Ten years ago this month the Inishowen Sub Aqua secured their place in history by making an intriguing discovery into local history by uncovering an American World War Two bomber plane in Lough Foyle..
After years of research into the hows and whys the plane ended up in the peninsula and even bringing the former pilot back to the Greencastle coast, the diving club still remain firmly in the spotlight with the filming of a documentary about the old war plane by 360 productions, which will be aired on the BBC.
Following on from this ‘Journal’ reporter Katie Barr, visited the resting place of much of the plane artefacts, to speak with members of the club and learn more about the plane, its story and Tommy Dorsey....
On 11th September 1942, an American B17 Fortess plane left Gander, Newfoundland travelled over the Atlantic Ocean to the American base, Thurley in the South of England, but the plane never made its final destination. Instead it went down, after experiencing severe engine problems in Lough Foyle, between Magilligan point and Greencastle. It could had been lost forever until one local Inishowen club became determined to track it down.
Now, ten years later, a Derry based film company, 360 Production, working for the BBC, have just completed filming a documentary about World War two wrecks off the north coast. The crew of the TV documentary, called ‘Dig World War Two’, this week visited the last resting place of American B17 bomber, ‘The Meltin Pot.’
Seamus Carey, founding member of Inishowen Sub Aqua Club, started to research the plane in January 2001 as he always believed it was somewhere in the Foyle.
However it wasn’t until the 3rd August 2001, he and four other club members made the exciting discovery, retrieving items from such as an electric shaver, an empty bottle of bourbon, personal stuff such as talc and aftershave and a gas mask
“When we started looking for the plane we were only five years old so to find something for the first time for such a young club was a really big thing at the time. We always knew it was to be found there and I started calling on Brian Thompson from Moville who gave me marks where he thought it was. I spoke with a number of people in the community including Annie McCartney (now deceased.) She remembered the plane going down at the time and watching the crew standing on top of it in the middle of the Foyle.
“In May when we started diving there was a team of about 40 of us, but as the weeks went on groups got smaller, but on the Friday 3rd August 2001, it was a nice day and I had a good feeling so we went out that evening along with four other guys from the club at about half 7. I went down quick and I sawsomething silver in the distance through the bed of mussels and when we got through, you could see the wings and the outline of the plane sitting buried in the sand. It was the big one, it was a great feeling, I never slept that night there was so much buzzing through the head.”
However unaware what he would discover in the waters of the Foyle, Seamus and the rest of the crew were forced to tread very carefully.
“It was always the talk in the area there were four people rescued by the Church of Ireland minister here at the time. Rev. Benson, his wife and daughter Elizabeth who rowed out to them, but we didn’t know what happened the rest of the crew so I assumed maybe there were five or six people still dead on board.
“This was always in my head so we didn’t know what to expect, maybe we could find bones or skeletons. It wasn’t until we came back up again and did more research, we confimed it was definitely an American plane. After a lot of work we learned all the crew had been rescued at that time.”
Soon Seamus learned that at least one of the crewmen who had been on board was still alive and through a cleverly worded email, the Greencastle man was able to track down Lee Testler’s phone number.
“He was a great guy to talk to, we must have spent two hours on the phone talking, he was able to tell us so much history abut the plane and their journey. He couldn’t believe we’d found it, and he wanted to come back to see it, but unfortunately he died before he was able.
After informing the only other living crewman, captain Curt Melton, the club organised for the American airman to visit the remains of his B17, and despite poor health Melton came back to Greencastle in 2004 where the club introduced him to Elizabeth Ferguson (nee Benson) who had helped rescue himself and his crew.
Since Seamus made the discovery and brought the captain back to Inishowen, he thought it would be the end of the story until the 360 production company came on board.
“About a year and a half ago, 360 contacted us and came down to the Maritime Museum asking a lot of questions about our find. About six or seven weeks ago they started filming and then did the last bit on Sunday and Monday this week.”
They 360 crew filmed the Inishowen divers as well as Jeff Millar from Foyle Sub Aqua Club, as they successfully recovered yet more artefacts on Monday afternoon
“We discovered an old oxygen cylinder and other bits of the plane itself as well as an bottle of Old Spice which had been on board. We learned from Testler how the plane had been carrying a lot of extra material which they planned to sell once they reached England like drink and cigarettes, matches, chewing gum and Tommy Dorsey records.
“When they reached Malin Head, the captain starting telling the crew to chuck some of the stuff off the plane, but according to Testler a lot of the crew were getting scared and so started to drink all the bourbon and alcohol they had on board. He maintains they drunk it all, he thought if they died, they’d die happy at least,” laughed Seamus.
So now the rescued remains of the plane are beautifully presented in Greencastle’s maritime museum with its stunning appropriate surroundings overlooking Lough Foyle and a bustling Greencastle Harbour.
“As a club we’d be happy to help any divers who want to come and try to see the wreck, we only have one rule, they donate their finds to the museum here in Greencastle for people to see for years to come. This is a community resource and we want to keep it in the community wherever possible,” concluded Seamus.