Tom Kelly thought of becoming a cowboy. Then World War II happened. Instead of riding the range, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. On March 11, 1944, his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean. Seventy-four years later, divers finally found the aircraft—with help from family members Kelly never even knew.
Scott Althaus is Kelly’s first cousin, once removed. He’s also a professor of political science and communication at the University of Illinois. Althaus studies political opinion and news coverage of war. He wanted answers about the relative who died before he was born.
On Memorial Day 2013, Althaus launched what quickly became a family-wide project. Althaus and family members combed through eyewitness stories, military reports, and flight documents. Some copied photos. Others examined diary entries from crew members on planes flying in formation with Kelly’s.
“One of the wonderful things that came out of this effort to just figure out what happened . . . was really bringing the family together across lines that we didn’t communicate through very often,” Althaus says.
The family’s quest revealed a 21-year-old second lieutenant, a bombardier aboard a B-24 bomber. Ten other soldiers were also aboard the aircraft. Their mission on May 11 was to interrupt enemy shipping zones. After Japanese gunfire hit the plane, it plunged into Hansa Bay off the coast of Papua New Guinea. A diver who had lived and dived near the bay helped Althaus narrow the search field.
Last year, Kelly’s family turned over what they learned to Project Recover. The group is a team of marine scientists, historians, archaeologists, divers, and volunteers. It investigates military crash sites connected to Missing in Action (MIA) cases. According to Project Recover, this is the first time an MIA family has provided such support.
After 11 days of searching, Project Recover found the downed plane on the ocean floor. Video footage shows fish swimming amid the rusty wreckage of landing gear, propeller, and wheels. Project Recover turned its findings over to an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense. The organization seeks to recover remains of MIAs.
Now the family waits for news of a recovery. If Kelly’s remains are found, Althaus and the family hope he might someday be buried in his hometown. For now, they’re rejoicing in having finally found him.
“Seeing pictures and videos of the wreck,” Althaus says, “brings closure in a way we didn’t expect.”