USS Wasp (CV-18)
|Pilot Lt. William Querine Punnell, O-085884 USNR acting C. O. VF-14 (MIA / KIA) Flandreau, SD
Crashed July 25, 1944 at 4:10pm
Built by Grumman in Bethpage, New York as Model G-50. Delivered to the U. S. Navy (USN) as F6F-3 Hellcat bureau number 41881.
Assigned to USS Wasp (CV-18) to squadron VF-14. No known nickname or nose art.
On July 25, 1944 took off from USS Wasp (CV-18) at 1:58pm piloted by Lt. William Q. Punnell on a fighter sweep over Babelthuap Island (Babeldaob) and Arakabesan Island (Ngerekebesang) in Palau (Belau) as part of "Operation Snapshot".
The formation of sixteen Hellcats was divided into four divisions. Two divisions led by Lt. Punnell and Lt. Knight to flew top cover to intercept any enemy fighters while the other two divisions led by Lt. Garwood and Lt. Standring were armed with 350 pound bombs with instant fuses were on a bombing and strafing missions. One Hellcat aborted the mission.
Inbound to the target, the formation flew low over the sea until 30 miles from the target, then accelerated to full speed and climbed to 8,000' and approached Babelthuap Island (Babeldaob) from the east and observed no enemy aircraft in the air. The two divisions led by Lt. Garwood and Lt. Standring began bombing and strafing Babelthaup Airfield attacking three parked aircraft and anti-aircraft positions. The formation experienced heavy and medium anti-aircraft fire and performed evasive jinking maneuvers.
Afterwards, the formation climbed to 8,000' and circled over Arakabesan Island (Ngerekebesang) to strafe both Arakabesan Seaplane Base (Southwest Seaplane Base) and Arakabesan Seaplane Base (Northeast Seaplane Base) attacking moored seaplanes including 5-6 floatplanes on the ramps of both bases and a moored H8K Emily off the northeast base. At first, anti-aircraft fire was meager but during the next to strafing runs increased in accuracy and intensity.
After completing their bombing, Lt. Garwood's division climbed to relieve the other two divisions flying top cover led by Lt. Punnell and Lt. Knight allowing them to circle back to the east to make strafing attacks against anti-aircraft guns on Arakabesan Island (Ngerekebesang).
Both divisions experienced intense and accurate heavy and medium anti-aircraft fire. This Hellcat sustained a direct hit to the tail that knocked it completely off. Damaged, this aircraft crashed into the sea roughly 300' off the northern end of the Arakabesan Seaplane Base (Northeast Seaplane Base). This Hellcat disappeared without exploding or burning nor was Punnell observed to have bailed out.
When he failed to return, he was officially listed as Missing In Action (MIA) and his loss attributed to 40mm anti-aircraft fire. Also lost was F6F Hellcat 41821 (rescued).
Punnell was officially declared dead on July 26, 1945. He earned the Air Medal and Purple Heart, posthumously. Punnell is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery.
Between 2004-2014, Bent Prop searched for this Hellcat.
On March 28, 2014 a team from Project Recover including Bent Prop with staff and students from Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of Delaware located the wreckage of this Hellcat in roughly 80' of water, four days after locating a TBM Avenger. On March 31, 2014 a flag ceremony was conducted over the crash site with a U. S. and Palau flag. Afterwards, the site was reported to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).
Recovery of Remains
On June 30, 2017 the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that Punnell was identified, interment services are pending.
Marian Claire Punnell (wife of Punnell)
NARA USN VF-14 Aircraft Action Report, July 25, 1944 pages 1-5
(Page 2) "1. VF-14
Lt. W. Q. Punnell - 40mm AA - Missing In Action"
(Page 4A of 5) "About half way down, Lt. Punell was in the lead and the tail of of his plane was observed to receive a direct hit, knocking it completely off. He kept right on going and crashed in the water about 300' off the northern seaplane base. His plane disappeared without exploding or burning. This occurred at 1610."
NARA USN VF-14 Aircraft Action Report, July 25, 1944 pages 5A-5C "Survival Intelligence: An iron angel survives fire and water to fight (many) another day Lt. F. E. Standring's personal story (statement July 28, 1944)"
"We encountered very intense and extremely accurate AA, both heavy and medium. Bill Punnell our acting CO, got the tail of his plane shot off during his dive on this attack, and went straight in."
NARA "Fighting Squadron Fourteen - Roster of Officers Missing"
Navy Serial Number Search Results - F6F-3 Hellcat 41881
USN Overseas Aircraft Loss List July 1944 - F6F Hellcat 41881 pilot LT W. A. Pannell [sic]
American Battle Monuments Commission (AMBC) - William Q. Punnell
FindAGrave - Lt William Q Punnell (tablets of the missing)
FoxNews "Group hunts Pacific jungles for remains of WWII fighters, planes" April 3, 2014
"Four days later Colmler and other members of BentProp’s diving team found the second wreck site in 80 feet of water. The wreckage was from a Grumman F4F [sic] Hellcat."
CNET "How BentProp and undersea robots found long-lost WWII bombers" April 20, 2014
(Photo) On March 31, 2014, BentProp Project team leader Pat Scannon opened a flag ceremony directly above the wreckage of an American F6F Hellcat shot down by the Japanese in Palau in 1944."
Within nine days of starting the 2014 expedition, the combined teams found the Avenger. Four days later, they discovered an F6F Hellcat fighter that BentProp had been seeking for at least 10 years."
BentProp "P-MAN XVI Update # 16 - The team eats another bear: an F6F Hellcat we've been seeking for over a decade" March 28, 2014 via Wayback Machine June 2, 2016
Ocean News & Technology "Returning From the Deep: WW2 Aircraft Discovered off the Coast of Palau" May 2014
Scripps "New Technology Enables Historic Finds" November 6, 2014
"In the case of the two planes found last spring, a TBM Avenger and an F6F Hellcat, BentProp had been searching for them for nearly 10 years. It took the REMUS-mounted instruments to see them at a depth of more than 100 feet, hidden from plain view by the persistent murk of the seafloor."
Science Daily "Locating World War II airmen lost in waters off Palau"
November 10, 2014
"The group narrowed their search area and in March 2014, the AUVs found the remainder of the Avenger bomber, which had been missing in action for 70 years. A few days later, sonar images helped reveal a second aircraft, an F6F Hellcat, in a second location."
DPAA News Release "Sailor Killed During World War II Accounted For (Punnell)" June 30, 2017
"On July 25, 1944, Punnell was the acting commanding officer of the VF-14 Fighter Squadron, departing from the aircraft carrier USS Wasp in his F6F-3 “Hellcat” with several other aircraft on a strafing mission against Japanese targets on the islands of the Republic of Palau. The mission was to strafe the Babelthaup (now Babeldaob) Airbase and the two Arakabesan Seaplane bases. Punnell’s aircraft encountered intense antiaircraft fire over the islands of Palau. His Hellcat was in the lead position when the tail of the plane was seen taking a direct hit. He crashed approximately 300 feet from the northern seaplane base, and his aircraft sank on impact. The other pilots on the mission did not witness Punnell bail out from his aircraft. Interment services are pending."
Thanks to Katherine Rasdorf for additional research and analysis.
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September 27, 2017