We aren’t the first to find or dive these two wrecks, but I believe that no information has previously been publicly released about them. Captain Ray Artnz first located and identified the wrecks back in the 2000s but the location isn’t publicly available. On Thursday July 1st, I went with DJ Mansfield and Tyler Stalter aboard the Sundiver Express with Captain Kyaa for a short trip south to investigate and document both wreck sites.
At about 2pm January 18th, 1944 two planes had a mid-air collision over the ocean off the beaches of Southern California. One was a Lockheed P-38H Lightning (42-66943) piloted by 2nd Lt. Claude L. Chamberlain from the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and the other was a F4U Corsair piloted by 2nd Lt. William D. Livingston from the Marine Corps.
The rumor is that the two were involved in an “un-authorized” dogfight. I’m not sure we will ever know the truth. Chamberlain bailed out and was picked up without any injuries. Unfortunately, Livingston was found the next day and didn’t survive the crash.
UPDATE: A fellow diver (Steve Lawson) had a copy of the accident report for the F4U Corsair. It very much corroborated the testosterone-fueled dogfight story.
There was a typed section that read:
Midair collision with Army P-38. Army pilot bailout out – rescued. On returning from training flight, this plane was struck by a P-38. The crash was observed by two other members of the division. The board finds that a P-38 made a pass at a division of 3 F4Us. Pulling up under the 2nd man of the division (Lt. Livingston) causing an air collision at 5,000 feet. Army pilot bailed out and was picked up by USCG. Navy pilot went down with his plane.Official Navy Accident Report
However, in addition, there was a handwritten note that is a bit hard to read, but it adds a lot of interesting color:
This section of F4Us had previously engaged in unauthorized combat tactics with a couple of P-38s and were returning to field when collision took place. The 2 other Marine pilots were disciplined.Official Navy Accident Report
Basically, the F4Us had picked a fight with the P-38s (Navy vs Army) and one of the P-38s returned for some payback.
The P-38 Lightning is a single seater fighter aircraft with an interesting design. It has two booms and a central beam between them and doesn’t look like a typical fighter aircraft. The US Army Air Corps called for a plane capable of flying 360 mph and climbing rapidly to high altitudes. It was designed by the infamous aircraft engineer and designer Kelly Johnson after he calculated that only a twin engine aircraft could meet those parameters. Kelly later became the first team leader of the famed Lockheed Skunk Works and later designed the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird.
Given the design, it was nicknamed the “fork-tailed devil” by the Germans and “two planes, one pilot” by the Japanese during WWII. It was a very effective fighter and was also used in aerial reconnaissance. The P-38 is powered by twin Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engines with turbo-superchargers (you can see them in the photo below on the top of the engine boom about halfway back). The guns and armament for the P-38 are in the nose of the aircraft (more on that later).
One interesting fact about the P-38 is that it factored heavily into Operation Vengeance to kill the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He gave the order to attack Pearl Harbor from the IJN Nagato flagship which is now 200 feet deep in Bikini Atoll and I’m scheduled to dive in 2022 after many Covid-related delays and a problem-plagued first trip to Bikini.
I have previously dove a P-38 off of Torrey Pines but that plane was much more intact than the debris field that resulted from the mid-air collision.
The Corsair is, of course, a very well known fighter aircraft from WW2. I’ve had number of posts about Corsairs in the past and it still one of my favorite aircraft ever. It is almost the anthesis of the P-38 — small, light, single engine aircraft. It still amazes me how far back the pilot sits from the wings and engine.
Both wreck sites are essentially debris fields which makes sense given that there was a mid-air collision involved. There aren’t a lot of very evident features but if you look closely enough at each of the sites, you can identify particular characteristics of each aircraft. This is part of the fun detective work. Of course, going into the dives, Ray had already identified each aircraft, but it is fun to find those clues and breadcrumbs and document them.
In addition, we have ordered the accident reports and Tyler found entries in the war diaries to add to the evidence to confirm the wreck identifications.
Photos – F4U Corsair
We dove the F4U Corsair first as it is the deeper of the two wrecks. As usual, Kyaa place the drop line 5-10 feet from the debris field and we had really unbelievable visibility on this dive. I could have spent hours on the site. We also had some warmer water on deco which was nice. Below are some photos and some identifiable characteristics of the airplane.
Photos – P-38 Lightning
The P-38, similar to the F4U Corsair, is also a debris field. There are some obvious structures such as one of the props, the tires, the guns from the nose of the aircraft, and the oil coolers. I believe that we also found the crossbar between the two booms. We are relatively certain that parts of the wreck were salvaged since there is no sign of the engines and yet there is a prop and oil coolers.
The P-38 aircraft had two oil coolers for each engine. You can see in this schematic from the flight operation manual the different shapes of them. The one in the far right photo has the three round disks that you can see in the one on the right in the diagram.
I think the pictures below are of the back part of the canopy on the P-38:
As mentioned, the guns on the P-38 are all in the front nose of the aircraft which is unusual. The “normal” configuration would be for the guns to be mounted on the wings with firing patterns that converge. In the case of the P-38, the guns pointed straight ahead and were therefore able to hit targets much farther away. The standard configuration was four 50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns and one Hispano 20mm autocannon.
They are on the wreck site along with a much of random 50 cal rounds.
One of the most distinctive features of the wreck debris is one of the props. We didn’t find the second prop, but here are some pictures of Tyler and DJ by the propeller along with some standalone pictures. One blade of the prop is in the sand, one is sticking straight up but badly bent. You can only see the bend from one angle.
We’d like to give a big thanks to Ray Artnz for giving us the privilege to dive these wrecks which are largely unknown and not dived. We would also like to thank Kyaa for getting us there and giving us perfect down line placements on both wrecks.
Conversations with Ray Arntz