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Project Recover: Scripps Oceanography researchers aid mission to recover those missing in action

The Project Recover team, including researchers from UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography
The international Project Recover team, including researchers from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the conclusion of a mission offshore Vietnam that recovered the remains of U.S. Air Force Major Paul Avolese, who was killed during the Vietnam War.
(Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Using advanced underwater technology, scientists from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography have successfully recovered the remains of U.S. Air Force Major Paul Avolese, who was killed during the Vietnam War, as a part of the Project Recover team.

Project Recover is a collaborative research effort involving researchers from SIO and the University of Delaware, established in 2014 to search for Americans missing in action since World War II.

The mission that recovered Avolese’s remains, undertaken in March 2020, was the “first time a nongovernmental organization has been allowed into Vietnam to do underwater [recovery service],” said Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist with SIO and the lead archaeologist for Project Recover.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, which Pietruszka said does its own recovery missions all over the world, asked Project Recover to assist in the Vietnam mission, working closely with the Vietnamese government for access to the search area.

The mission, which also included SIO researcher Eric Terrill, involved a search of the South China Sea where on July 7, 1967, two B-52 aircrafts collided. Seven survivors were rescued in the days that followed; three crew members, including Avolese, were lost and remained unaccounted for ever since.

“The original intent that we were partnering with DPAA to do,” Pietruszka said, “was to go out and survey and try to find wreckage from … either aircraft.”

The team was able to locate wreckage from the collision underwater using four REMUS 100 autonomous underwater vehicles, which are pre-programmed before being launched underwater.

The AUVs use several sensors, including a “sidescan sensor,” to collect data, Pietruszka said. The AUVs deploy “acoustic beams, and those beams come back [and] provide you with a two-dimensional acoustic image of the seafloor.”

“One vehicle will typically cover about four square kilometers in a day,” he said, and with four AUVS, the team is able to cover an “immense amount of area with multiple views and really scan huge swaths of the sea floor in a short amount of time.”

Pietruszka said the team is also able to change the sensors to a multibeam sensor, which provides a three-dimensional image, add a magnetometer to detect ferrous items and more. “We can kind of plug and play these different sensors onto this one, autonomous platform … based on what we’re trying to achieve.”

Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist with UCSD's SIO, boards a small boat to dive at the site of the wreckage.
Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, boards a small boat to dive at the site of the underwater wreckage. Pietruszka was responsible for identifying and documenting the site offshore Vietnam.
(Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego)

After locating the remains of the 1967 crash, Pietruszka said he and Terrill used scuba equipment to take photo documentation of the wreckage. “It was during that process ... that we noticed some material evidence that would clue us in to where an individual might be.”

Pietruszka said at that point, the mission transitioned from one of documentation to one of “emergency recovery, because the fear was that who knows when the next team … would be able to come out and do the full recovery.”

“All of us were able to work together to get very rapid permissions to recover those remains at that time, which we did,” he said. “Then we were able to hand those over to the Vietnamese government.”

Pietruszka said the Vietnamese government was “instrumental in making the project happen,” working quickly despite bureaucracy to get the remains to DPAA for identification and release.

“The reverence they showed when we found those remains, and how hard [the Vietnamese government employees] worked to get the permissions on their side for that emergency recovery … was really humbling,” he said.

The entire mission took about 10 days, Pietruszka said, adding that it isn’t known if another mission to find the two other MIAs from that incident will occur.

As to whether its unusual to find identifiable human remains underseas more than a half-century later, Pietruszka said “while [many] believe water is degrading,” there is “better preservation of organic remains, including human remains, in underwater sites than on terrestrial sites.”

He said part of the reason for that is remains underwater are “often out of the way and less disturbed by subsequent building or society messing with them.”

Another reason, Pietruszka said, is “items will get covered by sediment very quickly and that sediment will create an anaerobic, or oxygen-starved environment, which actually [slows] the degradation of organic remains significantly.”

Pietruszka, who worked for DPAA before moving to SIO and Project Recover in 2016, said “it’s actually quite frequent to recover remains from the Vietnam era [and] World War II era. My expectation [during recovery missions] is that I will recover remains onsite. … I’d be surprised if I don’t.”

For more information, visit projectrecover.org. ◆