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  PBY-5 Catalina Bureau Number 2389 Side Number 23-P-15
USN
VP-23

Pilot Lt. Maurice S. Smith, O-081683 (MIA / KIA) CA
Crew  Ens. Edward W. Riepl, O-112826 (MIA / KIA) KS
Crew  CAP Clifford M. Pindell, 2581607 (MIA / KIA) MD
Crew  AMM1 James W. Pearson, 3821727 (MIA / KIA) CA
Crew  ARM2 William Riley Pipes, 3564985 (MIA / KIA) OK
Crew  ARM1 Merlin Jack Rich, 3113016 (MIA / KIA) MI
Crew  AMM1 William H. Osborne, 3759454 (MIA / KIA) VA
Crew  AMM2 Vernon H. Stolz, 3113012 (MIA / KIA) MI

Crashed  August 6, 1942

Aircraft History
One of its engines came from a VP-12 PBY destroyed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This engine was salvaged and installed on this aircraft.

This PBY was piloted by Frank Fisler from VP-51 during Battle of Midway and rescued several downed flyers. A portion of it may actually be in John Ford's film on Midway as Frank is identified there. the photos include it passing USS Yorktown in the AM and acting as guard in the PM when she is being abandoned and LCDR.

After Midway, side number 23-P-15 was applied, and was deployed to the South Pacific.

Mission History
This Catalina took off from Espiritu Santo on a search mission for missing PBY Catalina from VP-91 lost on August 6, 1942, but failed to find it.

Wreckage
The wreck had been found in early 1994. The only substantial piece of wreckage was an outer wing panel ripped off when it struck a tree causing the plane to crash. In addition, the propellor of one engine was "feathered" so they were flying on one only at the time. Along with the poor weather, this could explain the cause of the crash.

Recovery
A team from US Army CILHI visited the crash site and recovered the remains.

Memorials
The entire crew was officially declared dead August 7, 1943. All are memorialized on the the tablets of the missing at Honolulu Cemetery (Punchbowl).

A group burial of the remaing remains is buried at Arlington Cemetery, Section 60 Site 7822 (including remains of Smith, Riepl, Pindell, Pearson, Pipes) the date of death is incorrectly listed as August 7, 1943. Also buried at Arlington Cemetery individually are Riepl at Section 60 Site 7823 and Osborne at Section 59 Site 369.

Rich is bured at Crestwood Cemetery in Michigan. Stolz is buried at Eastlawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Michigan.

Jim Sawruk adds:
"Let me say that a lot of people were involved who helped solve this mystery and confirm my theory about who they were. It took several years including DNA matching. A friend of mine had seen a segment about this wreck on the evening news and he had taped it. I reviewed it upon his arrival and immediately realized that it was a PBY wing panel with the old red star in it. In addition, no wheels or landing gear were obvious so I suspected it was a true flyingboat. However, I did not get real excited yet as many PBYs had been lost in the Pacific. A few days later, a friend in the Navy Department contacted me about this wreck as he knew that I was the "PBY Guy" to contact in this matter. They did not have a clue of who this lost crew might be! I then started exploring possibilities.

I had some ideas of what it might be but nothing concrete. Very little was known with no surviving BuNo. or squadron markings. However, the wing panel built by Brewster under Contract 70496 (a major subcontractor to Consolidated) yielded that it was for a PBY-5. This narrowed it to Bureau Numbers 2289 to 2455 inclusive. Also, there was no evidence of any combat damage with what little remained.

Narrowing the field definitely got me excited as some of these were operating in the early part of the Guadalcanal Campaign in which my father was one of many thousands who fought there.

I quickly narrowed in done to a few possibilities and requested some records from Japan to say yes or no to some of on my list. The crew identities were more complicated but being familiar with USN casualties (I am an ex-USN Officer), I started constructing a series of matrixes to eliminate some and include others. After a couple of days of research, I had it narrowed down to about a dozen individuals. They thought they had 5 to 7 sets of remains while I suspected either 7 or 8 men!

Anyway, I went to Washington D.C. to brief them on what I suspected and they listened intently. I asked them to check with the USN Casualty Office in the Pentagon Annex at the time to either confirm or deny my reconstructed list of 8 men from VP-23 as I had already confirmed the 7 missing from a VP-91 machine. In a few days they got back to me and confirmed my reconstruction! This was great but told the young very excited fellow that does NOT confirm it is them.

The serach was in their hands and also asked them if either engine plate had somehow survived. It took awhile but they found one and the engine number area was all rusted. However, they gave it to the FBI in Hawaii so that a scanning electron microscope could be used and they obtained a number!. It turned out to be quite a surprise as the engine came from a wrecked VP-12 PBY destroyed at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Obviously, to me at least, it had been salvaged and installed on this aircraft.

By this, my IJN documents had arrived and I was able to eliminate the VP-91 crew as they had been shotdown over water. This HAD TO BE the VP-23 machine that disappeared on 6 August. They had gone out looking for them at the time but did not find anything and now the invasion was on. They quickly deployed to support it and they were forgotten for now.

With other records I have from interviews conducted over a few decades, I was able to figure out that this aircraft was 23-P-15 Bu No. 2389. It is the same machine that Frank Fisler from VP-51 flew during the Battle of Midway and in which he rescued several downed flyers. In addition, there are a few Midway photos showing it in service and a portion of it may actually be in John Ford's film on Midway as Frank is identified there. the photos include it passing USS Yorktown in the AM and acting as guard in the PM when she is being abandoned and LCDR. Leslie & wingman are ditching near CA Astoria if I remember correctly.

A Pentagon Commander eventually contacted me to confirm by DNA testing that they were who I said they were from day one. He was excited and thanked me. After a few years, all of the families were found and some of the remains went home or were buried at Arlington seperately. The remains that could not be identified were interred in a common grave at Arlington and marked with all 8 names. My son and I attended and I was glad I did. I feel it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life to help bring some closure to them."

References
Thanks to Jim Sawruk for historical and identification information
ABMC Lists the date of death of the crew as August 7, 1943 incorrectly

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Last Updated
January 1, 2014

 

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