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Tuskegee Plane Wreckage Raised

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    Wayne Lusardi helps guide the World War II-era fighter plane engine into a chemical solution to clean it on August 17, 2023. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
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    Wayne Lusardi, left, talks with Isis Gillespie at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum on August 17, 2023, in Detroit, Michigan. Gillespie is conservator of the P-29 fighter plane at the museum. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
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For the past few years, a team of divers trolled the cold waters of Lake Huron for weeks at a time. They sought scattered pieces of military history. Their target was the wreckage of a World War-II era fighter plane flown by a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. This week, the plane’s 1,200-pound, mussel-encrusted engine was hauled to the surface.

Previously, a bullet-riddled propellor and hundreds of other pieces had been recovered. The engine, once restored, will be exhibited with the other parts at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan.

The plane crashed during training nearly 80 years ago near Port Huron. That’s about 60 miles northeast of Detroit.

Carrie Sowden is archaeological and research director at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio. Sowden emphasized the importance of recording every fragment found on the lake floor before the larger pieces are brought up: “We’re doing some finalizing of mapping things . . . As we prepare for these major lifts, we’re finding all these small pieces. When we’re done, we’re going to have a complete understanding where every single piece came from.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were the nation’s first African American air fighter squadron. They trained and fought for the United States in World War II. But they were required to do so separately from white fighter units due to segregation rules in the U.S. military. Their unit was based in Tuskegee, Alabama. Michigan served as an advanced training ground during the war.

The plane, flown by Second Lieutenant Frank Moody of Los Angeles, California, went down on April 11, 1944. It’s believed that the 22-year-old pilot’s machine guns were not synchronized with the rotation of the P-39’s propellor. When Moody fired the guns, slugs struck the propellor, causing the plane to crash into the waters below. Tragically, Moody lost his life in the crash. His body was recovered. But the plane’s wreckage has lain scattered along the lake bottom for decades. It was discovered in 2014.

Dive and recovery teams began mapping the site and bringing up pieces of the plane in 2018.

On Thursday, the engine was lowered into a chemical solution inside the Tuskegee Airmen museum’s hangar. That’s part of the process to cleanse and restore it. Isis Gillespie, the museum’s conservator of the P-29, says it could take years to complete the restoration.

“The engine is intact . . . and it was in fresh water, so it helped preserve it,” Gillespie says.

Though Moody didn’t see combat in Europe along with other airmen, his sacrifice in preparation is just as great. He should be remembered, says Wayne Lusardi, organizer of the recovery effort.

“It’s sometimes very easy to forget that this was a place where a young man died who gave his life for this country,” Lusardi says. “It really is going to be a memorial to the African American airmen that died here, that trained here in Michigan.”

Fifteen Tuskegee airmen were killed while training in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

One of the oldest living Tuskegee Airman—Willie Rogers—passed away in 2016 at the age of 101. Only a few Tuskegee Airmen are still living, including William T. Fauntroy, Jr., Carl C. Johnson, and Shelton Ivan Ware.

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. — John 15:13