew in support of Operation Crossroads, which was the nuclear weapon test series conducted at Bikini Atoll that summer.

The PBM’s carried mail, supplies, VIP’s, and performed technical missions including photography, radiometry, radiological reconnaissance, damage estimation, and air-sea rescue standby.

PBM-3D_Mariner_taxiing_in_the_waters_off_NAS_Pensacola_25_October_1944
A PBM-3D Mariner is seen taxiing in the waters off NAS Pensacola on 25 October 1944

A typical PBM schedule was two flights per day, but extra flights were frequent. In September 1946, the VBP-32 detachment at Ebeye was transferred back to Saipan, where the squadron continued to operate until mid-1949.

PBM-3D_flying_boat_anchored_on_the_water
A PBM-3D flying boat anchored on the water

VR-23 operated a detachment of PBM’s at Kwajalein Atoll in 1949, prior to being reassigned to the Phillipines and merged with VR-21. VR-23 performed similar cargo and passenger-carrying missions as previous PBM squadrons based at the atoll.

PBM-3C_Mariner_off_NAS_Norfolk_Virginia_1942_2
PBM-3C Mariner off NAS Norfolk Virginia in 1942

Over the years, besides the crashed PBM-3D from VP-202, three intact PBM’s have been found on the bottom of the lagoon, and parts of two more which were cut up and the pieces also disposed of in the lagoon.

pbm-3r
An intact PBM-3R in Kwajalein

The intact aircraft are missing their engines, props, and other equipment, indicating they were stripped of any usable gear before being scuttled. The three intact examples are a PBM-3R, a PBM-3D, and a PBM-5.

A front view of the PBM-3R
A front view of the PBM-3R

Based on information found in squadron diaries, there are two or three more intact PBM’s somewhere in the lagoon, although they have not yet been found.

The typical wing structure of the "mariner" is clearly visible on this PBM-3R aircraft wreck
The typical wing structure of the “mariner” is clearly visible on this PBM-3R aircraft wreck

A few PBM’s survive today in museums, but no museum anywhere holds more than one example of the plane.

With at least three intact versions of PBM’s lying on the bottom of the lagoon, Kwajalein divers have a unique look into part of the developmental history of the plane, which is not found anywhere else in the world.

sgh
A lionfish is now the owner of this WW2 aircraft wreck, while a scuba divers hovers above

Recommended additional reading:

The Fighting Flying Boat: A History of the Martin PBM Mariner, by Richard A. Hoffman, 2004, published by the Naval Institute Press

Foundation, Fall 2011 issue (semi-annual publication of the US Naval Aviation Museum Foundation)

X-Ray Dive Magazine, Issue #40, January 2011