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Remains of Airmen Lost in Antarctic Ice May Be Recovered
The site of the crash of the George One is seen from above with names of dead crewmen written on the wing.
Credit: U.S. Navy

A team of explorers are hoping drill 100 feet beneath the Antarctic ice to bring back the bodies of three American fliers who died on a remote island off Antarctica 65 years ago. The group wants logistical help from U.S. military officials, who say the project is too dangerous.

"We believe the mission can be done," said Lou Sapienza, organizer of the effort to recover the remains of crew members of the twin-engine Martin Mariner PBM-5. "If we can get there, we can bring them back safely."

The plane, named "George One," was on a mapping mission on Dec. 30, 1946 when it became lost in a blizzard, struck a ridgeline on remote Thurston Island in West Antarctica and exploded. Of the nine men on board, six survived on the ice for 13 days before being rescued. The three men who died were wrapped in parachutes and buried beneath the plane's wing.

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The plane was part of Operation Highjump, an effort by the U.S. military led by polar explorer Adm. Richard Byrd to better chart Antarctica and secure the continent from possible incursions from the former Soviet Union. The maneuver lasted for about two years and included deployment of 4,700 men to Antarctica and construction of a temporary base called "Little America."

Family members say that over the years they have been promised by Navy officials that the bodies would be recovered if certain safety and logistical problems could be met.

In 2004, a Chilean Orion P-3 aircraft doing mapping work for NASA deployed ground-penetrating radar on Thurston Island discovered an anomaly under the ice that could signal the presence of the intact plane. Using old photographs and the radar data, NASA officials estimated it was buried beneath 100 to 150 feet of ice, according to Rich Lopez, a mechanical engineer from Oakton, Md., and nephew of Ensign Maxwell. Lopez who was one of the fallen crew members Lopez said that even though it's extremely difficult to work in Antarctica, and despite the risks, he wants his uncle's remains to come home.

"I don't believe they had a correct burial," Lopez said. "It was done hastily with the intent that they would be recovered the following year. We would like to see them returned to U.S. soil."

Lopez said he has been putting together a proposal reach the plane through the ice with hot-water drills powered by a diesel generator. The drill would create a three-foot wide hole down into the ice, wide enough to rappel two men down to the wreckage. From there, they would heat a cavern around the wing to discover the bodies underneath. The team would consist of drilling experts, polar anthropologists and forensic experts.

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The George 1 recovery effort has stalled in recent years as Navy officials balked, but last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to the defense bill authorizing the Pentagon to "undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify and return the well-preserved frozen bodies" at the crash site. Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-NY, sponsored the measure.

"Our nation has a solemn commitment with those who wear the uniform that no one will be left behind, and I support leveraging Navy assets to assist private efforts to return the remains of these servicemen to the families in the United States," Congressman Tim Bishop said in an e-mail to Discovery News. "A growing number of my colleagues share my support for a plan to bring the George I crew members home after so many years, and I will continue to build support for it in Congress."

The measure did not, however, come up with the estimated $1.3 million that's needed to conduct the recovery.

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Sapienza worked on a 1992 mission that uncovered a P-38 Lightning aircraft that had been buried beneath a glacier in Greenland. The plane was removed from the ice, purchased by a Texas millionaire, and is flying today at air shows. Now, Sapienza says he's got support for the Antarctic mission from family members, donors and several members of Congress.

He's also hoping for support from the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that coordinates all activity in Antarctica and has both air and sea assets, such as C-130 aircraft that fly from New Zealand as well as ships that transport scientists and material to Antarctica from the southern tip of South America.

Sapizenza says the project needs $1.5 million if it gets airlift help from the U.S. government. If not, the price tag could exceed $3.5 million.

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In the meantime, Sapienza plans to head north to Greenland in July. He's working with the U.S. Coast Guard and others to recover the wreckage of another lost aircraft, this one a Grumann J2-F4 "Duck" amphibious aircraft that crash-landed in 1942, although all crew were rescued. They'll be drilling to the ice and lowering a camera 25 feet below the surface. He says that Greenland mission will be a good trial run for the Antarctic recovery.

For their part, Navy officials say they recognize the families' concerns recovering the MIAs from Antarctica, but the operation is still too dangerous.

"Our assessment of the location, logistics, climate and hazards to any potential recovery team, are central to the determination that the difficulty and risk of such an operation remains too high," Navy spokesman Lt. Matthew Allen in a statement to Discovery News. "Ens. (Maxwell) Lopez, Petty Officer 1st Class (Frederick Warren) Williams and Petty Officer 1st Class (Wendell) Hendersin were rendered proper burial honors in accordance with Navy customs and traditions which honors the final resting place of those lost in down ships and aircraft. The Navy considers GEORGE I to be the final resting place of these brave sailors, and we do not support disturbing or potentially desecrating their remains."

This story was provided by Discovery News.