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Lund marine archaeologist leads WWII pilot recovery

B17 bomber at the bottom of the ocean
The recovery was a technically challenging mission (Photo: Steve Jones)

A World War II pilot has been laid to rest in his hometown in Maine, following a complex recovery mission led by Lund University archaeologist Brendan Foley. US Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Ernest N. Vienneau was on a B-17 bomber that came under attack in 1944, and sank off the coast of Croatia. 77 years later, he has been brought home.


“It was an honor to participate in this recovery mission. We hope it has brought some closure to the family of this fallen service member”, says Brendan Foley, archaeology researcher at Lund University in Sweden.

The young pilot was only 25 when the bomber he served on came under fire during a mission.

Part of the strategic bombing campaign during World War II involved the Allies targeting German oil production and transportation centers, such as oil refineries and marshalling yards for trains.

“This particular aircraft set out on a mission out of Italy, along with dozens of other bombers, to bomb Vienna. However, Vienna was obscured by clouds, and they diverted to Slovenia”, explains Brendan Foley.

A B-17 flies over Vienna in black-and-white photo
A B-17 bomber flying over Vienna

Over Slovenia, a flak burst came through the fuselage, and a piece of shrapnel struck Vienneau in the head, mortally wounding him over the target. The aircraft was too damaged to return to Italy, and the pilot made the decision to land on a relief airstrip on Vis Island, Croatia, while the crew treated Vienneau. As they came in for landing, they ran out of fuel and ditched the aircraft in the water only 100 meters off shore. The other men in the crew made it out of the aircraft.

“They didn’t have time to remove the co-pilot’s body from the rapidly sinking B-17, so when the aircraft sank, co-pilot 2nd  Lt. Ernest N. Viennau sank with it”, says Brendan Foley.

US Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Ernest N. Vienneau
US Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Ernest N. Vienneau (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense)

The recovery mission involved a crew of technical divers and archaeologists diving 70 meters, or 230 feet, to reach the wreck. This meant that the team only had 25 minutes at the site, as they needed two hours of decompression to perform the dive safely. In addition, the work that had to be completed in that time was technically challenging.

“We had to worm our way into the jagged metal of the wrecked aircraft, with wiring harnesses, parachute shrouds and risers all around us. We then had to excavate in zero visibility, because we stirred up the sediment”, says Brendan Foley.

Diver at plane wreck at the bottom of the ocean
Photo: Rich Stevenson

In addition to the burial with full military honors, Vienneau’s name has been recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Impruneta, Italy, along with others still missing from WWII. A rosette will indicate that he has been accounted for.

Special thanks to:

Jeneva Wright, Henry Jackson Foundation
Nina Ahlbeck, Lund University
Denise To, DPAA
Rich Wills, DPAA

Gregory Stratton, DPAA

Team of divers

Crew members:

Phillip Short, Diving Operations Manager
Patrick Wenneback, Diving Supervisor
Andi Marovic, Manta Diving
Rich Stevenson, photographer

Paolo Iglic, logistics and safety diver
Marie Jonsson, archaeologist diver
Oscar Svensson, diver
Dr. LT Lana Trogrlic, diving physician, Croatian Armed Forces Milan Males
Zeljko Antic, support vessel captains