Wreck of fighter plane may be of WWII pilot missing in action

Albany, New York: Wreckage on the ocean floor near a Japanese island must be from a fighter-bomber that crashed in 1945 with an American pilot who is still listed as missing in action, according to a World War II researcher who recently visited the crash site.

The aircraft, lying on coral reef about 21 metres down, is the same type of F4U-4 Corsair that 2nd Lieutenant John McGrath was flying when he crashed off Iriomote Jima in July 1945, researcher Justin Taylan said.

A scuba diver swims near the left wing wreckage of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter aircraft off Sonai, Iriomote Jima, in Japan.Credit:Justin Taylan

"This is the only American aircraft lost at that precise spot," said Taylan, the founder of Pacific Wrecks, an organisation that researches and catalogues WWII crashes.

McGrath, of Troy, New York, is still officially listed by the US military as one of nearly 73,000 American MIAs from WWII. He was 20 when his aircraft disappeared.

Taylan explored the wreckage during a scuba dive in March, along with a Japanese man who discovered the wreck in 1987.

Missing in action: USMC 2nd Lieutenant John McGrath.Credit:Justin Taylan

Both wings, the engine and other parts lie approximately 275 metres from shore, a location where American pilots said they saw the plane go down.

Although no identifying markings are visible after 74 years in sea water, the coral-encrusted wreckage clearly is from the newer version of the Corsair that McGrath's Marine Corps aviation unit was flying at the end of the war, Taylan said.

Taylan, a former Pentagon contractor hired to research and find WWII crash sites in Papua New Guinea, became interested in McGrath's story in 2017, when he was contacted by the son of one of the missing pilot's old high school classmates.

After researching US military records, Taylan enlisted the help of Kuentai, a Japanese group that searches WWII battlefields in the Pacific for the remains of Japanese and American servicemen.

In March, Taylan travelled to Iriomote Jima, 440 kilometres south-west of Okinawa. With Kuentai's help, he met island residents who witnessed McGrath's plane crash into the sea on July 21, 1945, during a bombing raid on Japanese defences in the village of Sonai.

Japanese elder Kinsei Ishigaki points to the crash site off the coast of Sonai, Iriomote Jima.Credit:Justin Taylan

Japanese newspapers reported in 1988 that local officials and the US consul general to Okinawa attended a memorial honouring remains pulled from the crash site. At the time, it was not known whose remains they were. Press coverage included a photo of the consul general standing over an American flag-draped box said to contain the remains.

Emails and phone messages requesting comment were left with officials from the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the Pentagon office tasked with recovering the nation's missing war dead. Officials said they couldn't immediately provide information on McGrath's case and whether his remains were recovered.

As many families of missing veterans have, McGrath's has provided DNA samples to the agency in the hopes of finding a match, according to one of McGrath's nephews, Jack Law, a 74-year-old Vietnam War combat veteran and retired New York Army National Guard colonel.

Taylan says airplane wreckage on the ocean floor near the island is from the fighter-bomber flown by John McGrath.Credit:Justin Taylan

"We're aggressively bringing closure on this one way or another," said Law. "We're not done, but we're close."


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