Underwater near the Polivalo peninsula of the island of Vis is located a wreck of the US B-17 bomber, of the B-17G type. This particular type of B-17 was in production since 1943., with a production run of 12 700 aircraft. It had length of 22,667 meters, wingspan of 31,663 meters, and weight of 24 948 kg. Aircraft was propelled by four Wright R-1820-97 engines of 1217 horsepower, allowing it to reach top speed of 462 kph. For defense, it had 12 – 13 Browning .50 cal / 12,7 mm machine guns. Crew consisted of nine to eleven people. This specific bomber was identified as the number 44-6630 by Daniel Frka, a photographer and an external associate of the Croatian Restoration Institute. Bomber in question was part of the 340th Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group, then part of the 15th Air Force. Its crew consisted of eleven people in total: the pilot Irving G. Emerson, copilot Ernest N. Viennau, navigator Bruce MacFarland, upper turret gunner John O. Young, radiotelegraph operator Robert Shanayda, right flank gunner Merrle Sieling, left flank gunner Vernon Rhoda and the tailgunner Billie Clayton. The names of the bombardier, photographer and the ventral turret gunner remain unknown.
Bomber in question took off on the 6th November 1944 from the Italian base Amendola onto its first and last mission – it had arrived to the base only three days previously. The target was Vienna, but the thick cloud cover prevented the mission from being carried out and so the attack was redirected onto the secondary target: Maribor, an important and heavily defended railway junction, which was chosen because erroneous intelligence suggested that it was only lightly defended. In this action the bomber was hit, receiving damage to the hydraulic system and one engine: left wheel was out and No.3 engine was on fire. Copilot Ernest Vienneau received mortal wounds, having received a shrapnel to head. With hydraulic system damaged, it set off towards the nearest Allied airport: one on Vis. Crew threw everything they could overboard to make the aircraft lighter, and they managed to reach Vis. Following several unsuccessful attempts at landing at the air port, another engine gave out and so the pilot instead decided to ditch the aircraft onto the sea. Landing was well executed, and surviving crew – all but the pilot – was able to leave the aircraft, where they were recovered by fishermen from Rukavac.
Irving G Emerson and Merrle Sieling recounted their story in interview with the researchers. Pilot Irving Emerson described the events which led to the forced landing:
It was the 6th November 1944., my seventh mission. From the Amendola base in Italy we flew in formations towards our target in Vienna. Sky was cloudy and so we had to turn towards the backup target. But while we were over Maribor, Germans hit us after dropping bombs onto the railway station. Hydraulic system had been hit, bomb bay doors could no longer be closed, left wheel dropped, and then number 3 engine quit. When number 4 engine also shut down due to lack of fuel, it was clear that the only possibility of survival for the aircraft and the crew lay in the secret airstrip on the island of Vis. We lightened the aircraft as much as possible, throwing out everything we could to reduce the fuel consumption, and somehow managed to reach Vis. While on approach, a red rocket was fired from the airstrip, a sign that it was occupied. We turned around for another attempt, and while in the leftwards turn we got above the sea, but we spent the fuel and last engine shut down. I warned the crew to prepare for crash landing onto the sea.
Merrle Sieling talked about the circumstances of death of the copilot Ernest Vienneau:
Pilot Emerson called me over the intercom: “Seiling, come with the first aid kit, copilot is wounded”. Forward in the cockpit I pulled out the copilot, whose legs were trapped under the control pedals, with mechanic’s help. He is unconscious, and upon removing his bloody mask I see that a shrapnel hit him in the head. It is not good. I give him my mask. While I am trying to stop the bleeding, navigator, Lieutenant MacFarland, gave me “buddy breathing” from his oxygen mask. Hurrying back over the bomb bay bridge, I see waves below us. We touched the sea just as I opened the doors to the radio room. Wall of water threw me into the cabin and against the wall. I got up and opened the top doors of the cabin. Mechanic pushed me away and ran out before me. We managed to pump up one inflatable raft, the other having been holed by bullets. I stood on the wing and removed the flight suit. The others were already swimming or rowing towards the shore. When I jumped into the sea, nose of the aircraft was sinking. I heard the copilot moaning in the cabin, so I hurried back. But I was too late, the aircraft had sank. My clock had stopped, showing 13:30. Ten minutes had passed since the landing. Fishermen and British soldiers from the radio station helped us pull the raft to the shore.
Jakša Vojković, inhabitant of Vis from the Brgujac bay, was one of the people who were helping rescue the survivors. He testified that:
I was the commander of the troop on Rukavac. I was not 17 yet. On that day of 1944. we heard calls for help and so we took our boat and saw a flying fortress slowly sinking into the sea. Airmen were sitting on the wing and waiting for us, and some were swimming. One of the crew had nearly drowned. I pulled him out and resuscitated him. As soon as he opened his eyes, he immediately asked for a cigarette.
The aircraft had sunk some 150 meters away from the Polivalo peninsula on the southern side of Vis, at the exit of the Rukavac bay. The aircraft is at the sandy bottom at depth of 72 meters. Great depth and often difficult weather make diving there difficult, even dangerous. The fact that the bomber is designated a war grave means that diving is allowed only through the diving centers, and any retrieval of artifacts is strictly forbidden.
Bomber is largely well preserved, though some instruments are missing from the control panel – either thrown out during the landing or else looted by criminals. Despite that, it is one of the best preserved aircraft wrecks in the world, and probably the best preserved B-17 wreck. Machine gun turret is overgrown, and behind it is the opening of the radio room with 12,7 mm Browning machine gun. Further aft are flank windows with machine gun mounts, but machine guns themselves are missing, likely thrown out to lighten the aircraft. At the very tail is a turret with two machine guns. At the nose are two machine guns that were controlled by the navigator and the bomber. Nose itself is indented, either from impact into the sea or the seabed. A parachute sail is visible on the sand, and underneath the left wing large undercarriage wheel is visible. Wheels however are sinking into the seabed, so it is questionable how long the wreck will remain cohesive.
subtype/class: B-17 bomber
B-17 bomber: B-17 G 42-106990 (Brazil) (+1944)
propulsion: petrol engine
tonnage: 17.87 grt
dimensions: 20.7 x 31.7 x — m
engine: 4 x radial engines, varying from 750 to 1200 hp
armament: 6~9 x 0.50″ machine guns, bombs (up to 4,800 lb/2,200 kg)
power: 4800 h.p. (rhp)
speed: 318 knots IMO/Off. no.: 44-6630
cause lost: air plane crash
date lost: 15/03/1944 [dd/mm/yyyy]
casualties: † max.1
builder: Boeing Aircraft, Seattle (WA)
owner: United States Air Force – USAF
captain: Irving G. Emerson
complement: 10 [*]
depth (m.): 72 max. / 68 min. (m)
Read more at wrecksite: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?148108
Plave Dubine, No.1, July/August 2002
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