The Wave that Took Down A Plane

Matt Rode

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Updated 89d ago

She was a grand old bird, as they said in those days. A classic in an era that would one day come to personify the descriptor, she was a contemporary of such characters as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon. Sadly, like these other legends of the mid-20th century, she too was destined for an inglorious end.

When the first of her kind was rolled out in 1940, few could have predicted the role that this seaplane would play in winning the Second World War. With a range of 3000 miles, a 48-passenger capacity, and the ability to land on water, the PBM Mariner was perfectly suited to the Pacific Theater. Used both as a bomber and transport vehicle, she was incredibly versatile, and widely renowned for her search and rescue capabilities. Slow and cumbersome, but with an almost unlimited range, the seaplane would depart hours before squadrons of faster-moving jets, then follow along after being passed, plucking downed airmen from the blue depths of the Pacific and eventually returning them to their families.

Forecast: Hawaii

A total of 628 PBM-5s were built in 1944, and, as the war came to an end, one of their number found her way to a small island in the South Pacific. Occupied by the Japanese throughout WWII, the surrounding islands were to be relinquished to the US shortly after VJ Day, and a delegation of diplomats flew in on September 12 for the official surrender. A few hours later, with peace papers signed and new orders being issued to the millions of American seamen spread throughout the Pacific, the crew of this particular PBM-5 was readying itself for a return to familiar waters. After months of deprivation from the comforts of home—warm showers, cold beer, and friendly women—this was a group of men very much looking forward to the peaceful beaches and hopping nightlife of Honolulu.

One crewman in particular must have had Hawaii on his mind, although his focus might have been less on the region’s women than its waves. Having been based on Oahu before his deployment further south, he’d no doubt watched the graceful surfing of the locals at Waikiki, and perhaps even made his way out to the island’s northern coast to watch the enormous waves breaking at Waimea Bay and Kaena Point. While his peers had written lonely letters to far-away sweethearts or played pick-up games of football on the grassy fields above Pearl Harbour, he’d have sat and visualised himself gliding across the water, like a dolphin or pelican or bronze-skinned beach boy.

Now, months later on a small island in the South Pacific, it was likely a similar daydream that led to the disaster. Distracted, no doubt, by the large waves breaking into the island’s main harbour where the “flying boat” was taxiing before takeoff, this would-be surfer might not have been as focused on his assigned task as he should, and neglected to point out a passing hazard. Just as the pilot began to pull up, the plane’s right pontoon caught on an exposed chunk of reef, causing a crash and abruptly terminating the flight. The PMB-5 was able to limp ashore without any casualties, but the pontoon had been damaged beyond repair, rendering the plane useless.

A radio transmission quickly informed headquarters of the damage, and orders came back instructing the men to gut the plane, remove her engines, and scuttle her in the harbour. That evening, as the sun sank below the horizon, the PMB-5 went down as well. It was a somber group of seamen that stood watching her from the reef, many of them offering up silent prayers when the nose of the plane finally slipped from view. Painfully aware of the hundreds of thousands of their countrymen who had died throughout the war—and fresh from a near-miss of their own—it was easy for these men to envision a reality in which they too disappeared beneath the waves, trapped within their beloved plane.

The men couldn’t help dwelling on that sobering thought—most of them, anyway. But as the flying boat completed her final descent, there may have been one in the group who seemed less concerned than the rest, his attention directed not towards the still waters of the harbour, but instead to the tapered wall of ocean exploding just across the reef.

Leaving the contemplative group in its wake, the PMB-5 Mariner listed to the left and then settled to the seafloor, her wing breaking apart and sending a stream of bubbles upward towards the surface. Ninety feet above and a few hundred yards to the north, an azure-tinted left-hander peeled down the reef and into the harbour, stirring up the bottom and burying the seaplane under a fine layer of sediment.

It would be nearly half a century before ocean-going enthusiasts rediscovered the wreck, or ventured offshore to test themselves against the wave that may very well have led to her demise.

© 2019 - Matthew Shepherd

Today, the PBM-5 Mariner rests 90 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific, the only known diveable wreck of its type in existence. Visited by less than 20 tourists per year, she is kept company by an abandoned army barge, three wrecked ships, and a crashed medevac plane, the crew of which numbers amongst the thousands of men and women lost at sea over the past century.