- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - All it took was a small picture of an airplane in the Tulsa World to launch a lengthy, exhaustive 17-year search for it.

“This was literally a needle in a haystack search,” said Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray, who has researched The Tulsamerican for more than 15 years and was instrumental in helping find it. “All I can say is that it was meant to be. We were meant to find this plane. It was inevitable. Everything happens for a reason.

“That’s the only way to explain it because the odds of us ever finding it were astronomical.”

Despite those odds, a recovery of some possible artifacts from the wreckage of The Tulsamerican, a legendary World War II warbird, will be undertaken by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in conjunction with the U.S. Navy sometime in late spring or early summer.

Woods Hole is credited with a lengthy list of oceanographic research, science and recovery; a team from the institute discovered the wreckage of the RMS Titanic in 1985, the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/2m7A9WM ) reported.

Some recovered pieces from the wreckage of The Tulsamerican, the last B-24 bomber built in Tulsa near the end of World War II, may soon have a homecoming at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

“That would really be something,” said Gray, who started his search to find this historic piece of Tulsa’s role in World War II back in 2001. “Honestly, it was a longshot from the start. Here I was sitting in Tulsa asking people to literally find a needle in a haystack.

“But I love history. I’m a Tulsa guy, and I especially love Tulsa history. I love planes and history of planes. When I saw that picture in the Tulsa World, it was unquestioned that I would do this. I wondered what happened to this plane. I wondered if anyone had found it. I wondered what happened to the real people who were on this real plane who had died on this plane.”

In 2003, Gray’s attention turned to finding The Tulsamerican when he began emailing Croatian divers who were diving on American aircraft wreckage in the Adriatic Sea.

The plane was discovered by the divers over Memorial Day weekend in 2010.

“We had some information from the survivors, so we had an idea where it was near (island of Vis, Croatia),” said Gray. “We were working with dive shops, and I had sent them as much information and pictures as I could.

“I remember the day we got the call that they thought they had found it. They did more dives until we had positively identified it. It was really a remarkable moment for us.”

An effort to do research, recover and return some pieces of the wreckage to Tulsa for display at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum has been underway for nearly seven years. A small display of Tulsamerican photos is currently being exhibited at the museum.

Recovering some artifacts and getting them preserved and returned to Tulsa is a huge effort.

“It involves a lot of careful evaluation and then keeping the artifacts wet even in transport back to the United States,” said Gray. “It has involved a lot of work to photograph and map out the wreckage.”

Megan Lickliter-Mundon, a doctoral candidate in the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M; University, has done high-resolution 3-D mapping of The Tulsamerican wreckage.

“We’ve got a lot of information,” said Gray. “It is near Vis, Croatia, in about 120 feet of water. It is upside down. And the plane is in two pieces.

“However, it is remarkable for how much of it is intact.”

Three of the 10-man Tulsamerican crew were killed in the crash in 1944. The last of the seven survivors of the wreck, Val R. Miller of Oklahoma City, died Jan. 16 at age 94.

The Tulsamerican was the last B-24 Liberator bomber to be built at the assembly line of the Douglas aircraft plant in Tulsa.

It is believed that about 962 B-24s were built at the Douglas plant in Tulsa, though some believe it was 952.

The parts of the plane were built in Michigan at a Ford plant and then shipped to Tulsa for assembly.

“It was a huge deal to people in Tulsa,” said Gray. “Once I became interested in this plane, it was amazing how much information was out there in this city about The Tulsamerican.

“During the last 17 years, I have met so many people who had grandparents of cousins or friends who worked in that plant and on that plane.”

In fact, their names were painted onto the plane and were on a scroll under the captain’s seat.

The scroll is among the items that already have a home at the small Tulsamerican exhibit at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

“Obviously, if possible, we would like to bring some items back to the museum after this recovery effort,” said Gray. “At this point we’ll just have to see how it goes later in the spring.”

Employees at Douglas helped pay for the plane through the purchase of bonds, named it, painted its nose art, signed their names to the plane and held raffles to see who would fly aboard it during test flights.

“It was a big deal when that last plane rolled off the assembly line,” said Gray.

Construction on The Tulsamerican was finished in the summer of 1944. The plane was assigned to the 461st Bomb Group of the 765th Bomb Squadron, part of the 15th Air Force, in Italy.

The plane, through newspaper reports at the time, became sort of a local Tulsa celebrity. Tulsans followed its missions and short-lived career near the end of World War II.

The plane was shot down by German fighters after a bombing run over German-occupied Poland; it crashed into the Adriatic Sea on Dec. 17, 1944.

Miller told the Tulsa World in 2010 that the plane was returning from a bombing run on refineries at Odertal, Poland. Miller, a former state legislator and attorney, said three of the four engines on the plane were shot out and the fuel tank and hydraulics were also gone.

He said the crew tried to get the plane back to its base in Italy but they eventually decided to ditch it in the Adriatic Sea between Croatia and Italy.

In 2010 divers were able to lift the crumpled cockpit so that they could see the plane’s data plate identifying it as The Tulsamerican.

“I’m very excited because we’re getting closer to possible seeing in person some pieces from this famous plane returned home here to Tulsa,” said Gray. “Being a Tulsa guy, I just love Tulsa history. This has been quite an adventure.”

___

Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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