Sunken Treasure

Members of Texas A&M University’s nautical archaeology program study submerged World War II aircraft in the Pacific Ocean.

    By Bailey Payne ’19
  • Images provided by the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation
  • May. 15, 2023
    2 min read

One hundred and sixty feet beneath the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands, two Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers lie abandoned on the sea floor. In 1942 during World War II, two groups of three U.S. Navy pilots took off from an aircraft carrier on a routine patrol. When the pilots couldn’t find their way back to the carrier, they decided to land near an atoll, inflating rafts to keep themselves afloat.

One of the rafts quickly leaked, and the airmen had to fend for themselves on the atoll before the Japanese discovered them and held them prisoner until the war’s conclusion. These aircraft’s unique and unfortunate circumstances inadvertently preserved them, making them among the last surviving Devastator models in the world. 

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Members of Texas A&M University’s nautical archaeology program—widely considered one of the best in the country—collaborated with the nonprofit Air Sea Heritage Foundation to study these submerged aircraft up close.  

“You can watch a movie, read a book and even gain a thorough academic understanding of what it was like for these pilots,” said Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dr. Christopher Dostal ’15 ’17. “But to take an 18-hour boat ride to an island in the middle of nowhere, break the water’s surface and see one of these planes just sitting there after all these decades…it’s genuinely difficult to describe the feeling.”