A technical dive-team have discovered a long-sought WW2 heavy bomber in Gander Lake, Newfoundland. Four air crew had been aboard the Consolidated B-24 Liberator on 4 September, 1943, when engine failure caused it to barrel-roll into the deep lake waters on take-off.
Diver Jill Heinerth was co-leader with Russell Clark of the 15-strong Canadian, US and French expedition team that carried out six dives on the wreck. The project was supported by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), for which Heinerth is explorer in residence, the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador (SPSNL) and Ocean Quest Adventures.
The initial survey dive was carried out on 5 September, and video and stills of “Liberator 589D”, produced with what was described as state-of-the-art imaging equipment, confirmed an earlier 3D sonar scan produced in July by Kirk Regular of the SPSNL.
The aircraft lay upside-down on a steep ledge at a maximum depth of 48m. Heinerth said that her first sight had been of the inverted plane’s landing gear, with what appeared to be fully inflated tyres. An emblem on the stabiliser section of the tail, a .50-calibre machine-gun, ammunition and instruments had allowed a positive ID to be made.
After the crash in 1943, military hardhat divers had descended to the wreck-site in a bid to lift the plane and recover the bodies, but it had slipped to hang precariously over a drop to as much as 250m.
The military persisted with their efforts for 12 days but were eventually beaten by the diving conditions – poor visibility, extreme depth and cold water.
They succeeded in bringing up the remains of Squadron Leader John Grant MacKenzie but the pilot, Wing Commander John Maitland Young, Flying Officer Victor Edward Bill and Leading Aircraftman Gordon Ward remained lost. The aircraft had remained undisturbed ever since.
Gander Lake is the third-largest lake in Newfoundland and lies in the centre of the Canadian island. Maximum depth is almost 300m and it is noted for being particularly challenging to dive. The 2022 divers experienced water temperature of 5°C and visibility of less than 1m in “dark tea-colour water”.
Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft were stationed at the extensive Gander airbase just north of the lake during the war, and for the past nine years local researcher and scuba diver Tony Merkle had been trying to confirm the location of the ill-fated Liberator.
“It is a really special dive for me,” he said. “I’ve never dived on a plane and since I discovered the site, it means a lot to me to share this part of Newfoundland history.”
The stills and footage obtained have been donated to the SPSNL for future educational outreach. The society was also contacting descendants of the crew to share the imagery.
After the dives Heinerth visited the home of Robert Maher, who is restoring a B-24 Liberator from the same squadron but which crashed in Goose Bay, to help identify images captured by her and videographer Maxwel Hohn.
The Liberator 589D expedition was part of a broader RCGS-flagged project, “The Great Island Expedition”, which is taking the divers to various locations across Newfoundland.
The team has been documenting two US Navy WW2 shipwrecks, USS Truxton and USS Pollux, in the Burin Peninsula on the south coast, and exploring underwater sites near Gros Morne National Park to the west.
The team also plan to conduct dives to commemorate the 80th anniversary of U-boat attacks at Bell Island in 1942. The location is one of the few North American locations to have been attacked by German forces during the war, in a bid to prevent materials being supplied to the Allies from its iron-ore mine.
Four ships were sunk by two U-boats in raids in September and November 1942, resulting in 70 deaths.
Deaths at Bell Island
A spate of deaths of scuba divers in a similar age-range have occurred at Bell island this summer. On 7 June, Coast Guard rescuers found a 60-year-old male diver from Ontario unresponsive in the water near Lance Cove beach on the south side of the island, and he later died.
A fortnight later on 21 June, again near Lance Cove beach, a 56-year-old American shore diver surfaced showing signs of distress, lost consciousness and was declared dead after being taken for treatment in the capital, St John’s.
Most recently, in early August, a 60-year-old woman from Maryland, USA was recovered after getting into difficulties but pronounced dead after being taken to the mainland at Conception Bay South. The Chief Medical Examiner for Newfoundland & Labrador was investigating the causes of death.