B-25 WWII plane retrieved from depths of Lake Murray
By Bill Vartorella Photos by Warner Montgomery
Sixty–two years after plunging into Lake Murray, one of the last remaining Army Air Corps war planes has been rescued from 150 feet beneath the lake’s surface.
According to the expedition’s leader, Dr. Robert Seigler, the retrieval of the now rare B–25C bomber took several days. Divers worked on mixed gases, at depth, to attach special straps on the aircraft.
The technical team is being led by internationally–known aviation salver, Gary Larkins, who expects the entire operation (which includes the spray–down and disassembly of the aircraft) to take about two weeks. Larkins disassembled, rigged, and raised a P–38 Lightning from beneath 270 feet of a Greenland ice cap several years ago. He is regarded as the premier salver of historic airplanes, with some 68 to his credit worldwide.
Seigler, who has written a history of the Lake Murray B–25s for Warbirds International , has spent two decades researching, locating, videotaping, and securing sidescan radar images of the aircraft. Divers have been quietly examining and documenting the airplane for the past several years in preparation for the retrieval.
The final day of the airplane is well–known. After flying out of the Columbia Army Air Base on April 4, 1943, the now–rare B–25C Bomber crashed and sank in the man–made lake during a skip–bombing training mission. The military crew escaped the aircraft, which had lost power, and brought it to rest upright, with damage to only the right engine. The crew survived and were rescued.
During the past decade, Seigler, head of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Greenville Hospital System, and John Adams Hodge, an aviation and environmental attorney at Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A. in Columbia, have dedicated time, energy, and resources to the effort.
William “Bill” Vartorella, Ph.D. of Camden has helped guide the project. His firm, Craig and Vartorella, Inc. has been involved in exotic projects worldwide in the fields of archaeology, motor sports, and history.
The Seigler–Hodge– Vartorella team has continuously sought support in SC and the region from philanthropic foundations, state legislators, museum and airport officials, and corporations as they searched for a permanent site to house the vintage plane.
However, no SC venues were prepared to preserve such an aircraft in an indoor setting that met the need for painstaking restoration and ongoing public interpretation.
The project has received recognition by The Explorers Club and is designated as an Explorers Flag Expedition. The Explorers Club flag will be flown at the site. Seigler, Hodge, and Vartorella are members of the Greater Piedmont Chapter of the Explorers Club. Vartorella is a past chair of the club.
With a commitment to keeping the airplane in the South, Seigler’s nonprofit Lake Murray B–25 Rescue Project (501–c–3) has found an appropriate home for the airplane at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama. There, the plane will be restored, conserved, and displayed in its public museum.
Hodge, an attorney, registered geologist, and airline pilot, and Seigler and Vartorella have collaborated with SCE&G, the SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, the US military, historians, and numerous others to prepare for the final stages of this quest.
The upcoming retrieval has not been announced previously due to curiosity–seekers who might disturb the plane’s safe resting area.
The heroism of the pilot, who is deceased, prevented the aircraft’s loss of life. One of the crewmen who escaped is still alive and lives on the West Coast. Due to his health, he may not be able to attend; however, his family may send a representative.
Hodge said, “This is about preserving our history and heritage. The aircraft is WWII authentic as it has only been seen by a handful of people since it sank more than 60 years ago. It is in incredibly good shape. Dr. Seigler has expended countless hours and dollars to preserve our history, and I hope South Carolinians will assist him in this noble project.”
According to Vartorella, donations and in–kind contributions to help defray the estimated retrieval costs of $150,000 are appreciated. “We’ve had some excellent past support from the Arcadia Foundation, and companies such as Boozer Lumber have stepped up recently, as well as anonymous individual donors,” he said. “This project is likely to get global coverage and this is an excellent opportunity for companies and individuals to let the world know that SC is committed to its heritage and, frankly, is a great place to live and do business.”
For additional information, contact the nonprofit Lake Murray B–25 Rescue Project, 106 Highland Drive, Greenville, SC 29605 or Bill Vartorella at (803) 432–4353.