Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A PBJ and the Curse of Palmyra Island

When I first saw this photo, an official 8x10 glossy, something struck me as just slightly odd about it. The plane carries an AAF serial number (42-87197, visible on the side of the fuselage at the far left of the photo) and yet one of the mechs working on the #1 engine has Marine Corps insignia on his cap. The men are doing what appears to be routine maintenance on the Wright R-2600-13, with new spark plugs lined up on the stand to the left.

A check of the serial number showed that this was a Kansas City-built B-25D, and that this was one of a block of 24 Mitchells that, after being ordered for the AAF, was diverted to the Navy and designated as PBJ-1D. Thus, 42-87197 became Navy BuNo 35114, though the AAF number apparently wasn't painted over. This photo was acquired with a group of other USMC images that were centered on MCAS El Toro, so I'm presuming that this is where the photo was taken.

Like so many bombers of the war, tragedy struck 35114, and it crashed at sea on 4 August 1945, with the loss of all eight Marines on board. [Note from 18 Jan 2015: Or was it 1943? The sources I referred to when I originally wrote this post all said 1943. However, the two comment from relatives of crewmembers that can be seen in the comments section below make a good point that the squadron didn't get activates until Sept 1943. If any reader has a copy of the official incident report, I'd be very interested in hearing from you!] The PBJ had taken off from Palmyra Island and disappeared, and that's where this story really took a twist. I have to confess that when I started researching this photo, I didn't even know where Palmyra Island was, but I quickly found that the place has a long tradition of being a Pacific version of the Bermuda Triangle - there's even a book that's been published by the name of The Curse of Palmyra Island. While I don't put a whole lot of stock in tales of the paranormal, I'm always up for a good sea story, and this one turns out to be a doozie.

If you were to think of the Pacific as a giant circle bounded by the Americas, Asia, Australia and Antarctica, then Palmyra Island would pretty much mark the circle's very center. Lying about a thousand miles south-southwest of Hawai'i, the "island" is really an atoll comprising of about 50 small islets surrounding a couple of blue lagoons; the entire complex is only 1 1/2 miles long by a half mile wide, and is one of the most remote locations, and thus hosts one of the most pristine coral reefs left on earth. It also has a very long history of very strange happenings.

The stories begin with the island's discovery in June 1798 by Capt. Edmond Fanning of the Betsy. Fanning's story has been passed down through the years, but it's difficult to know how much is real and how much is embellished legend (not that that should stop a good sea story!) While under sail one night in normal seas, Fanning hit the sack, but awoke to find himself standing at the top of the companionway. Normally not a sleepwalker, this startled him, and he returned to his quarters. This happened twice more, which really shook the man up. He became convinced that this was, as he reportedly described it, a form of "supernatural intervention", and thus ordered the ship hove to until morning. Returning to his bunk, he slept soundly for the rest of the night. In the morning, Fanning ordered the ship to resume its course, but almost immediately the crew saw breakers - indicating the presence of a reef - dead ahead. This surprised everyone on board...had they continued the night before for another half hour at the most, they would have run aground, probably with the loss of all hands. While Fanning recorded the incident in his log, he didn't bother to report the atoll as its discoverer.

Four years later, in 1802, Captain Sawle and his ship Palmyra was blown ashore on the island, and later reported its discovery, naming the atoll after his ship. Perhaps it is for the best that Fanning failed to report the discovery, else we'd be telling the tale of the "Curse of Betsy Island"...which just doesn't have the same ring.

There is a legend of buried treasure on the island, as well. Supposedly, in 1816, the Spanish Galleon Esperanza flush from plundering Inca temples of their gold was blown way off course (some versions of the legend say that this happened after a particularly nasty fight with another ship) and ran aground on the atoll. The crew made it to shore with the loot, and reportedly buried it there before setting off on three makeshift rafts. Two of those never were seen again, and only one sailor was still alive on the third one when it was found by an American whaler. After telling his tale, along with mentioning the burial of the treasure, that sailor, too, died.

There were others, too. By the late 1930s, with war clouds looming over the Pacific horizon, the Navy eyed Palmyra. Its location smack in the middle of the Pacific made it a natural refueling stop for the Allied aircraft. The Navy's Seabees bulldozed a landing strip into the longest of the islands, and dredged a channel into the largest of the lagoons. The "curse" seems to have lived on. Hal Horton, a Navy officer who spent time on the island, is quoted in the book And the Sea Will Tell (more on this book in a bit) as saying:
Once one of our patrol planes went down near the island. We searched and searched but didn't find so much as a bolt or piece of metal. It was weird. Like they'd dropped off the edge of the earth. Another time, a plane took off from the runway, climbed to a couple hundred feet, and turned in the wrong direction. They were supposed to go north and they went south instead. It was broad daylight. We never could figure it out. There were two men aboard that plane. We never saw them again. We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra Curse. [The island]...is very small. You [could] fly over it at ten thousand feet and not see it if there [were] a few clouds in the sky. Once we heard a plane over head trying to find us, be he crashed in the drink before he could find the runway. We didn't get to the poor guy fast enough. Sharks found him first.
Horton isn't specific, but it's entirely possible that the first plane he refers to is our PBJ. What is clear, though is that 35114 disappeared and her crew was listed as MIA. On 6 August 1945, the status of the entire crew was changed from Missing in Action to Killed in Action. Lost on board PBJ-D1 35114 were:
1st Lt. Charles W. Sieben, Pilot
2nd Lt. John James Zelmer, Co-pilot
SSgt Arthur C. Thielen, crew
Cpl Bernard F. Banker, crew
Sgt Frederick J. Seitz, crew
TSgt Paul Junior Rogers, crew
TSgt Clarence H. Post, crew
TSgt James Henry Mons, crew
But the strangities didn't stop after the war...more craft were wrecked, and more people stranded. The notoriety magnified in 1974 when a couple who were living on the island, Buck Walker and his girlfriend Stephanie Stearns, attacked and murdered a visiting couple, Mac and Muff Graham, in order to steal their sailboat. Because no bodies could be found, the offenders were initially just charged with theft, but then another yacht crew, who were visiting the island six years later, just happened to be walking down one of the most remote beaches on earth, on the only day when the skeletal remains of Muff Graham were visible on shore...one more day and the tide would have washed them away. This provided the evidence to convict the Walker of murdering the couple (Stearns was acquitted) and send him back to prison. The sordid tale made national news, and was later documented in the 1991 book And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi (author of Helter Skelter), and the TV movie of the same name. And there have been more incidents since then, so the curse lives on.

Some details about the island, along with some gorgeous photos of it today can be found at this post on the TravelVivi blog. Today, it is owned primarily by the Nature Conservancy, which has a number of excellent online articles about the island.

A tip o' my sailor's hat to my brother Eric for giving me the photo...and to Lisa: this is why he's always looking for photos for me!


  1. Hi. Regarding PBJ-1D Mitchell Bureau Number 35114 lost off of Palmyra Island with 9 Marines. The plane actually went down Aug 4, 1945, not Aug 4,1943. I know because my uncle was Sgt Frederick J Seitz, one of the lost crew members and my mom often spoke of how her brother almost made it to the end of the war, being lost a couple of days before the A-bomb was dropped. She didn't even find out about his plane going down until after the Japanese surrendered. . Their unit, VMB-443 didn’t even exist yet on the Aug 1943 date. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VMB-433. Kindly correct your records . Thanks! I am also contacting other pages that have this same wrong date.

  2. my great uncle TSgt Clarence H. Post was also a member of this crew. I can also confirm that the date was August 1945 and not August 1943 from family records. Thank you.

  3. Thanks to both the above commenters for writing in. First, to both of you, let me express that I am very thankful for the service and greatest measure of devotion of both of your uncles to this country. Second, I've noted your input in the article. The most compelling argument was the dates of activation of the squadron.

    I have to say, though, that in researching this, I found a number of facts that seemed to conflict each other.

    Another source of confusion was the squadron with which the plane flew. One source noted the squadron as being VMB-433, another said VMB-443. To try to figure out which, I looked at the squadron's personnel rosters. Sgt Post doesn't show up on the rosters of either squadron, and neither do Banks, Mons, Sieben, nor Zelmer. Thieben and Seitz are listed on the 443rd's roster, but Seitz is listed as a Corporal, not a Sergeant. Paul Rogers, however, is listed as a member of the 433rd. Neither squadon's online presence list any of these crewmembers as casualties. You can see how this is confusing so many years later!

    Wtcskeptic...in your comment, you say "9" Marines...the records I found indicated that there were only eight on board. If you know a ninth name, please let me know what it is.

    All that being said, if anyone has any other actually USMC documentation on the crash, I'd be very interested in hearing about it!

    1. Hi Alan. Sorry it took me over a year to find this comment and reply. My Uncle did attain the rank of Sergeant , he was in VMB-443, not 433, and he did die in 1945 not 1943. Apparently there were 8 crewmembers, not 9 as I had thought If you look at he pages of the flight logs here: http://www.vmb443.com/log.htm you will see several entries for 35114 in 1945 (scroll to the bottom and work up.) I don't believe they appear prior to that..

  4. Clarence Post was on his way home to Kingston, NY and was set to be discharged from the USMC upon his arrival. He was actually supposed to arrive home either days or weeks before the week of August 3, 1945, but gave up his seat to a fellow serviceman (the serviceman had received a furlough and was upset he couldn't visit his family, Clarence (or Tootsie as his family called him) knew what it was like to miss home so much, so he graciously pushed back his departure date as a favor to his brother in arms).

    My family members had never actually known the details of Tootsie's death-just that it wasn't in combat, and that he was in a plane crash on his way home from the South Pacific. His parents received a telegram informing that their son had been declared MIA and eventually KIA and also referred to as "Lost at Sea". I've tried to find more details on his service records, but this is as far as I've gotten.

    Please pass along any information that you may find.

    1. Thanks, Shana, for writing both here and and by email. I'll update the post soon with the news article you shared.