70th Geospatial Eng. Co. plays integral role in locating aircraft’s crash coordinates, pieces
2nd Lt. Kyle Suchomski, 65th Engineer Battalion, 130th Eng. Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — At 1 a.m., June 23, 1945, Ensign Harold DeMoss piloted an F6F-3 aircraft, from Naval Air Station Barbers Point, on a night-tactics training flight near Oahu’s North Shore.
DeMoss lost control of the plane and crash-landed in the Kahuku Mountains.
It took almost three days for the recovery party to break through the dense vegetation and reach the badly burned wreckage. The pilot’s remains were interred at the crash site, and over time, the aircraft’s exact location was lost in the rugged, overgrown terrain.
DeMoss’ surviving family members sought to recover his remains and bring them home, enlisting the help of the Hawaiian Aviation Preservation Society, or HAPS, a nonprofit group that works to assist the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Command, commonly referred to as JPAC.
Scott Gier, HAPS search team leader, was first to begin coordinating recovery effort and led a series of excursions to the Kahukus. The methodical and tedious recovery process began with a map analysis.
The search team discovered that the original accident report’s grid coordinates were from a 1943 topographical map. These old maps, while effective for their time, are perilously imprecise by today’s standards.
The HAPS team determined it needed to rectify the coordinates from the 1945 Department of the Navy accident report to reflect more recent datum. For this task, the search team turned to the 70th Geospatial Engineer Company, 65th Eng. Battalion, 130th Eng. Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command.
HAPS contacted Chief Warrant Officer 2 Erik Reid, topographical analyst, 70th Geospatial Eng. Co., and asked him to look at a set of coordinates from the 1945 report. After digging through the archives, he found the original 1943 topographical map. The coordinates from the vintage map were approximately 500 meters off from those on modern military maps.
“In the Kahukus, 500 meters is a huge area,” Reid said. “I had to tighten the team’s search radius. So, we digitally scanned the map and used (geographic information system) software to overlay it onto satellite imagery of the area.”
Using software and satellite technology, Reid was able to create an almost three-dimensional map of the crash site.
“I felt like a geospatial detective,” Reid remarked, “Almost every key feature, every ridgeline or valley in the crash report was on our model. It was really exciting.”
With the new map and coordinates, Reid provided the HAPS search team with a much more precise recovery tool. Despite the reconciled grid coordinates, the team made several unsuccessful attempts to locate the Kahuku crash.
“The terrain out there was just crushing us,” Gier said. “We were motivated to find the pilot.”
On the search team’s ninth try, recently, members were inserted into a helicopter landing zone near the wreck site. From this landing zone, the HAPS team began yet another difficult trek. Using a prominent stream and other terrain features as a reference, the team stumbled upon a small piece of DeMoss’ F6F-3 aircraft.
Having found the first piece of wreckage, the team continued along the stream, finding several more pieces of the aircraft, including two wheels, a propeller and pieces of aluminum.
Parts of the plane were scattered across approximately 500 feet of overgrown terrain.
Additionally, more than 60 years of rainwater and undergrowth had pushed, buried and concealed most of the aircraft.
Although the HAPS team hasn’t yet found DeMoss’ remains, his family has some degree of closure, knowing the plane’s location.
HAPS is now working with JPAC to recover and return DeMoss’ remains to his family.