Missing World War II Plane Discovered After Eight Decade Search

By: Beth Moreton | Last updated: Jun 21, 2024

A World War II plane that went missing during a 1944 mission was recently discovered in Papua New Guinea after 80 years in February 2024.

The residents had long rumored that the plane was located there. However, no one knew its exact location until a search group came across it in a jungle.

Pilots Missing in Action

Lieutenant Billy Ray Ramsay and Sergeant Charlie J. Sciara were on the plane when it crashed on January 14, 1944.

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A Douglas SBD Dauntless inside a factory. The plane is light blue, and on the wing is a white star inside a blue and yellow circle.

Source: Michael Barera/Wikimedia Commons

As no one knew where the crash had happened, both pilots and the plane were declared Missing In Action (MIA). A year after the crash, they were officially declared dead, as neither the pilots nor the plane had shown up.

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Stories of the Plane Crash Told Throughout History

The plane crash of 1944 in Papua New Guinea was widely known, to the point where those involved in searching for the plane said that their grandparents had often told them the story of the missing plane and pilots.

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A black and white image of three Douglas SBD Dauntless planes in flight.

Source: SDASM/Wikimedia Commons

However, no one who told this story knew where the plane could possibly be or what became of it and the pilots flying it. Researchers decided they had to do something about this.

Rumors of What Happened to the Pilots

As with many stories being told throughout history, there are often rumors about what could have possibly happened to the pilots. These rumors can sometimes have an element of truth to them.

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A black and white image of a Douglas SBD Dauntless in flight.

Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Sgt. Sciera managed to escape the crash but was taken as a prisoner of war by Japanese forces at the Tunnel Hill POW camp before he eventually passed away on February 22, 1944. It is also believed that Lt. Ramsay died in the crash as he was unable to get out of the plane.

The Black Panthers

Sgt. Sciera and Lt. Ramsay were known as the Black Panthers. They were also part of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 236 (VMSB-236).

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The Douglas SBD Dauntless being refuelled by men in red jackets.

US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The plane initially took off from Munda Airfield in New Georgia on January 14, 1944. It was taking part in a mission against enemy shipping at Rabaul Harbor, and there was a fleet of 26 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and 18 Grumman TBF Avengers. All of these were escorted by 73 fighter aircraft.

Fighting in the Air

Official reports at the time stated that this group of aircraft had come under heavy fire from the ground, as well as encountering Japanese fighters in the air.

A black and white image of three Douglas SBD Dauntless in formation in the sky.

SDASM Archives/Wikimedia Commons

As a result of this fighting, the SBD Dauntless being flown by Sgt. Sciera and Lt. Ramsay had its tail shot off from anti-aircraft fire when approaching the target area and began to flat-spin over St. George’s Channel.

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How the Mission Played Out

When the formation was over New Ireland, around 60-70 Zeros intercepted and harassed the formation. However, the escorting fighters kept the Zeros away from the formation.

A black and white image of two Douglas SBD Dauntless planes flying above an island.

SSgt Greitzer, US Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons

Even though the weather was fair, the target, which was Lakunai Airfield, was covered in clouds. This caused the dive bombers to switch to their secondary target, which was Japanese shipping in Simpson Harbor and Karavia Bay, just off Rabaul.

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The Flight Was Somewhat Successful

Despite what eventually transpired, the flight was still somewhat successful. Nine direct hits were made on seven transports, as well as a direct hit on a light cruiser and possible destroyer.

A black and white image of Douglas SBD Dauntless planes in formation in the sky.

US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

20 near misses likely caused some damage. Around 5 of the 7 transports sank, and only 2 of the large ships were lightly damaged.

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World War II Plane Found in the Jungle

Due to the plane’s disappearance, despite rumors of it having landed somewhere in Papua New Guinea, it wasn’t known where exactly the plane had ended up.

A blue Douglas SBD Dauntless flying over an island. The plane has a white stay inside a blue circle on the body.

Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Explorers were able to locate the plane after a two-day trek through the jungle. They found that the serial number on the side of the plane, 35971, matched the number of the missing plane. 

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Civilians Found the Plane

Civilians, not researchers, had found the plane. They had gone in search of it out of sheer curiosity.

The Douglas SBD Dauntless on a runway.

Michael Barera/Wikimedia Commons

They were pleased that the rumors they had heard since they were children had been confirmed, so they sent the information to the US Embassy, who confirmed it was the missing plane.

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Plane Broken to Pieces

When the plane was eventually found, it was discovered to have been broken to pieces, something the explorers were expecting. The engine, propeller and the rest of the plane were scattered across the jungle floor.

A broken Douglas SBD Dauntless in a jungle ripped apart.

Source: Stefan Krasowski/Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the plane wreckage, human remains have also been discovered near the site of the crash. However, it is currently unknown whether these remains are in any way related to the plane crash or not.

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Douglas SBD Dauntless

The plane has been confirmed to be the Douglas SBD Dauntless, which was a World War II American naval scout and dive bomber that would fly into enemy territories.

A blue Douglas SBD Dauntless in a factory. It has a white star on the body inside a blue circle.

Source: predecessor/Wikimedia Commons

Knowing the type of plane it is that crashed helps to inform historians and experts of the history behind the plane and how it was involved in the war. It also narrows down would could have happened to cause it to crash.

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How Did the Plane Crash in the Papua New Guinea Jungle?

During a time when social media was non-existent and video-recording technology was nowhere near the standards of today, knowing how planes during the war crashed tended to be down to rumors alone — especially if no one saw the crash happen.

The Papua New Guinea jungle. There are green mountains and palm trees.

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the plane had its tail shot off by anti-aircraft fire and had last been seen in the sky over Saint Georges Channel. But it was only recently that it was known exactly what happened to the plane after this moment.

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Another World War II Plane Crashed in Papua New Guinea

Major Richard Bong was the top flying ace for the United States during World War II and has been credited with 40 aerial victories against Japan.

A black and white image of Major Richard Bong standing next to his plane, known as ‘Marge.’ The image has been signed.

Source: Self/Wikimedia Commons

Even though he wasn’t expected to perform combat duty and had been assigned as a gunnery instructor, Bong still carried out his duties and was awarded a Medal of Honor by General Douglas MacArthur in December 1944. Sadly, his plane also crashed in 1944 in Papua New Guinea but was being flown by another pilot. Major Bong died a year later.

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Soldier’s Remains Found Eight Decades Later

The search for those who had gone MIA during WWII is on, with the remains of the former WWII sailor being discovered and returned to his home in New Jersey 80 years after the crash.

A black and white image of Anthony di Petta in his Navy uniform.

@TAPintoNutley/X

The remains belong to Anthony Di Petta, who served as a US Navy aviation ordnanceman. He had his plane shot down by enemy fire in September 1944 while he was on a mission in the Western Pacific.

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Air Strikes on Enemy Targets

Petta had been conducting air strikes against enemy targets in Malakal Naval District, Palau Islands, and crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

The Palau Islands that are situated in a body of water.

Hector John Periquin/Unsplash

The last time the plane had been seen was when it was spinning violently at 5000 feet. As no one knew where the plane ended up, Petta was officially declared MIA. However, now his remains have been found, his family finally knows what his fate is and have finally had him return back to them.

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A World War II Submarine Has Also Been Discovered

The two planes aren’t the only World War II vehicles to go missing, as a diver discovered a submarine that had gone missing in 1942.

A sunken submarine under the sea. A diver is next to it, along with a school of fish.

Source: @Aylont1/X

Kostas Thoctarides, the diver who came across the wreckage, had been researching where it could possibly be. After studying its history, he located where it was likely to be and ended up being successful.

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World War II Stolen Artifacts Have Been Discovered

It wasn’t just war vehicles that ended up being lost, only to turn up decades later. Some Okinawan artifacts that were stolen during World War II were discovered in a Massachusetts attic.

An Okinawan painting that depicts a ruler with people surrounding him and fanning him.

Source: @MarcuswevansSr/X

These artifacts were discovered when a family was clearing out their deceased father’s attic. After finding the artifacts listed on the National Stolen Art File, they decided to hand them over to the FBI so they could be returned to the rightful owner. 

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The Department of Defense Is Working on It

Reports of the plane wreckage have since been reported to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense. The department works to recover American military personnel who are prisoners of war or MIA.

A black and white image of five Douglas SBD Dauntless planes flying over the sea.

Source: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

While it hasn’t happened yet, the department has said it will be sending out a team of investigators to the crash site as soon as they can to look further into the crash and to confirm whether all the current reports are true.

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The Sciera Family Received a Letter

Even though Sgt. Sciera was initially presumed dead, it was only once the war had ended that they realized that he had actually gone MIA instead.

A Douglas SBD Dauntless plane on display in a museum.

Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons

The family was alerted to this from a letter they received from the Marine Corps, but it has taken them 80 years to learn what really happened.

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Unsure of the Cause of Death

In the letter, it was made out to the family that Sgt. Sciera had died from malaria and beriberi. However, the family believes it is likely that he was killed by the Japanese.

A Douglas SBD Dauntless plane during an air show.

Airwolfhound/Wikimedia Commons

The cause of death is still something that remains unknown to this day. The family is hoping that if his remains are eventually found, they will finally get their answers.

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The Family Finally Has Answers

For over eight decades, the families of these two pilots have been left without answers as to what happened to Sgt. Sciera and Lt. Ramsay. Now, they finally have their answers.

A Douglas SBD Dauntless on display in a museum with flags hanging above it.

Greg Goebel/Wikimedia Commons

One of these people is John Sciera, the brother of Sgt. Sciera. All he knew of his brother was that he had gone MIA while in flight. Even though he now knows of the tragic circumstances regarding his brother’s final moments and death, he and his family can live in the comfort of finally understanding exactly what went on.

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Not Knowing Where His Brother’s Remains Are

The only issue that John is having is that his brother’s remains have not been found. While it does support the theory that Sgt. Sciera was made a prisoner of war, and it also leaves more questions than answers.

A Douglas SBD Dauntless in the sky.

US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

While he is glad that Ramsay’s remains were found and that his family now have answers, he still wants to know what exactly happened to his brother and whether his death was immediate or happened weeks later.

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They Gave up Their Tomorrow for Our Today

The saying for those involved in WWI and WWII has long been, “They gave up their tomorrow for our today.” WWI codebreaker John Maxwell Edmonds coined these words.

A black and white image of two WWII soldiers with an injured soldier inbetween them.

National Library of Scotland/Unsplash

It is just one small sentence that creates something deep and meaningful and is an important reminder for many going forward.

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