Brandi Mueller is a scuba diver from Cameron, Wisconsin. Her incredible diving skills, coupled with her years of experience as a nature photographer, make her a legend among nature photographers. Mueller grew up fascinated by the sea, but even she could never have predicted the stunning 70-year old secret she would one day find on the ocean floor. Her find resulted in an amazing collection of pictures and shed new light on the end of a key episode of American history.
An Amazing Diver
Mueller grew up in Wisconsin, where she became obsessed with scuba diving as a teen. Mueller also loved learning about photography, often borrowing her parents’ camera and using it to capture local flora and fauna. By the time Mueller was 15 years old, she had a keenly developed eye and was on her way to becoming an expert diver.
When Mueller graduated high school, she decided to enroll in the U.S. Coast Guard. Her job in the Coast Guard gave her the opportunity to travel to some of the greatest ports in the world, including Hawaii, Australia, the Caribbean, Iceland, Africa, and more. Mueller eventually started teaching diving classes, sharing her love of the water with other people. However, none of these experiences prepared her for what she would discover one day in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
An Amazing Discovery
Mueller’s favorite dive spots was a long strip of islands that are located midway between Hawaii and the Philippines: the Marshall Islands. Mueller was on a break from the Coast Guard when she was diving 5 miles off the island of Roi-Namur in the Marshalls. Suddenly, she spotted a some bright, large objects just out of reach.
As Mueller dove closer, she saw large, metallic flat pieces of steel hanging off of large tubes. There were sheets of broken glass in the stand. The metal parts had colorful emblems. The emblems were the piece of the puzzle she needed to realize what she had found: a graveyard of airplanes which had been untouched for 70 years.
More than 100 Airplanes
The airplane graveyard was a shocking find. Like all divers, Mueller expected to find the remains of ships and other watercraft that had sunk over the years. But to find an airplane, and then several more, was a juxtaposition that demanded she return for photographs.
As Mueller photographed and explored the wreck, she wondered how the planes got there. Were they from World War II? Had they been shot down? Were they being transported on an aircraft carrier which had sunk?
Although the airplanes seemed to be from WWII, there were no human remains anywhere, nor was there any sign of a sunken aircraft carrier. Furthermore, the airplanes were in excellent condition.
Despite the usual rust, barnacles and coral that grow quickly in sea water, the airplanes were not shattered into pieces. Many were actually completely intact, with only minor scrapes on their wings, tails and cockpits.
As Mueller took more photographs and began her research, she found out that she wasn’t looking at a graveyard at all. She was looking at a dumping ground for some of America’s most impressive fighter planes.
WorldWar II Fighter Planes
Mueller found an astonishing number of planes, more than 150 spread in the same general area of the ocean, 130 feet from the surface of the water. The process of photographing the airplanes was intense and dangerous, but Mueller was determined to share the pictures with the world.
“Seeing planes underwater is strange, planes don’t belong in the water, they belong in the sky, so it feel weird to dive on them. But amazing and special too. And because these planes didn’t sink because of the war they are special. They should have flown more, lived longer, but they were sunk in perfect condition.”
The Marshall Islands
These 70-year old airplanes were dumped into the ocean by aircraft carriers at the end of WWII. The Allied aircraft, such as Helldivers, B-25 Mitchell, Curtiss C-46 Commando and F4F Wildcats, had been used by the Allies as they pursued their campaign against the imperial Japanese in the Pacific.
The Marshall Islands were a key strategic point of reference in the battle between the Allies and Axis powers. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, crippling the American fleet. For the first few years of the War, the Japanese captured island after island in the South Pacific.
The Battle of Midway
But the Americans and their allies soon made a big comeback. The fleet was rebuilt and the Allies started to challenge the Japanese in the Pacific. The airplanes discovered by Mueller played a huge role in one of the most important battles in WWII: the Battle of Midway.
During January and February of 1944, the US Navy and Marines embarked on an ambitious strategy of island-hopping to capture islands closer to Guam. The plan was to get close enough to Guam to be able to stage an attack on the Japanese mainlands.
Nearly 50,000 American soldiers and sailors participated in the battle for the Marshall Islands.
The Allies took control island by island, forming a staging point for a huge offensive in the Pacific Ocean. Eventually this push enabled the Allies to launch significant bombing raids on Japan. Finally, on August 6, 1945, the American plane Enola Gay dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, ending WWII in the Pacific theater without an invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Douglas SBD Dauntless
The airplanes Mueller found included the Douglas SBD Dauntless, which was manufactured from 1940 to 1944. The Dauntless delivered fatal blows the the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in 1942, which helped turn the tide of the War. When the Dauntless was replaced by the Helldiver, the Dauntless was simply left in the ocean.
The Marshall Islands find was not the first time the US military had abandoned valuable military equipment. The area known as “Million Dollar Point”, which is located near the coast of Espirito Santo in the Vanuatu Archipelago in the South-Western Pacific, is a diving destination with millions of dollars worth of WWII gear. There are bulldozers, forklifts, semi-trucks, jeeps, tractors, iron, sealed crates of Coca-Cola and boxes of clothing.
Expensive Equipment Left Behind
The reason all of this equipment was simply left is due to expense. It would’ve cost millions for the Americans to tow back everything it had moved to the Pacific Ocean during the War. Anything the government couldn’t sell, was simply left.
By providing a bird’s-eye view of these airplanes, Mueller has been able to shine light on one of the most important struggles during WWII. Her photographs have now been published so that people can get a look at 7-year old history up-close.