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Until they are home: Navy diver searches for Americans MIA

Michael Woods, in the yellow helmet directly to the left of the POW/MIA flag, along with JPAC divers. The Navy divers are with a B-17 plane that crashed in the Mediterannean Sea near Corsica, France during World War II. The crew’s mission is to find an American killed in action. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
October 24, 2012 - In February 1944, a B-17 aircraft was attacked by German fighter planes and crash landed in the Mediterannean Sea just off the coast of Calvi, Corsica, France.

Now, 68 years after the plane came to rest less than 100 feet below the surface, and less than 300 yards from shore, it is the mission of Navy Diver Senior Chief Michael Woods, to bring home an American lost in that World War II battle.

"I think this mission we are on is very important and another testament to how great our nation is," said Woods, part of a Navy recovery dive team working for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). "Regardless of when or where, we will do everything possible to bring our brothers and sisters home."

Woods, a 38-year-old Warren native who resides in Virginia Beach when not deployed, is corresponding with kindergarteners in Toni Schlaire's class at Oakwood Elementary School. The students send cards and care packages to show their support.

Woods has not shared details of his mission with the youngsters and notes that he is required to make no mention of individuals for whom they are searching. However, an Oct. 11 article from the French news website reported that a crew on the USNS Grapple, Woods' ship, was there to dive among the wreckage of the plane that was piloted by Lieutenant Frank Chaplick. The report goes on to note that three men were killed in action on the B-17—radio operator Robert F. Householder, left gunner George J. Murphy and rear gunner Tony Duca.

"It is for them that the mission takes place," the report stated.

The plane's wreckage was found in the 1960s. It became popular with diving enthusiasts, and one diver found one of the lost men's wallets some years ago. The report goes on to quote Jean Stopovers, president of the French Federation of Sports Submarines as saying, "I think we need to let the Americans get their compatriots… (We) should let them do their work quietly."

Woods, with the U.S. Navy for 19 years and a master diver since 2009, is working with a 25-person recovery team comprised of specialists from JPAC, civilian mariners from the USNS Grapple, and divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, conducting underwater excavations.

As a master diver, Woods is responsible for training and qualifying junior divers on diving practices and equipment and is the senior enlisted member of the dive team. Master diver is the highest level attainable for enlisted Navy divers. Woods' previous missions have included responses to Hurricane Katrina, the I35W bridge collapse in Minnesota, and recovery of several military aircraft that have crashed and landed in the ocean.

"The unfortunate nature of this duty (salvage) is a lot of the time a tragedy of some sort has brought us here," said Woods, who deployed to Corsica with his crew in September. "Like with the bridge collapse in Minnesota, plane wrecks and hurricanes. It is not a glamorous job, but one that is required to be accomplished."

The shell of the B-17 is "pretty well intact," noted Woods. This is the first actual recovery attempt on this particular wreck. The crew is currently diving 10 days on and then one day off. On work days, the crew tries to get a minimum of four dives in per day with two divers per dive. Each dive is comprised of one hour on the bottom conducting searches.

"The wreck itself is somewhat intact but after this many years we are looking for anything that could be remains or items associated with our particular service member(s)," Woods said. "What we do is sift through the sand with machines that can pick up sand and gravel and relatively small articles. The items are relocated to holding devices that are brought to the surface where the JPAC team can sort through and package any items of interest for later investigation."

After 60 minutes, divers are brought to the surface in stages (decompression stops) and require up to 33 minutes in the water decompressing, or 45 to 60 minutes if the decompression is completed on the surface in a recompression chamber. In total, each dive is about two hours from start to finish.

Challenges are the weather, particularly as the crew has experienced winds of 20-plus knots.

"The winds make keeping the ship moored as close to land as we are difficult and a little dangerous," he said. "If we were to break our anchoring system there is a good chance of the ship running aground. So far so good though all safety plans have been implemented and the ship is holding fine!"

Following the Corsica mission, Woods, who is married and the father of four sons, will spend the remainder of his deployment stopping in several countries in Africa, also on JPAC missions.

JPAC, a joint task force within the U.S. Department of Defense, has a mission to account for Americans who are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from past wars and conflicts. There are more than 83,000 of these individuals for whom they plan to search "until they are home."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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