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Seven decades ago, something went terribly wrong in the skies over Osteen, about 60 miles east of Leesburg. Now, resident Rodney Thomas and a team of volunteers are trying to figure out what happened.
He’s been on a three-year mission to find out details about a World War II-era Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber that went down in a fiery crash near his property, leaving debris strewn across an area longer than two football fields. Recently, volunteers from the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum have stepped up to help solve the mystery. The Naval Air Station was a training site during the war.
“I found a piece of a cylinder head laying in the backyard near the palmetto bushes and I looked at it and thought that it was a part of an old tractor,” Thomas said.
When more parts started turning up, however, Thomas realized he wasn’t dealing with farm equipment, but a piece of war history. He picked up a metal detector and began looking on his and his neighbors’ properties, turning up everything from charred metal plates to burnt-but-readable airplane gauges.
There was nothing to identify what kind of plane it was until he found one key component.
“He found an actual ID plate in the ground amongst all this debris, off of the exhaust collector,” said Scott Storz, a volunteer at the museum and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office intelligence analyst.
The plate identifies the plane as an SBD-5 and lists some part numbers, but doesn’t contain a tail number of the plane itself.
Thomas got in touch with Storz only recently. He recounted the details of his three-year search effort and went up to the museum with a box full of what he’d found so far.
The group is also trying to find out information about the pilot. A tarnished, broken portion of a gold-colored bracelet was found near the apparent crash site, similar to the types of bracelets pilots often wore.
Around Thomas’ property in Osteen, the search for more parts is a rough task. A large, thick palmetto forest is smack in the middle of where the plane is thought to have gone down. Most of the parts he found so far, he said, were found just north or south of the forested area or on its periphery.
Storz said he contacted the Navy’s archaeological office to ask about using ground-penetrating radar on the site, but he was told it’d be nearly useless due to the terrain.
In a stroke of good news, Storz said members of the Central Florida Metal Detecting Club agreed to help out with the search effort.
During the war, Naval Air Station DeLand became a major training base for Navy pilots and gunners. The plane is assumed to have come from DeLand, as its air station was the only facility near the site of the crash where SBDs were used — NAS Daytona Beach and NAS Sanford trained pilots in other aircraft.
“We used to train five squadrons at one time and a squadron consisted of 12 airplanes and a total of 14 pilots — two in reserve,” said Ken Torbet, who served as flight-line chief at the station from 1942 to 1944.
Leesburg Army Airfield was a United States Army Air Forces training airfield located about 4 miles northeast of Leesburg during World War II. Planes seen there were the P-38 Lightning and P-40 Warhawk.
While he wasn’t familiar with the Osteen crash, he said during his tenure at the base, several aircraft were lost in multiple areas — some near New Smyrna Beach, which hosted an auxiliary field during the war; others over Bunnell, where a practice bombing target site was; and over Lake County.
The SBD Dauntless was used extensively in Pacific Ocean battles, including the Battle of Midway, where Navy SBDs sunk three Japanese carriers within six minutes, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. A fourth was sunk several hours later.
The planes were produced by the Douglas Aircraft Company from 1940 to 1944. The SBD-5 featured a 1,200 horsepower engine, two forward-facing and two rear-facing machine guns, along with up to 2,250 pounds of bombs.