Between August 1943 and March 1945, Lt. j.g. David L. Mandt clocked more than 930 hours in the cockpit. Much of this time was spent in the South Pacific, where the Detroit native battled Japanese fighter pilots at Rabaul, Tarawa, Truk, Tinian and Guam, but as Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, Mandt’s final flight occurred in the Chesapeake Bay, thousands of miles away from the Pacific Theatre.
At 2:15 p.m. on March 18, 1945, the 23-year-old aircraft carrier pilot took off from Maryland’s Patuxent River Naval Air Station in an XF8F-1 Bearcat fighter craft. The vehicle, equipped with a 2,100-horsepower engine and propeller-driven hot rod, was the first of its kind, and Mandt, assigned to conduct a gunnery test mission gauging the model’s functionality and wing machine guns, completed three successful runs before flying south.
By 3:45 p.m., Mandt had still not returned. Flight operations staff sent search-and-rescue crews out into the area, and at 4:35 p.m., these planes spotted a large oil slick some six miles off of Point-No-Point Maryland. By 5:02 p.m., the non-profit Pacific Wrecks portal states, a crash boat dispatched to the site had recovered a seat back cushion, an oxygen bottle, pieces of flap assembly wreckage, and—most tellingly—a glove with the name “Mandt” scribbled on it.
Few definitive traces of either the pilot or his plane have materialized since. Still, Ruane writes for the Post, evidence unearthed by archaeologists from the Institute of Maritime History (IMH) and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) may point toward the missing Bearcat’s resting place, finally resolving the nearly 75-year-old maritime mystery.
According to Naval Aviation News’ Donna Cipolloni, IMH archaeologist Dan Lynberg dived to the bottom of the bay in hopes of examining an object first seen on sonar surveys carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It was an unusually clear day in 2010, affording what Lynberg describes to Ruane as, relatively speaking, a “really good view.” Although the vessel was covered in sea growth, debris and silt, the archaeologist says he could “tell by the structure and the wings that it was either a military fighter or aerobatic [airplane], just by the strength that was built into the wings.”
The plane’s cockpit, no longer protected by its bubble canopy, was filled nearly to the brim with sediment. Lynberg saw no signs of the pilot, and the photographs he took at the scene failed to develop.
Follow-up visits conducted by IMH and NHHC archaeologists in conjunction with the Navy have yielded additional insights on the wreck. As the Post notes, the shape of air intakes in the wings, the location of a gun camera lens and the almost 35-foot wingspan all point toward the sunken plane’s identity as Mandt’s Bearcat.
Still, NHHC underwater archaeologist George Schwarz tells Ruane, “We don’t really have that piece of evidence that we need to say conclusively that this is the aircraft that we think it is.”
To verify the wreck’s status, divers would need to excavate the cockpit and find a metal data plate bearing the plane’s bureau number: 90460. The Navy says the team hopes to return to the site in search of this proof next spring.
Investigators, lacking witnesses and physical evidence, failed to determine the cause of the accident during its immediate aftermath, Cipolloni of Naval Aviation News reports. Given the size of the oil slick and the fact that grappling operators found a separated piece of the engine the following day, it’s likely the incident was a violent crash.
“In the case of a high-impact collision into the water, you usually only get parts of the aircraft, maybe a wing or a fuselage; maybe it’s just basically a debris field,” Schwarz explains to Cipolloni. “This wreck is unique in that it’s fairly intact, so there are a lot of features and dimensions that will help us in identifying it.”
Mandt’s obituary ran in the Detroit Free Press on March 24, 1945. Per the article, the young pilot participated in nine carrier-based operations over the course of the war. He shot down two Japanese planes over New Ireland and earned a posthumous Air Medal for his service. Mandt was survived by his parents, his sister, and his wife, Virginia Sanders Mandt, whom he had married less than a month before the crash.