On Sunday morning, April 4, 1943, the pilots at Columbia Army Air Base, South Carolina, reported the weather as CAVU—ceiling and visibility unlimited. The conditions couldn’t have been better for a day of training missions. At midmorning Second Lieutenant William Fallon revved a North American B-25C bomber’s two Wright R-2600-13 turbo-supercharged engines and guided the Mitchell, with four other crewmen aboard, into the clear South Carolina sunshine.
Their flight plan took them over Lake Murray, just west of a training base. Sunday training missions were not un usual during wartime and were seen as necessary to keep up the rigorous schedule of pilot education.
Lake Murray is a 50,000-acre man-made body of water that resulted from the construction of the Saluda Dam, completed in 1930. Covering 78 square miles, the lake has 649 miles of shoreline. In the early 1940s there were few residents along the lakeshore, making the area ideal for training purposes.
Lieutenant Fallon had just finished a simulated bombing run over the lake when his left engine suddenly began to fail. He ordered the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert O. Davison, to feather No. 1. As the bomber was still very low, Fallon immediately increased the power on the still-functioning right engine. Both pilots then stood on the right rudder pedal to counteract the yaw created by the power from the right engine. As Fallon slowly turned the B-25 to the southeast toward the base, he quickly realized the Mitchell was not likely to make it back home.
Second Lieutenant Henry Mascall, the bombardier, called Fallon on the intercom and suggested they make a water landing. Fallon and Davison agreed and set about preparing to ditch. As Fallon eased the bomber toward the lake, the propeller on the right engine struck the surface. The impact tore the big radial from its mount. It skipped briefly across the surface and then sank into the murky waters.
The Mitchell bellied in a short distance farther and came to a halt. As the bomber bobbed in the water, the crewmen, who had suffered only minor bumps and bruises, scrambled out into a life raft. Within a few moments, the B-25 took on more water and sank.
Fallon had been piloting Bureau No. 41-12634—one of 1,625 C versions built at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, N.J., plant during 1941 and 1942. The bomber was essentially an improved B model with newer de-icing equipment, increased nose armament (a flexible machine gun that could be operated by the bombardier), and the addition of the Wright R-2600-13 radial engines. The B-25C could carry a maximum bombload of 5,200 pounds. The normal crew complement was five. Range was 1,500 miles at a cruising speed of 233 mph with a 3,000-pound payload. Mitchells were used not only by the U.S. Army Air Forces but also by Great Britain, the Netherlands, China, Russia and Canada during World War II.
Fallon and his crew were picked up in a boat by a lakeshore resident, Sewell Oliver, and returned to base dripping wet but happy to have survived. Later that same day another B-25 suffered the same fate as Fallon’s aircraft. That plane was recovered by the Army Air Forces, but Fallon’s B-25 had sunk so far that salvage efforts were abandoned.
The plane was mostly forgotten until the late 1980s, when aviation enthusiast and pediatric intensive care physician Dr. Robert Seigler decided to research the crashes that had taken place on Lake Murray during WWII. Seigler had grown up in Columbia, where he spent his summers swimming and waterskiing at the lake. Lakeshore residents told him about the B-25 crashes. “Nobody really knew how many actually went down there,” he recalled. He paid a law school student to go through the local newspapers looking for write-ups about plane crashes in the lake. That research effort turned up reports of five B-25s that had crashed during the war years. Newspaper accounts and government reports documented four of the wrecks, leaving the whereabouts of one aircraft unaccounted for.
In the early 1990s, after a Navy Reserve sonar team found indications of a sunken aircraft, Seigler hired a civilian sonar crew to search that area of the lake. After several attempts, the team found the remains of Fallon’s plane nestled in the silt at the bottom of the lake at a depth of 147 feet. Seigler—along with John Hodge, a commercial airline pilot and environmental attorney, and Bill Vartorella, an international marketing and fundraising specialist—then started planning a method to recover the aircraft.
Vartorella recalled that there were myriad problems and details that had to be dealt with before actual recovery work could begin. “We had environmental issues that had to be addressed, since there were hydraulic fluids and aviation gas still on board the plane,” he said. In addition, representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had to be involved because of the machine guns on the sunken hulk.
Hodge worked through the legal entanglements and secured salvage rights from the owners of the lake, South Carolina Electric and Gas Company. With funds and legal details worked out, the ad hoc nonprofit organization, dubbed The Lake Murray B-25 Rescue Project Inc., hired aviation salvage expert Gary Larkin and his team to recover the plane. (Larkin is best known for his recovery of a Lockheed P-38F Lightning, which became known as Glacier Girl, from 270 feet beneath the Greenland icecap.)
Under Larkin’s direction, four 10-by-40-foot barges were welded together at the corners to form a working platform with a rectangular “swimming pool” in the center that would be used as a base of operations for the divers. On two of the barges a crew from D&J Machinery and Rigging from Lexington, S.C., attached two heavy winches. The winches were then attached to a gantry-shaped device that would act like a crane and support the cables that would eventually lift the aircraft from the depths.
Using readings taken from a global positioning satellite, the work platform was floated out to a point over the plane. Because of the extreme depth of the wreck, divers were only able to work at the site for periods of about 15 minutes. Also complicating the recovery was the murkiness of the water, along with more than 60 years of silt and mud that had accumulated on the aircraft’s exterior.
“The aircraft weighed about 20,000 pounds when it crashed,” Vartorella said. “When we found it, it was estimated that it had an additional 20,000 pounds of silt and mud on the wings and fuselage.” After removing much of the debris, the divers attached nylon web slings under the wing roots.
After two weeks of work underwater, the winches started the slow, arduous task of lifting the B-25 from where it had rested for more than six decades. At a predetermined level the concrete anchors were released, and with the aircraft suspended underneath, the platform was guided toward the shore.
As the Mitchell was moving toward the beach, there were two mishaps. First, the prop from the intact engine broke free and dropped back to the bottom of the lake. The team marked its location and later retrieved it. That incident was not as serious as the fact that a small crack in the fuselage just forward of the wing’s leading edge began to enlarge.
The move to shore continued slowly, but work to lift the aircraft out of the water stopped until a 40-foot spreader bar was attached to the top of the fuselage with additional nylon straps. This bar would prevent further damage when the plane was finally lifted out of the water.
Shortly after 9 p.m. on the evening of September 19, 2005, the B-25 broke the surface of the lake for the first time since 1943. The bomber was in “remarkable condition,” according to Seigler, although he noted, “There was some damage to the nose with some of the glass panels broken out from the crash.” He said further inspection showed that the forward portion of the fuselage seemed to have been pushed to one side—apparently the result of the bomber’s hitting an object in the water during the crash.
Larkin’s crew lowered the waterlogged plane onto a specially constructed cradle and moved it to a secured area. Technicians from the Southern Museum of Flight, assisted by volunteers, washed down the aircraft with fresh water to remove more of the mud and silt from the plane’s exterior and interior.
Once the bomber’s surface had been stabilized, the recovery crew set to work dismantling the plane for transport to the museum’s restoration facility in Birmingham, Ala. It was decided that the best way to move the B-25 was to unbolt the center section of the fuselage at the wing roots from the rest of the airframe. The cockpit and bombardier’s position would be in one piece, the wings and center fuselage would be in the second section and the tail and rear portion of the airframe would make up a third segment.
Jim Griffin, the museum’s director, recalled that once the B-25 reached Birmingham the first task was to clean and determine the condition of the nose and cockpit section. After scooping out more mud and silt, restorers found a treasure trove of WWII artifacts. “When we removed the instrument panel, one of our workers found the co-pilot’s wrist watch with an inscription on the back,” Griffin said. The engraving reads: “Ruth to Bob 3-5-43” (Bob Davison, who had served as the co-pilot).
Other items found in the cockpit included navigation instruments, radios, a pilot’s map case, nylon seat belts and buckles and the bill of the bombardier’s cap. The maps, preserved in the pilot’s case, were still readable and in excellent condition. Griffin explained that some of the B-25’s skin was seriously corroded in places, meaning that cleaning and restoration could only be carried out with plain water, using dental tools.
A particularly significant find was the rare underside machine-gun turret. “This turret was only fitted to a few B-25s,” Griffin noted. The 600-pound gun mount has been removed from the aircraft’s belly and, after restoration, will be displayed in a special case. It is believed to be the only one of its kind in existence.
At present only the nose section of the aircraft is on display at the museum. Plans include stabilizing the rest of the airframe to prevent further corrosion, and then reassembling the remaining parts. Asked about a complete restoration, Griffin said, “We’d have to replace about 95 percent of the parts to restore this aircraft to its original condition. But I don’t think that’s what our visitors want us to do.”
The Southern Museum of Flight is building a new exhibit hall where the reassembled B-25 will eventually be displayed on a specially designed sand base, with lighting to make the aircraft look as though it is still resting on the bottom of Lake Murray. “I think we all want to see this aircraft for what it really is: a fallen warrior,” Griffin said.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.