NOAA Marine Sanctuary Shipwrecks: The Maui Helldiver

National marine sanctuaries protect some of the most spectacular ocean and Great Lakes resources in the United States, including shipwrecks like the Maui Helldiver.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is well known for the animals it protects. Each winter, roughly 12,000 humpback whales visit its waters to mate, give birth, and raise their calves. But in the ocean surrounding the eight main Hawaiian Islands, curious divers can also find traces of our nation’s maritime history. During World War II, the U.S. lost more than a thousand aircraft in Hawaii. Recreational divers can explore some of these, which include the SB2C Maui Helldiver off the coast of the island.

The history of the Maui Helldiver

In 1944, Hawaii was the major supply, training, and repair base for the region’s Allies. The islands served as the springboard from which the U.S. Navy projected itself across the Pacific. During the war years, hundreds of young Navy pilots and crewmembers arrived in Maui from the mainland. They underwent weeks of intensive training and combat practice. As pilots subjected their aircraft to the extreme stresses of combat, they lost some aircraft. Between 1924 and 1952 the Navy recorded 1,484 submerged aircraft losses in the general vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. We’ve only located about 40 of these lost aircraft so far.

On August 31, 1944, pilot William E. Dill and radioman Kenneth W. Jobe, members of patrol bomber squadron VB-4, were conducting dive-bombing practice offshore of Maui with their squadron. After completing their second steep dive on the target and while doing high-speed evasive maneuvers, the entire tail assembly twisted to port, jamming the rudder controls. Lieutenant Dill, no longer able to safely control the aircraft, made a voluntary forced landing in the water a few miles south of Puunene Naval Air Station. The pilot and radioman were rescued, but the plane was never recovered.

Diving the Maui Helldiver

Flash forward more than 60 years to January 2010. Maui dive shop owner Brad Varney heard about a two-seat dive bomber in about 50 feet of water in Mā`alaea Bay, Maui, a long-lost plane that few divers knew about. He, along with the Naval History & Heritage Command, NOAA, and local divers, identified the plane as a World War II SB2C-1C Helldiver. The bureau number stenciled on the broken tail section — which lies in the sand near the aircraft — confirmed that the plane was Dill and Jobe’s.

The submerged Helldiver is one of the last of its kind, a resource to be protected and shared. Located relatively close to shore and within recreational-diving depths, the aircraft offers divers an amazing opportunity to visit part of aviation history, as well as check out some local marine life. This class of Helldiver represents an important, if initially flawed, development in the specialized tactic of dive bombing.

The site is still intact, with the Helldiver resting alongside its own broken rudder. Divers can see the plane almost exactly as Dill and Jobe abandoned it on August 31, 1944, with the landing gear retracted, the leading edge-flaps up, and the wing flaps down. The canopy is open, and the large life-raft storage tube in the gunner’s position is empty.

The Sunken Military Craft Act protects sunken military ships and aircraft. While divers can visit the wreck site, they cannot disturb or remove any part of the aircraft. Today the wreck also serves as a habitat for Hawaiian marine life. Corals and other invertebrates grow on the fuselage and fish flock to it for shelter.

By Hans Van Tilburg and Elizabeth Weinberg, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries