Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) Archaeologist Dr. George Schwarz personally visited the site, examined recovered artifacts and helped organize an ongoing survey of the site to document additional wreckage.
His investigation determined that the evidence from the site, informed by research conducted at NHHC of the 25 recorded aircraft losses in the area, is consistent with the wreck of an SBD-5 Dauntless bomber piloted by Ensign William T. Bellmire, who died in the crash. While confident of the determination, 100 percent confirmation is impossible without specific airframe identification evidence, which was not available. The crash occurred 16 miles south of DeLand Naval Air Station on Feb. 1, 1944 during a training mission.
"The accident history card for Ensign Bellmire's plane indicates high-speed impact and demolition of the aircraft which is consistent with findings at the site," said Schwarz. "Still, there has been no conclusive evidence from the wreck site that directly links it to Bellmire's aircraft."
Additionally, during Schwarz's visit to Osteen, a search of the site with dogs specially trained to detect human remains turned up nothing. News reports from the time of the accident indicate Bellmire's body was returned home and buried with military honors at the Delta Cemetery in Delta, Colo.
Those reports also indicate that Bellmire, 25, was the only child of Clarence L. Bellmire and Shirley May Roady Bellmire who were from Delta, but living in California at the time of the crash.
The investigation began in December 2014 when NHHC was notified that what appeared to be aircraft wreckage had been turning up on the property of Osteen resident Rodney Thomas. He contacted Scott Storz, a volunteer at the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum (DNASM), who then reached out to NHHC.
Schwarz visited the site Feb. 18-20 and worked with Thomas, Storz, and 45 volunteers from nearly a dozen organizations to wade through dense vegetation and sift through the Florida sand in search of more clues. More than 240 objects associated with the SBD-5 were excavated and documented, a site map of finds was developed, and a protocol for recording future finds was developed for local volunteers who intend to assist with continuing the search for aircraft remains under NHHC guidance.
Schwarz says identifying wreckage and sites like this is important work.
"In addition to a better understanding of our history and heritage, site investigations are part of our obligation to those who choose to serve, we will not forget their service and their sacrifice," said Schwarz.
"Normally a site investigation like this one will provide a grieving family with some sense of closure," he added, "but in this case, with the body of the pilot recovered and returned to the family, the investigation is really being driven by the people we worked with in Osteen who are very interested in honoring the life and service of an American Sailor who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to his country. I was proud to join them in that effort."
In accordance with federal law, the aircraft parts remain property of the government. Final disposition of the collected artifacts will be determined by NHHC after they are fully inventoried and assessed. However, in keeping with NHHC's mission to share naval history, it is likely most of the recovered objects will be loaned to the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum to display for their visitors.
Thousands of pilots trained for war at DeLand Naval Air Station, which the Navy operated from 1942-1946. The site was returned to the city of DeLand after the war, and is still in operation today with one 4,300 foot-long runway and a longer one that is 6,000 feet.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, nine museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.