1942 Bomber Disappears Off of Southwest Florida Coast
What began as a routine performance mission in 1942 turned into a 60-year old mystery. On November 16, 1942, pilot Lt. Donald Vail, co-pilot Lt. Fred Dees, and crew Lt. Louis Miles, Sgt. William Kittiko, Sgt. Milton Newton and Sgt. Richard Treat boarded a Marauder B-26 and took off from the Army Air Base Fort Myers (current day Page-Field Airport). Fifty minutes later, after doing a fly over Fort Myers Beach, the bomber and all crew aboard disappeared.
Army Air Forces Report of Aircraft Accident
From the reports filed by the Army Air Forces, the aircraft was reported “overdue” on November 18. That same day a “search of complete land and sea area initiated this a.m.,” with all available Army and Navy air stations assisting. Three days following the initial report, pilot Lt. Vail and co-pilot Lt. Dees were found in the water, both dead, and the “search for remainder of crew continuing.”
On November 24, three days after finding the pilot and co-pilot, an “oil slick reported and marked,” and the search was then temporally suspended. Officials were waiting for a Navy locater to reach the position and Civil Air Patrol (CAP) continued with area routine flights. The Coast Guard decided against using grappling hooks and prepared a diver to go down at the sight of the oil mark.
From the Report of Search, dated December 16, 1942, Army Air Forces concluded:
It is believed that the crew or part of the crew of the aircraft had made a successful parachute jump. This decision was reached because of the good condition of the bodies, which were found, and the CAP (Civil Air Patrol) report mentioned above under Thursday, November 19, 1942.
The duration of the flight was probably about 55 minutes. The take off as indicated above was made at 1810 E.W.T. Lieutenant Dees’ watch was stopped at 1905 E.W.T. It is not considered possible for the watch to have run twelve hours after contact with the water.
It is not considered probable that the pilot could have been lost in 55 minutes, especially with approximately eight (8) hours of fuel aboard.
It further stated that Vail was charged with the accident, but listed the cause of the accident “unknown.”
The Fort Myers News-Press began to follow the breaking story of the missing B-26 bomber on November 18. The incident did not make the front headline, but did make the front page with a small headline that read “Another Bomber Is Missing Here.” In addition to reporting on the missing aircraft, the publication listed that Vail was from Macomb, Il, Dees from Burkaw, NC, Miles from Long Island, NY, Kittiko from McKeesport, PA, Newton from Nashville, TN, and Treat from Marblehead, MA.
Two days later there was a follow up piece that reported “more than 100 planes have engaged in the search for this bomber during the past three days.” Officials at this point had notified family members of the missing crewmen “that they are presumed to be lost.”
On November 21, the headline along the front page was “2 Bodies Off Lost Bomber Found Floating in Gulf.” The bodies of pilot Vail and co-pilot Dees were found 15 miles west of Naples. No sighting of the plane was made and it was presumed the other four crewmen were in the plane. The search continued and the bodies of Vail and Dees were taken to the Spooner and Engelhardt funeral home.
By November 28 the search had been called and most likely this tragic story would have ended until treasurer hunters came into Southwest Florida in 1990.
The Search for Cuban Gold
Tom O’Brien, a treasure hunter was in search of gold when he came to the waters of this area. Rumor had it that during the Castro revolution (1953-1959) four B-26 bombers supposedly smuggled out valuable amounts of gold and one of those bombers was swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. O’Brien and his crew did in fact discover a B-26 bomber in the water 70-feet below, but it was not one from the Castro revolution.
Turned out he found the aircraft that was piloted by Donald Vail nearly 60 years ago. This changed O’Brien’s course and instead of being on a quest for gold, he formed, along with his crew, the Underwater Historical Explorations (UHE) and set out to exonerate these men from WWII. His main purpose was to change the official report of “pilot charged with accident” to mechanical failure, which was common to B-26’s during that time.
Captain Tim Wicburg, who works with O’Brien, shared with a reporter that “I was driving the boat and saw a big mark of fish: I fished there all summer,” he said. “One day, I caught a piece of a plane. Then I started diving it and found the plane.”
The crew had discovered the top-turret twin .50-caliber machine guns, the aircraft’s two engines and the wing. The fuselage was not found.
This also brought about closure to the families of the four men who were never found. Abigail Kittiko Casey, sister of William Kittiko told a report in 2008 at a memorial service “we got a telegram saying Bill was missing. Then we got telegrams saying they were searching. Then we got a death certificate.”
What Happened That Night On November 16, 1942
Fred Dees, nephew of Lt. Fred Dees, wrote that “There was nothing that showed clearly but in some of the radio equipment there were some numbers that were used to trace the plane. It was determined from the radio equipment that the plane was in fact the B-26 that Uncle Fred had been co-piloting when it crashed. The engines were found some distance from the wings and it was apparent that the plane had gone through a violent crash and had not just landed on the water.”
An investigation by pilot and aircraft specialist Kevin McGregor showed that “Debris was scattered over a quarter mile; the right wing was badly damaged (the left wing was not); the right propeller was not attached to the engine (left propeller and engine were intact). This all indicated that the plane crashed at a shallow angle, at high speed, with the right wing hitting the water first.”
Vail had 144 hours of flying experience, 95 of which were in the bomber. Shortly after takeoff he radioed saying the six-man crew was bailing out, and only Vail and Dees were found with parachutes.
From the official Army Air Forces report, the weather was overcast at 3,500 feet, and cloudy at 5,000-6,000 feet.
During the investigation, McGregor turned to Edmond Clemenzi, a veteran from WWII and a former pilot of bombers. Clemenzi, who flew 72 missions as a B-26 bombardier said “the pitch probably changed in flight when a ground wire from the prop to the motor that controls pitch vibrated loose. . .That happened once when we were flying out of Lakeland over the Gulf in 1942. . .There was a switch that overrode the automatic switch. . . The pilots should have known it, but they didn’t because they didn’t have the hours.”
Captain Jon “Hammerhead” Hazebaker with UHE, believed “the prop moved backward while the plane was in the air, causing the blades to slam repeatedly into the engine.”
71 Years After the War
This year commemorates the 71st anniversary of the war coming to end. Perhaps the next time you’re walking along the beach, give a glance due southwest out over the water and remember that there are four service men out there who never made it home. May we thank them and may they rest in peace.
Southwest Florida historian T. M. Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.