SBD-3 Dauntless (San Diego — 195 fsw)

A tragic day

August 24th, 1943 was a beautiful, clear, and typical sunny day in San Diego.

US Navy radio man third class Richard Harold Moore’s wife had arrived a few days earlier and they were on their delayed honeymoon. Everything should have been right in Richard’s world at 10:30am that day, but it was not.

On that morning, he was in the backseat of SBD-3 Dauntless #4563 with US Navy Captain William Parks Jr. in the front seat flying the plane. They were on a routine training mission and had let out a target “sleeve” about 2000 feet which was on a cable attached to a winch on the belly of the plane.

Something went horribly wrong after the target sleeve was launched.

According to witnesses, the plane went into a left turn which was followed by a spin to the right. In the official Navy report, Captain Parks “effected partial recovery” but the plane spun back to the left which then ended with a high velocity impact into the Pacific Ocean about 4 miles off of Pacific Beach. The plane burst into flames and sank immediately.

Rescue crews were dispatched and found debris from the target sleeve and an oxygen tank but never found either Richard Moore or William Parks and the plane was never found or recovered…

The wreck

… Until seventy six years later.

Tyler Stalter was diving an unknown target with his buddy Dan Jackson. On the first dive, before Tyler had identified the wreck, he said that he “could feel that something bad had happened.” He just knew and could tell by the scattered debris field that whatever this new site was, it was the result of a violent event.

Tyler Stalter first found the wreck site in late 2019 and then started the investigative work to identify it. After a lot of research, he identified the type of aircraft based on the radial engine and those round holes in the air brakes that are so distinctive. It also had a very unique winch attached to the bottom of the aircraft…

Based on the location and and searching through military records, he was able to triangulate the actual plane.

Sometimes wrecks are easily identified because they are still intact. You can see the “shape” of the object and know what it is. Other times, as is the case with this wreck, there is debris scattered about and it is hard to pick out the features and put the puzzle back together.

The Dauntless

The Douglas SBD Dauntless was a naval scout plane and dive bomber that had a big impact in WW2, specifically at Midway. The SBD stands for “Scout Bomber Douglas” but also earned it the nickname “Slow But Deadly” after inflicting heavy damage against the Japanese naval fleet at Midway. The dive brakes on the Dauntless are very unique and allow you to very quickly identify the aircraft.

Photos: Dauntless flying over the USS Enterprise with the USS Saratoga in the background (Left), Dauntless Air Brakes (Right Top), SBD-3 Dauntless flying over San Diego (Part of Utility Squadron Seven VJ-7)

During my ill-fated trip to Bikini Atoll in 2019, I was able to dive quite a few Dauntless aircraft that had been stripped of their engines and props and dropped off the back of aircraft carriers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean near Ebeye Island. It is a very storied airplane and I was fortunate to get a chance to dive sites with so many of them.

There is a very distinct difference between diving a ship or plane that was purposefully sank and one that crashed or sank as the result of a crash or other event. A wreck diver can instantly sense and see a difference.

The Dive

I have wanted to dive the SBD in San Diego for a long time and recently wrote about it. The opportunity to dive a site and to look back in time is very compelling. I wanted to see if I could identify what happened. One theory is that the streamer target that they released got caught in the rear stabilizer and caused the problem. Could I identify that?

We had some “hiccups” on the first dive and didn’t find the target after descending for 4-5 minutes, searching for 10 minutes and then doing our mandatory deco obligation of about 25 minutes. Finding a wreck site that is 200 feet deep, 5 miles out into the ocean, and has a size of maybe 15 feet by 30 feet is no easy task.

Undeterred, we pulled up the down line and decided to wait for an hour on a surface interval before trying again. The weather was turning and we heard that a 1pm small craft advisory was issued.

On the second try, we found the wreck. I dropped down the line and when we hit 195 feet deep or so, I saw fish to the left and instantly knew that we had found it. Fish tend to congregate on wrecks and pictures that Tyler had showed me prior to our dive had a lot of fish.

This time of year, diving in Southern California can be hit-and-miss. In winter the visibility can be really amazing and then a day later it can be 5 feet. We had been planning to dive the wreck for quite a while but conditions and schedules wouldn’t align. On this dive, the wreck site visibility was very “hazy.” There have been a number of storms lately and there was a lot of kelp and other ocean debris that had gathered at the wreck site which made photography challenging.

Tyler was diving open circuit and left the site about 5 minutes before I did. That 5 minutes cost me about 25 extra minutes in decompression. It was a cold, lonely deco but definitely worth it. Below are some pictures of the wreck site. I had really hoped to get enough pictures to build a 3D photogrammetry model, but given the poor visibility, I’m not sure that is going to be possible.

Pictures

The airplane is upside down with the belly of of the plane facing up. The winch for the “target” streamer is prominent in the center of the wreck. There is a pilot seat clearly visible off to the side. The radial engine is also clearly identifiable. Because of the recent storms and large swells, there is a lot of kelp around the wreck site.

Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 Engine

The engine on the SBD was a 9 cylinder radial engine developed by Curtiss-Wright. The engine is a very prominent feature on this wreck. As is typical in a lot of airplane engines on wrecks, the heads have eroded and you can see the pistons on some of the cylinders.

Fuel cell (note that in the SBD-3, they introduced a “self-sealing” version)
The winch that was attached to the underside of the aircraft and trailed the target streamer
The distinctive holes of the air brakes
Pilot’s seat
Oil cooler
Underside / belly in the middle of the plane between the wings

Historical Articles

Tyler had done a lot of research when he initially found the wreck, including finding the newspaper articles at the time of the accident and digging up the official Navy accident report. They have been immensely helpful in writing this post. I’ve included them in a photo gallery below.

Acknowledgements

A big thanks to Tyler Stalter for finding the wreck initially, doing the research to identify it and for taking me to dive the wreck. Other than Tyler and Dan, I’m the only other person to have seen the site.

And, of course, a big thanks to Captain Lora and divemaster Chris at Marissa Charters for getting us to the dive site and keeping us safe! It is always such a pleasure to dive with them.

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