Three summers ago, I stood on the fantail of a 33-foot fishing boat in the English Channel trying to figure out what to grab onto to stay upright. Low-slung clouds blanketed the coastline of St. Margaret’s Bay in front of us: flat shingle beaches at the foot of the chalky cliffs of Dover, crowned to the east by the pointed Dover Patrol Monument, an obelisk dedicated to Royal Navy sailors who died during the First World War.
“Oh, that looks like a fish, there,” said Marc Coucher, captain of the Christabel, whose name comes from an unfinished poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The captain pointed to a quarter-inch white blob wriggling across the sonar display we were all leaning in to see. Coucher, a local fisherman with a Kentish accent that was nearly unintelligible to me, was just getting accustomed to his newest cohort of passengers, which included me and three other U.S. Navy reservists. We weren’t looking for fish.
We were searching for the remains of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber named Miss Lollipop, which had been shot down on its way back from a raid during the D-Day invasion in 1944. It had been damaged by German air-defense cannons near Dunkirk, but the pilot couldn’t reach England with the burning aircraft or make a safe water landing. Of the 10 American crew members onboard, three are believed to have bailed out before it crashed off the coast. Two survived. Several were found dead. The rest remain missing in action. Visual reports from coastal defense lookouts at the time placed the wreckage near our current location.
I had no previous experience with POW/MIA recovery operations, but I had spent 11 years as a bomb disposal officer for the Navy, including teaching underwater bomb disposal to British Navy divers, which was one of the reasons I had been asked to join the mission. Over the course of my career, I had conducted hundreds of underwater search operations. So half a year after I’d left active duty, I found myself back in the United Kingdom, leading this small detachment of Navy reservists, trying to locate a plane I’d never heard of that had crashed near a town I’d never been to, 40 years before I was born.
In a perfect world, none of us would have been there, bobbing around on a fishing boat, trying to pick out the remains of a 75-year-old airplane among the compiled wreckage and debris that has been lost to the Channel over the past several millennia. There’s a federal agency for that.
Throughout the history of warfare, fallen soldiers were often buried on or near the battlefield, unceremoniously, unidentified and in mass graves — the antithesis of a good death. In America, this was still the case until the Civil War, when more than 300,000 Union soldiers were recovered and reinterred in newly established national cemeteries following the war. The transformation of battlefields in the 20th century and changing public opinion about the government’s responsibility for remains led to a policy, beginning with the Korean War, that fallen Americans would be returned home as soon as possible. That is still the policy today. Public mistrust of the government’s handling of missing service members during the Vietnam War spawned the ubiquitous black-and-white POW/MIA flag and led to the establishment of the Central Identification Laboratory, and more recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The current number of POW/MIA who have not been recovered is around 82,000. Seventy-five percent are in the Indo-Pacific region, and many are stuck in perilous environments like dense jungles or deep ocean waters that aren’t easy to search (around half are thought to be lost at sea). Others are simply in unknown locations, or they perished in nations that refuse to return their remains. Because of this, only 34,000 are considered recoverable.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, known as DPAA, is responsible for accounting for American service members who have been killed or have gone missing in action — a process that generally involves finding, identifying, recovering and repatriating the remains of these personnel. Its headquarters are in Hawaii, and it has about 600 permanent staff and an annual budget of nearly $170 million. Its primary facility, where scientists conduct tests to verify the identities of remains, is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world. But the POW/MIA Accounting Agency doesn’t have the resources to find all of the missing bodies. Since it was founded in 2015, DPAA has accounted for around 200 of these 82,000 personnel every year, about three times the annual rate of its predecessor, JPAC, which in some years processed as few as six cases. Still, even at this accelerated rate, that means the cost to account for a single fallen service member is just short of $1 million.
“The mission is not about numbers,” according to the agency’s website, which is a gentle way of admitting that repatriation of all missing service members would be impossible.
That’s where organizations like the BentProp Project, which organized our mission to the English Channel, come in. One of a handful of private organizations that have joined in the effort to locate, identify, recover and repatriate American service members, BentProp, which has since been renamed Project Recover, was founded in 1993 by soft-spoken physician and biotechnology expert Patrick Scannon. Scannon, who has also served as a defense advisor on biosecurity issues for the U.S. government, was inspired to found the nonprofit after he took part in a mission to locate a Japanese trawler that had been sunk by a young Navy pilot, George H.W. Bush, off the coast of the Pacific-island nation of Palau during World War II. The name BentProp refers to a bent propeller blade Scannon found sticking out of the water off the coast of Palau. Almost 30 years later, Scannon’s mission is still to “repatriate every American missing in action,” but Project Recover’s primary job is to find underwater wrecks that DPAA has not surveyed. The information they gather from historical records and archaeological surveys of the wrecks is then passed to DPAA to expedite the identification and repatriation of service members.
BentProp has its own crew of volunteer divers to map out the wrecks, but at the time they didn’t have their own underwater drones. In the world of wreck diving, drones are a critical tool. These remotely controlled vehicles are essential for conducting searches of large areas because they can go deeper and stay in the water longer than humans can. They also use sonar, which is invaluable in places like the Channel where you can’t depend on good visibility (searching with your hands along a mud-bottom seafloor is painstaking and can be imprecise).
So Scannon had requested that a small group of U.S. Navy reservists to come to England to help with search and identification. Most of us were explosive ordnance disposal technicians who had experience using remote-controlled vehicles to search for underwater ordnance and to deal with terrestrial explosive devices such as those used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This was meant to be a straightforward task; ride the Christabel out to a handful of GPS marks given to us by Scannon, fly our underwater robot to find and record images of WWII wreckage, and with any luck, have time to savor our success over a couple of pints of English ale. Only the BentProp team would be diving. They would be using basic scuba diving equipment, or compressed air in tanks, but our Navy team had decided that we couldn’t dive safely and within military diving regulations under the circumstances, so the riskiest part of the job would be out of our hands.
At the time, I had just stepped down from active duty with the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) community, which has one of the highest casualty rates in the military. Since I joined the service, a few months before September 11, 2001, 135 American EOD technicians have died in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and many more have suffered life-altering injuries. That kind of chaos, the constant grim anticipation of death, was supposed to be behind me. Unfortunately, we would discover that the English Channel, which has witnessed an immense loss of life dating back to at least 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar’s Roman forces invaded the British Isles, would not leave us unscathed.
The wreckage of Miss Lollipop was discovered on the seabed of the English Channel by a group of divers, led by local historical diver Bob Peacock, in 1995. In 2017, Scannon decided to take on the Lollipop wreck as BentProp’s first foray into the European theater. Their previous dives had been in the South Pacific, primarily around Palau, where the visibility is measured in hundreds of feet and the water temperature is a balmy 80 degrees year-round. Unlike South Pacific diving, high temperatures in the English Channel are in the low 60s, and visibility is often only a few feet. Because of the cold water, the BentProp divers would need to wear drysuits for thermal protection. These impermeable suits are warmer than wetsuits but more difficult to use because the air pressure inside the suit needs to be adjusted frequently by the diver, increasing the risk of an uncontrolled ascent to the surface, which can be deadly.
The computer screen that the crew had been staring at for an hour was part of an underwater robotics system called the Teledyne Seabotix LBV-300, known as the Seabot in the unmanned systems world. The 300 stands for meters, and it means that the robot can descend to about 1,000 feet of seawater before it breaks. The operating console comes in a durable black plastic case that is portable in the same way that a 50-pound suitcase seems portable until you attempt to haul it around an airport.
The entire fifty-something-thousand-dollar piece of equipment was rigged, with a couple of strands of parachute cord and locking carabiners (the fail-proof method of securing anything in the military), to the top of an empty white cooler, where Coucher normally stored fish for his charter guests. Next to the fish box, on the deck, neon-green fiber-optic cable noiselessly unspooled from a shin-high aluminum reel and plunged straight down into the water off the stern of the boat. After a couple of feet, it disappeared into the choppy water.
“There, you see that,” said Megan Lickliter-Mundon, an aviation archeologist and recreational diver from Seattle. “Can you hold that? You can see the four engines. One, two, three, four. I think it’s upside down.”
The drone’s pilot, Gabriel Grauke, had flown the unmanned vehicle to a point slightly up-current from the wreckage, and we were now getting our first glimpse of it on the sonar screen. Grauke is a Navy reservist who has a gentleman’s economy of words and a slight East Texas drawl. He was constantly making fine adjustments with the remote control’s joystick. With a light forward throttle, he was able to hold station with the outline of the wingspan framed neatly within the sonar swath. Four engines from left to right. This was a promising start.
Our team had attached two GoPro cameras to the Seabot, set at slightly different angles, to capture enough images of the exposed engines that Lickliter-Mundon could use the data to begin developing a 3D model of the plane. After two days with the robot, we had enough video footage for her to create a 3D map of the four engines, so we motored back to the Port of Ramsgate, the small seaside town we were using as a point of departure for the search missions. It was time to put divers down on the wreck.
Underwater currents in the English Channel commonly exceed 3 knots (3.5 miles per hour), which is more than three times the speed that a diver can swim against. To give you an idea, fighting against 1 knot of current feels like pushing a car up a hill. Dive windows in the Channel — the periods of time when the current is low enough to safely dive — are usually less than one hour long and only occur about every six hours or so. These windows are also highly unpredictable because the flow of water between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea varies depending on the direction and intensity of the wind. This can mean that your dive window unexpectedly shifts an hour in either direction. The strong currents also displace the sand on the bottom of the Channel, so a shipwreck that was exposed one year might be entirely covered in sand or pebbles the next. Add to these hazards low visibility and the fact that the nearest recompression chamber would be over an hour away, and you’re well into dangerous territory.
So when the robot was done, Lickliter-Mundon and another volunteer diver, Bruce Hottum, went to work mapping out the site, taking measurements by hand and identifying key features of the plane. Hottum, whom I met onboard the Christabel on the first day of the mission, was a 63-year-old dentist from a small hamlet two hours up the Hudson River from New York City. He had helped identify victims of the September 11 attacks by their teeth and had been called to join this mission two weeks before it started by his friend Mickaila Johnston, a Navy diving medical officer who volunteers for BentProp in his free time. Johnston ran the dive side in the same exacting way he would run a Navy dive side, meticulously making sure they conducted equipment checks and maintenance.
While BentProp’s dive team went to work at the Miss Lollipop site, working from a charter-diving boat called the Maverick, our Navy team ventured off to the next location on the Christabel. We were looking for another wreck that had been discovered 20 years earlier when a fisherman pulled up the landing gear of a World War II–era plane in a net. Peacock, the same diver who had located Miss Lollipop, had gone out to look for the wreck and found four engines. On one of them, Peacock spotted a telling detail — a metal tag with the words Pratt & Whitney on it, an American aerospace manufacturer that built engines for warplanes at the time. BentProp researchers believed that this was part of a wreck in which two Consolidated B-24 Liberators had crashed into each other and landed in the Channel, taking most of their crew with them. This time, there might be remains on board.
It had been a long time since Peacock had dived the area, and he wasn’t sure which of the GPS marks in his records was the right one. We tried with the first mark he gave us and found what appeared to be a World War I shipwreck, but no airplanes.
After the initial failure, we met Peacock at a local pub to discuss his original dive and to make sure we were searching the correct area. Peacock brought with him a miniature replica of a B-24 Liberator and showed us the parts of the aircraft he believed he had seen. After a couple of hours of sea stories over dinner, we had new coordinates and a good idea of what we were looking for; the region was called Goodwin Sands, a 10-mile-long drifting sandbank off the coast of Kent.
When we went back out onto the water, our hopes were up. The transit to the search area took an hour and a half and brought us to a point about 10 miles southeast of the U.K.’s southeastern tip, distractingly close to a cluster of lumbering windmills.
The dive team had resumed its survey of Miss Lollipop, which was nearly two hours west by boat, but Scannon was on board the Christabel, wearing his telltale floppy baseball cap and a red neckerchief knotted below his chin. On our boat’s “fish finder” (the sonar Coucher usually uses to spot fish), he pointed out a distinct line on the seabed where the depth dropped off precipitously. This was the edge of Goodwin Sands, the sandbank on which Peacock believed he had encountered the wreck. Because the entirety of Goodwin Sands is at a relatively consistent depth, Peacock recommended that we not search in the deep water adjacent to it. Also, we had to keep the robot in water that was shallow enough that we could safely send the divers down in case our robot’s tether became fouled by an object in the water and couldn’t be pulled up. But we hadn’t had any issues so far and didn’t consider this likely. It was around 90 feet deep, at which depth a diver could only remain for around 25 minutes before having to stop for decompression on his ascent. Due to the strong currents, decompression stops could cause a diver to drift miles away before he surfaced, so it was important to avoid this scenario.
We quickly found a target on the fish finder that was promising enough to drop the robot down. The bottom was flat and uncluttered, so it was relatively easy to pick out objects on the screen that were protruding from the seafloor. The predicted currents had shifted due to the weather the night before, and it was already almost at its weakest point, about half a knot. Grauke, who had become the de facto robot driver for difficult technical operations, was at the controls as we lowered the Seabot into the water. He navigated the vehicle to investigate several objects that we thought could be plane wreckage, but the current picked up sooner than we had expected, and the robot became difficult to control. Several times, we had to haul it out of the water because it couldn’t hold its position. After reorienting ourselves using Coucher’s fish finder, we would dive it to the bottom as fast as it would go and set it down hard on the seabed, where it was easier to maintain station.
Eventually, on one of these dives, the vehicle stopped moving. Grauke tried to drive it in every direction to set it free, but it soon became clear that we weren’t going to disentangle it from whatever was holding it down. We shut the console down and tried to haul it up by its tether. That didn’t work either. We looked at detaching the tether from the reel and connecting it to a buoy that we could retrieve the next day, but we feared the buoy would come undone or that water intrusion would ruin the machine’s components. We let out slack to see if it would free itself on its own. Nothing worked. At this point, our options were limited. The next slack tide, when the divers could safely descend, was six hours away, which would be after nightfall.
As a last resort, we called the dive team to see if they would be willing to dive outside of the dive window, when the high currents would make it difficult to work. Hottum and Johnston had just surfaced from a successful dive on Miss Lollipop and were willing to motor out to our site to lend us a hand. When they arrived almost two hours later, in good spirits, their boat came alongside ours. A crew member tossed Grauke a T-shirt that read “DICKHEAD DIVER OF THE DAY,” and we were reminded that we weren’t going to live this incident down any time soon. After we briefed the divers on what had happened, Hottum and Johnston jumped into the water, grabbed the robot’s green tether, taut from the high current, and fought their way down to the bottom.
They found the helpless Seabot with its tether wrapped around the flukes of an admiralty anchor, the type of large metal anchor used by the British Navy in the 19th century. The divers untangled the vehicle and let it float upward. They followed after it, but the journey to the waterline after a 90-foot dive is tediously slow, to prevent injuries related to rapidly decreasing pressure on the body. The maximum rate of ascent, 30 feet per minute, is about the speed that the smallest bubble a diver creates rises to the surface, so the diver generally watches all of the bubbles he breathes out beat him to the top. On their way up, Hottum and Johnston stayed within sight of each other, but at about 10 or 15 feet below the surface, Hottum began to pull away from Johnston. He was ascending too quickly. Johnston grabbed Hottum’s fin to try to slow him down, but he couldn’t hold on. Seconds later, when they popped up on surface, Hottum seemed fine. A short, rapid ascent from that depth wasn’t all that unusual, even if it was potentially life-threatening. The divers signaled to the boat that they were OK.
Seeing that the divers were onboard the Maverick, we recovered the robot, which had been floating alongside. At about the same time, I noticed that the other boat was having a problem. They were speeding toward us and yelling. They needed help, so Grauke and I jumped from our boat’s gunwale to theirs and tumbled onto the deck.
I later found out that after climbing on board the dive boat, Hottum had looked weak and uneasy. He had sat down next to Lickliter-Mundon, turned to her, squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes, and said softly, “I’m OK.” He then collapsed onto one of the benches lining the boat’s fantail. He had stopped breathing and had no pulse.
In diving, there are two principal conditions that can cause a diver to collapse and lose consciousness after surfacing in a stable state. The first and more widely known is decompression sickness, sometimes called “the bends.” Decompression sickness normally sets in after 10 minutes on the surface following a dive — sometimes much later — and happens when nitrogen bubbles get stuck somewhere in your body’s tissue as you come to the surface too quickly. It’s something like the difference between opening a bottle of Coke slowly and letting the carbonation seep out or opening it quickly and watching a quarter-bottle’s worth of bubbles flow down its sides. The other condition, which is very similar, is called an arterial gas embolism, or AGE, caused by gas bubbles forming in the bloodstream after a rapid ascent. Its symptoms develop faster — normally within the first 10 minutes after a dive — but they can appear similar to a severe case of the bends.
For both conditions, there is one treatment: a recompression chamber. For serious cases, it’s necessary to put the body back under pressure to crush the bubbles that have formed and allow them to escape. The faster a diver reaches a chamber, the higher the odds of survival. Most patients recover from an AGE if they receive recompression chamber treatment within two hours of coming to the surface. Because of the urgency of the therapy, paramedics in the United States will often route patients directly to a facility with a recompression chamber if they show symptoms of a diving casualty. The logic is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In the United Kingdom, all diving-related casualties are sent first to an emergency room, whether or not there is a chamber nearby. The emergency room decides whether the patient has suffered a diving casualty and requires chamber treatment. This delays the patient’s arrival at a chamber and can have fatal consequences. I had dealt with this problem before when I was working at the U.K.’s bomb disposal school. We knew it was a problem, but I had never had the misfortune of seeing the system fail.
By the time Grauke and I arrived on the Maverick, Hottum was already unconscious and lying down on the deck, wedged between the benches on the starboard side of the boat. Johnston was straddling Hottum’s legs and performing chest compressions. The crew had radioed emergency services, which were on their way, but we were still an hour and a half from land.
Grauke took over the compressions and straddled Hottum’s body while Johnston held an oxygen mask over his mouth, holding his head still with two hands and watching his eyes as if he were conducting a vigil. I took off my jacket, which had my wedding ring zipped inside a pocket, and stowed it on the other side of the bench. Grauke and I then started taking turns, doing five sets of 30 chest compressions each. I tried to count each compression out loud, but the numbers turned into panting as fatigue set in. When it was my turn in the rotation, I would leap across Grauke as he scrambled to get out of the way, smashing into each other, cutting our hands on the benches and bruising our knees on the deck. There could be no gaps in the transitions because chances of survival drop rapidly if there are breaks between chest compressions.
With my knees on either side of Hottum’s body, I alternately looked up at Johnston for some sign of assurance, down at my hands to make sure they were in the right place, or directly into Hottum’s eyes, which were partially open but hadn’t shown a sign of life since we had started. I was hoping that one of these chest compressions would suddenly bring him back to life, and I kept thinking that I could see movement in his eyes, some hint that he was going to be OK and that we’d be talking about this over a beer later in the week. His eyes were dilated, a yellow scum had developed on his tongue and lips, and there was froth coming from the corners of his mouth. Aside from the cadence of the compressions and the pulsing of the Maverick’s engines, the scene was eerily quiet.
Thirty minutes into the transit, a team of paramedics arrived by boat. They stuck a couple of IVs into Hottum’s arms and a tracheal tube into his mouth to facilitate breathing. They needed to attach the pads of an automated electronic defibrillator (AED) to his skin to shock his heart back to life. Lickliter-Mundon found a pair of scissors and cut Hottum’s shirt off so that the pads of the AED could be attached to his bare skin. We stood back and watched his body spasm from the jolt of electricity. After the shocks, one of the paramedics replaced Johnston at Hottum’s head, but Grauke and I continued to give compressions. Blood began to run up the tracheal tube and trickle down the sides of his cheeks.
An air ambulance helicopter arrived shortly after, but the winds were greater than 15 knots, too high to safely hoist him up and get him to the hospital. As the helicopter flew away, I wondered how much longer I could keep up the compressions.
Almost a half hour later, as we approached Ramsgate Harbour, the helicopter came back out because the winds were now low enough to conduct the recovery operation. As it hovered above us, loose objects flew in every direction, and we huddled in the cabin to stay out of the way. By the time they hoisted Hottum into the helicopter, it had been nearly an hour since he had collapsed.
When the whirl of the helicopter blades faded away, we spoke in hushed tones about which hospital he would be brought to, who would contact his family, who would clean up and secure the boat and the dive gear. I found my jacket, which Grauke had stowed in the cabin, knowing it could have been blown overboard, and pulled out my wedding ring.
The nearest emergency room was in Ashford, about 15 minutes away by air, but there was no recompression chamber on site. Hottum was pronounced dead shortly after leaving the boat, but his vital signs revived when he arrived at the hospital; his pulse returned, and the PH balance of his blood normalized. They decided to transfer him to a chamber, but he died before they could get him back in the helicopter. The delays — caused by the high winds and the obligation to take him to an emergency room instead of a recompression chamber — took more than two hours, potentially costing him his life.
The days following Hottum’s death rushed past in a haze: local police reports, meetings with BentProp, notifications to our command, contingency planning if the mission were to be canceled.
I’ve often seen that, in the aftermath of tragic events, the reality of death doesn’t set in for several days, when the adrenaline rush fades away and you have time to sit with your thoughts. That point came several days later when, having met the other reservists at the Port & Anchor pub for a pint and a toast to Hottum, we sat for what felt like hours without talking, only saying a few intermittent words to break the silence.
Soon afterward, Hottum’s wife, Peggy, and his three sons flew out from New York to accompany his body home. Scannon had brought American flags for the dive mission in case remains were found and they could hold a ceremony for lost service members. But the ceremony ended up being for one of his own divers. At the Dover Patrol Monument, perched on the cliffs above St. Margaret’s Bay, the Navy reservists folded the flag while the members of BentProp and Hottum’s family looked on. After the flag was passed to Peggy Hottum, Johnston recited lines from Laurence Binyon’s World War I ode, “For the Fallen.”
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The post-mortem examination would later reveal that Hottum had died from an AGE, which should have been treated immediately using a recompression chamber. The day after his death, another diver from the same charter boat, the Maverick, died. Less than a year later, in March 2018, a third person died while diving off the Maverick; their body was never found. The three deaths were investigated by the Kent Police Department. No criminal conduct was found on the part of the company that ran the Maverick’s dive operations.
Hottum’s body was flown back to the U.S., and a memorial service was held in Woodstock, New York, in mid-August. Scannon canceled the remainder of the search operations after Hottum’s death, but we had gathered enough video and survey data for BentProp to submit the information on Miss Lollipop to DPAA. We never found the two Liberator planes; their crews are still missing in action.
On the plane home from England, I looked down at the Atlantic Ocean and thought about all of the bodies that would never be found, and of those that would, wondering whether it is worth the cost to bring the remains back after so much time has passed.