Skip to content

Why Does the Navy’s Underwater Archeology Branch NOT Wish to Have Historic WW II Aircraft Recovered?

4 August 2019

Why Does the Navy’s Underwater Archeology Branch NOT Wish to Have Historic WW II Aircraft Recovered?

In reading Taras Lyssenko’s book—The Great Navy Birds of Lake Michigan: The True Story of the Privateers of Lake Michigan and the Aircraft they RescuedI became aware of the first rate underwater recovery work saving historic WW II vintage U.S. Navy aircraft from the cold depths of Lake Michigan.

Why the Navy?

And why this lake?

Training and logistics.

During the war the U.S. Navy was training aviators for their initial carrier operations on the lake and many were lost due to ditching, mishaps and the like. Of these aircraft, more than a few are historic simply since they had been cycled back to the States for repair and reassigned to training units with more modern replacements going to replenish the combat unit losses. Over 70 Avengers, Wildcats and more lie at the bottom excruciatingly suffering erosion to invasive bivalve species. These mollusks attach to the aircraft producing a localized acidic environment which is corroding the aircraft structures—Nature is decidedly reclaiming these irreplaceable aircraft. Some of the most fabulous finds are: the rare Vought Vindicator, a combat veteran Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless “Midway Madness” which is a rare veteran on exhibit of the Battle of Midway (her crew scored a near miss on the IJN aircraft carrier Hiryu, returning with nearly 250 holes, partly from being chased by two to four IJN fighters at a time making gun passes). You cannot make this stuff up! If not for A and T Recovery these aircraft would not be seen in the National Naval Aviation Museum today. Even more are on public display in other museums as well as airports across the country. What better way to distribute the Navy’s proud heritage and aviators’ service than this?

Over the past three decades A and T Recovery (Taras Lyssenko is the T) has recovered dozens of these aircraft—and not only from Lake Michigan. Taras and the company do this running the for-the-public-good-company in close cooperation with the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM). He, and his business, ought to get a Presidential recognition for this work as well as their enviable record of search, recovery, on time and expedient delivery not too mention staying on a not too generous budget. This is truly a patriotic pursuit borne of passion as well as a paragon of outsourcing. In other words, these guys know what they are doing and do it as the silent professionals they exemplify. A and T Recovery is who you want on your team.

If the aim is to win.

That is if you want to recover these precious aircraft for restoration and display to the public. The public avidly wants to see what the Greatest Generation used to win WW II and placing aircraft into museums, airports and other public places goes a long way toward satisfying that thirst.

Why, then?

So…why does the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Archeology Branch (UAB) of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) not only wish to have these Lake Michigan aircraft remain unrecovered (as well as disappearing by way of increasing erosion rates) but actively obstruct the efforts of their brethren National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) to do so? Behaving as deviant bureaucrats, they misapply regulations, misconstrue information to the public and misdirect at every turn:

  • It was likely that the UAB fabricated claims of A and T Recovery stealing submerged Navy aircraft. These claims were made to Federal authorities, but were so transparent and false they were quickly and easily refuted though reputational damage was incurred since an FBI raid was executed. Perniciousness to be sure…but why?
  • The UAB put the Federal authorities on to the restoration works of the National Naval Aviation Museum with an environmental audit. This action greatly interrupted the NNAM’s work with the subsequent loss of most of their artisinal restorationists. Most! The museum’s foundation moved quickly and amicably to resolve the issue at a cost of $1,000,000. Money that could have funded dozens of restorations alone! A note: as a result the floor is immaculate in its epoxy coating while the remainder of the shared maintenance building in use by the active Navy is in its original raw cured cement state. Why the disparity and inequality within the same building? Why the unnecessary pain? Isn’t the UAB on the same team as the NNAM? Aren’t they (the UAB) working for us, the taxpayers funding these public servants?

The UAB has experienced great success regarding underwater recoveries not involving aircraft. The USS Monitor and the CSS Hunley come to mind—and kudos to the UAB for those investigations as well as recoveries. Almost inexplicably, though the UAB has recovered ships sunk a century and a half ago, their record of aircraft recovery is less than stellar. Less than stellar—zero of four according to their website of aircraft wrecks.


Yes, they are saving ships but not aircraft. Perhaps that is why of their 160+ images of the NHHC section on the Navy’s image page there are no aircraft recovery images. None! Though there have been dozens of recoveries! They so easily could have photos of the Battle of Midway veteran SBD Dauntless, or the combat veteran F6F Hellcat, or the very nearly rare first production run “Bird Cage” Corsair. So easy.

Although the UAB didn’t post images of recovered aircraft we can:

Grumman F4F Wildcat raised the final few feet for draining before being brought ashore after transport from its resting place on the bottom of Lake Michigan (note how the cool waters of Lake Michigan preserved the aircraft including the early WW II camoflauge prior to the invasive mussel species arrival)—image courtesy of A and T Recovery

Pilot’s cockpit of a Douglass SBD Dauntless (prior to the Zebra and Quagga mussel invasion of Lake Michigan)—image courtesy of A and T Recovery

Salvaged Douglas SBD Dauntless (note the invasive mussels along the wing, fuselage and engine)—image courtesy of A and T Recovery

Mussel encrusted cockpit dash panel of a Vought F4U-1 Corsair—image courtesy of A and T Recovery

Regarding submerged aircraft, the UAB is decisively letting our (and the Navy’s) heritage slip away forever with their purposeful obfuscation of the efforts of others and their highly successful efforts, primarily those of A and T Recovery. For that matter, they do not mention the NNAM, which is curious given they would be expected to be cooperating with the NNAM as both are in the U.S. Navy—and working for the same taxpayers, us. The UAB could simply combine their research efforts and, with A and T Recovery doing the heavy lifting, bask in overall the success of placing these aircraft on exhibit—there are still a plethora of facilities in the USA which lack but desire naval WW II aircraft. Easy. Just…so…easy.

In most places this behavior would be reason for termination of staff or the reallocation of resources. Management, as well as staff, in this scenario would be wise to look for a way out in the interests of self-preservation alone. Normally, that is, but this has been an on-going phenomena for decades. A and T Recovery working at the behest of NNAM while battling with the UAB of the NHHC. Amazing, is it not? And it needs to change and before the aircraft are corroded and eroded beyond recovery and restoration. The UAB has a blind eye to the damage due to the invasive Quagga and Zebra mussels—still pretending the bottom waters of Lake Michigan remain cool, oxygen poor and neutral pH (these mussels lower the local pH which provides for a remarkably efficient natural chemical reaction returning the constituents of the metal alloys into dissolved ions or oxidizing the metal)—this treasure trove of aircraft is disappearing no matter the color of the sky the UAB wishes to paint.

However, there is hope after decades of the UAC’s bureaucratic rules abuse, in the NHHC’s newest commander, Admiral Cox, and he requires our support. This admiral is a forward thinker and has several issues on his plate. Budget, establishing a new Naval Museum (one the public can easily visit rather than the one at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C.), answering Congressional queries, etc. But he can use our help. I suggest contacting the national media of your choices. Alert them to this story of a small handful public servants in the UAB of the NHHC purposefully allowing irreplaceable aircraft (many on the bottom likely were flown in support of Operation Torch). All of these aircraft were flown by the U.S. Navy aviators who went on to win WW II in the Pacific ETO as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

For more on this subject I suggest reading the book,The Great Navy Birds of Lake Michigan: The True Story of the Privateers of Lake Michigan and the Aircraft they Rescued, Taras C. Lyssenko, 2019, ISBN, 978-1-63499-143-8, 160 pp. which will be released early next month. It is quite the read and the story is one of perseverance through adversity to bring the Navy’s WW II history to museums, airports and other public spaces. This is one of the best ways the Greatest Generation’s experiences can be more viscerally experienced and their lessons recalled—unforgotten.

So. Why this fight? Why A and T Recovery?

The fight is that dozens of WW II U.S. Navy aircraft remain at the bottom of Lake Michigan and are being erased by Nature. Many are not only early models of Wildcats, Dauntlesses and Avengers but are the actual aircraft which the Greatest Generation used in Operation Torch, the Battle of the Atlantic, countless islands in the Pacific Ocean. These are the aircraft naval aviators trained with to enable them to sink numerous Kriegsmarine U-Boats and IJN battleships like the IJN Yamato and IJN Musashi.

A and T Recovery since they have a track record of search and recovery, especially for the National Naval Aviation Museum, which is beyond admirable. This for-public-good company has recovered dozens of aircraft which were subsequently restored for public display. After reading a copy of The Great Navy Birds of Lake Michigan: The True Story of they Privateers of Lake Michigan and the Aircraft the Rescued I realized I’ve seen the following aircraft over a spread of two airports and three museums (there are more to be sure) thanks to A and T Recovery as well as subsequent restorers:

  • Four F4F Wildcats
  • One FM-1 Wildcat
  • One F6F Hellcat
  • Four SBD Dauntlesses
  • One SB2U Vindicator
  • One TBF Avenger

More enviable than 0 for 4 and the tip of the iceberg, as well.

Normally the story is of a group forming to recover an aircraft. But not A and T Recovery, which has saved dozens of aircraft both on time and on budget. It is also their standard practice to research the human aspect of each saved aircraft while producing a professional archeological report of the cause of the accident as well as the pilot’s role with the aircraft and subsequent career. Often family members are found and invited to the aircraft raising when brought ashore. What better outfit is there to support and to use?


Here is what the UAB states they are accomplishing with annotations.


Resource management involves implementing an overall cultural heritage policy, ensuring the Navy remains in compliance with federal laws and regulations, forming a military craft wreck inventory, developing individual site management plans, coordinating violation enforcement, coordinating human remains issues, and extensive collaboration with federal, state, local agencies, international counterparts, the non-profit sector, the private sector and the public.

As stewards of the Navy’s wreck sites, the UAB maintains a geographic information system (GIS) and a database of over 2,500 ship and 14,000 aircraft wrecks distributed world-wide, whether submerged or on land. The Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks represent a fragile collection of non-renewable resources that, in addition to their historical value, are often considered war graves, may contain unexploded ordnance, state secrets, or environmental hazards. To ensure preservation of these sites, the UAB develops, coordinates, reviews, and implements related policy.

The Navy’s policy towards these wreck sites is to leave them undisturbed, thereby encouraging in situ preservation.

  • U.S. Navy sunken and terrestrial military craft, as well as foreign sunken military craft in U.S. waters, remain government property regardless of their location or the passage of time, and are afforded further protection from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA).
  • Sites that have reached chemical and physical equilibrium with their immediate environment are subject to a substantially reduced deterioration rate. If disturbed, this deterioration rate accelerates and any recovered artifacts must undergo immediate conservation and long-term monitoring.

While NHHC prefers non-intrusive, in situ research on sunken and terrestrial military craft, it recognizes that disturbance and/or artifact recovery may be justified or become necessary. Therefore, NHHC established a permitting program in May 2000 by 32 CFR 767 to allow for controlled site disturbance and, in 2015, revised that program pursuant to the SMCA. To learn more about the SMCA and NHHC’s permitting program visit the Permitting Policy and Cultural Resource Management page.

[There is convenient omission of reconciling recovery for public display as well as irrecoverable losses due to erosional forces (e.g., Quagga and Zebra mussels in Lake Michigan). This omission is glaring in its ignoring of these historic losses as well as inexcusable.]


The overall research objective of UAB is to interpret the Navy’s experience by applying the science of archaeology on the Navy’s submerged cultural resources. UAB conducts scientific research, data analysis, surveys, and excavations of ship and aircraft wrecks under management of the Navy, spanning the entire history of the United States. NHHC undertakes archaeological research as a lead agency, as a collaborator, as a guide, and as a monitor and permit-issuer in the case of external archaeological surveys and/or actions that disturb sunken and terrestrial military craft under Navy’s jurisdiction. Through undertaking archaeological research, as well as encouraging external collaborations, the UAB has contributed to the understanding of the Navy’s and the nation’s underwater cultural heritage.

[It is unclear regarding the extent of the mentioned external collaborations—though there are none regarding the Lake Michigan aircraft recoveries mentioned—save one research report on the Battle of Midway veteran SBD Dauntless]

View our Sites & Projects page for more information about specific wreck sites and research projects.

[Except don’t expect to find mention of either historical or successful aircraft recoveries.]


UAB manages the NHHC Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory, located on the Washington Navy Yard, serves as the Navy’s center of expertise on the conservation, treatment, and analysis of artifacts originating from sunken military craft. Conservation is intrinsically tied to archaeological research as artifacts recovered from an underwater environment require some form of conservation and a proper curation environment to remain in a stable condition.

The laboratory serves as a curation space for over 2,700 artifacts and provides public access to the collection for research and analysis. Additionally, the Lab manages an artifact loan program, of nearly 11,000 artifacts, which allows for Navy-owned artifacts from wreck sites to be curated and displayed under the auspices of NHHC at qualified facilities nationally and internationally for the purposes of public education and academic research.


Mission Statement:

The Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) is responsible for the management, research, preservation, and interpretation of the U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft. The Navy oversees one of the largest collections of submerged cultural resources, which includes over 2,500 shipwrecks and 14,000 aircraft wrecks dispersed around the world. The UAB was established in 1993 to manage these sites and to advise the Department of the Navy on all matters related to the science of underwater archaeology and historic preservation as it pertains to military ship and aircraft wreck sites.

To accomplish this mission, the UAB is dedicated to four main functions:

  • Archaeological Research—As stewards of the Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks, UAB conducts scientific research, surveys, excavation, and data analysis in-house and in partnership with other Navy commands, federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and the public.

  • Policy Development and Cultural Resource Management—To protect U.S. Navy cultural resources, UAB develops, reviews, and implements historic preservation and cultural resource management policy. UAB also ensures Navy compliance with federal laws, regulations, and industry standards. While in situpreservation is preferred, NHHC has established a permitting program, pursuant to the Sunken Military Craft Act and 32 CFR 767, to allow for intrusive research and other activities directed at Navy’s sunken and terrestrial military craft for archaeological, historical, or educational purposes. Click on Permitting Programto learn more.

  • Artifact Conservation and Curation—UAB maintains the Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory for the stabilization, treatment, preservation, research, and curation of artifacts recovered from U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks.

  • Public Outreach—An important objective for NHHC is public outreach and education. The UAB contributes to this effort by publishing research, developing education and outreach materials, and giving lectures on underwater archaeology, conservation, history, and cultural resources management policy. We also offer internships for undergraduate and graduate students! Learn about the NHHC internship program[Glaringly unmentioned is the lack of success in placing historic aircraft on display—their wording infers such successes, of which there is none.]

7 Comments leave one →
  1. shortfinals permalink
    4 August 2019 16:01

    Reblogged this on Shortfinals – aviation and more! and commented:
    This vital post from ‘Travel For Aircraft’ needs to be read – and acted on – by all those involved in aircraft preservation! Well done A & T Recovery and Joe, too!

  2. shortfinals permalink
    4 August 2019 16:04

    I am utterly disgusted that the US Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Branch is committing what amounts to archaeological vandalism (via known biological/environmental forces) in Lake Michigan. If you are a US Citizen, get onto your ‘Congress critter’ and make your views known!

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      5 August 2019 01:06

      I cannot be more aligned with you! An incredible story and one that would best be done with shortly with all those aircraft available for recovery and our good fortune having A and T Recovery in our corner.

  3. 4 August 2019 18:44

    I once had dinner with Dr. Dwight Allen, who was Dean at UMass Amherst at the time. Dr. Allen had several astute observations about bureaucrats in general.

    He said that everyone needed to feel powerful or useful in order to maintain self-esteem.

    Middle-level bureaucrats/managers have very little real power to make things happen, create policy, or expedite policies in progress. That applies to both government and the business world.

    However, middle-level bureaucrats can exercise enormous power when it comes to enforcing obscure rules, slow-walking paperwork, and engaging in petty power politics with other agency bureaucrats. In other words, if one cannot build something, then it feels good to block others from building things. If that does not work, tear down things that already exist.

    A handful of bureaucrats feeling good about themselves appears to be more important than preserving valuable history and artifacts.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      5 August 2019 01:04

      I worked as one of those bureaucrats and low level managers for a very long time. I stayed so long due to the folks I worked with–honest and hard working. Sad to say though that Dr. Allen’s words have been on the mark all too often. I learned that talent usually walks and bad management stays most of the time. I stayed because it was the good fight. You’ll see the same and better in Taras Lyssenko when you read his book. Always good to hear from you Chuck. You have your finger on the pulse as always.

  4. David "Mac" McLay permalink
    4 August 2019 22:38

    Kudos, Joe, for shedding light on this important A&T Recovery effort, which I am sharing with fellow aviation history aficionados.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      5 August 2019 00:59

      Always good to hear from you David! Yes, please, let then know. A and T Recovery have been working with the museums while dealing with the UAB on an adversarial basis–strange but true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: