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Group hunts Pacific jungles for remains of WWII fighters, planes

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    Silt covers partially tail wheel of World War II Hellcat found during BentProp dive. (Flip Colmer/BentProp Project)

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    Hellcat wreckage includes wing's flap-aileron. (Flip Colmer/BentProp Project)

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    BentProp practices for dives at "Jake," intact World War II Japanese seaplane in 45 feet of water. (Flip Colmer/BentProp Project)

A search team of dedicated volunteers is reporting a startling discovery in the murky waters of Palau in the South Pacific: two wreck sites that may contain the remains of three World War II American airmen missing for 70 years.

The nonprofit BentProp Project found the sites last month. For years they have been searching crash sites for hundreds of American servicemen shot down by the Japanese over Palau in 1944 and 1945. Before now their searches helped locate and recover the remains of eight MIAs.

“It doesn’t take long to realize the real importance of what we’re doing, to completely buy-in to the mission, and to find these guys after 70 years is pretty satisfying, ” long-time BentProp member Reid Joyce told FoxNews.com.

The group has been flying to Palau to conduct a month-long search for MIAs every year since 1999.

This year the group is getting some high-powered help.

"Somewhere in the waters of Palau, or deep within its marshy jungles, lie the answers some families have been waiting generations to hear.”

- Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Wednesday that he and the first lady will travel to Palau Saturday to assist BentProp’s mission. It was unclear whether Wednesday's shootings at Fort Hood, in which an Army specialist killed three, wounded 16 and then fatally shot himself at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, would affect his plans.

“Somewhere in the waters of Palau, or deep within its marshy jungles, lie the answers some families have been waiting generations to hear,” Perry said.

Perry said he will be joined on the 12-day trip by World War II vet Romus Valton “R.V.” Burgin, who saw action on Palau, and Marcus Luttrell, the ex-Navy Seal who wrote “Lone Survivor” about a doomed mission in Afghanistan to find Usama bin Laden. He said the trip is not being paid by taxpayers.

BentProp uses World War II maps, GPS and Google Earth to find wreck sites.  More than two dozens sites have been indexed so far. Help on searches also comes from the from University of Delaware’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Advanced Underwater Robotics program at Stockbridge High School in Michigan.

The group landed in Palau for this year’s search March 15. The team found the first crash site nine days later using an autonomous underwater vehicle that Scripps Institution brought to Palau.

Joyce said the wreckage was from a General Motors TBM Avenger that crashed in the ocean after a mission to bomb a power plant. The plane was flying so low that when the bomb went off, the explosion rocked the plane and caused the crash. Japanese soldiers captured the pilot and immediately executed him. The plane's two other occupants went down with the plane.

“Nine years ago a Palauan showed us a wing of an Avenger deep in a mangrove swamp,” BentProp’s Flip Colmer said from Palau, in reporting on the search.  “The mangrove trees had grown enough to lift the entire wing up out of the water.”

But no other parts could be found and previous searches came up empty.

“Then a Palauan friend of BentProp’s told us a few years later that her father told her of watching the airplane get hit and crashing off the coast,” Colmer said. “She even pointed to the area where we eventually found the aircraft. "

Four days later Colmler and other members of BentProp’s diving team found the second wreck site in 80 feet  of water. The wreckage was from a Grumman F4F Hellcat.

Colmer, a retired Navy Lt. Cmdr., described the difficult diving conditions at the time of the discovery.

“Sometimes, the visibility went down to just a couple of feet due to the silt suspended in the water,” he said. “We would swim into and out of these white-out areas.”

Joyce said the Hellcat was shot down by enemy ground fire. He said it hit the water so fast the pilot never had a chance to get out.

He said the group had a rough idea where the Hellcat went down, based on the after-action report from the mission.

Joyce said BentProp will document the two crash sites and let the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command recover any remains and make the identification.

“We try not to disturb a site any more than is necessary to identify it,” Joyce said.

 The group was founded by Dr. Patrick Scannon, a biotech company exec in San Francisco. He got the idea to search for MIAs after a diving trip to Palau in 1993.

The islands of Palau are 500 miles from the Philippines and figured prominently in the war’s outcome. The U.S. bombed the island for six months in 1944 before troops landed and fought it out with Japanese for months.

Scannon says many airmen lost their lives during the bombing runs over Palau and the fates of hundreds who perished are still unknown.

Joyce, a 72-year-old retired research psychologist, said the cost to send the team to Palau of the 2014 expedition is more than $15,000. Funds come from team members who pay their own way and donations.

He agreed it is expensive. "Just gotta chalk it up to something that I have to do. Not exactly an obsession, but an altruistic calling that all of us share," he said.

Joyce also said that one of the 13 members of this year’s team is Casey Doyle, a Marine.

His grandfather, Jimmie Doyle, was the nose gunner on a B-24 that was shot down in Palau in September 1944. Seven others on the plane were also killed.

BentProp found the crash site in 2004. JPAC identified the remains of all eight.

All were interred at Arlington in 2010.

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