Seymour, Indiana - WWII planes buried under airport
Searchers in Seymour, Indiana, look underground for some of the secrets of World War II -- Nazi secrets, to be precise.
The Allies shipped Nazi planes to Freeman Field so pilots and engineers could fly them, take them apart, and put them back together again.
What they learned was important, because American planes weren't as advanced.
What happened to those planes after the war is still a mystery.
Today's Freeman Field airport looks -- and feels -- a lot quieter than the busy Army airfield that operated 67 years ago at the end of World War II. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians worked at Freeman Field to study Germany's airplanes and rockets.
Scott Cooper is part of the Freeman Field Recovery Team, a group of aviation and military historians learning the planes' -- and the field's -- history. "At that point in the war, in the fighting, the Germans were years ahead of us in the areas of technology," Cooper said.
The Allies seized the aircraft in Europe and then shipped them to Seymour for what's called "reverse engineering."
"They were actually developing the first jet aircraft over in Germany, so we had a chance to bring that aircraft over here, break it down, examine the engine, examine the aircraft, and find out things that we might be able to use on the aircraft that we were building at the time," Cooper said. "About 81 different types of aircraft were brought here, including V-1 and V-2 missiles."
The Army showed the public the enemy planes during an open house in 1946, as the work wound down. Eventually, everyone wanted to forget about the war.
But what happened to those planes? "What they didn't want to take away for museum purposes or display purposes, they would just dig these big pits and dump everything in and cover them up and just leave it there," Cooper said. Workers buried them on the edges of the airfield.
Cooper and fellow volunteers have since recovered hundreds of plane parts. "In some cases you can still see the German words on there," Cooper said, as he showed ID tags and metal stampings to a reporter. "The one day when we found 12 propeller blades, that was pretty exciting."
He held one of them, clean, shiny and pock-marked. "This one still is pitted, but we'll take it out and we'll restore it, we'll bend it back into shape. We will put some putty over it, smooth it out and repaint it, and make it look almost like it is new."
The Freeman Field Recovery Team is at least the third group to search for parts at Freeman Field since the early 1990s. It's in the midst of a five-year contract with the city of Seymour. Should its members decide to sell anything they've found here, they'll split the proceeds with the city.
But there's still something the team wants to find. Parts are good, but something whole is better. "We would love to find an airplane fuselage. The eyewitnesses that we have spoken to and the second hand stories that we have heard say that there are at least three that are buried in and around the airfield," Cooper said, confirming local lore.
The searchers are using what's called a Blood Hound to scan the place where those planes might be, a small patch of farm field at the end of a runway. "We're looking for any signs of a previous excavation, previous burial," said Brian Clem of Blood Hound Under Ground Utility Locators.
A radar unit on wheels connects to a GPS and a computer mapping program. It surveys the ground, much like weather radar or an ultrasound. Those colorful blobs tell a lot.
"If I have some bright oranges that are only a few inches down, I can be pretty sure that isn't an airplane fuselage. If I have some big area that's bright orange at four-and-a-half, five feet down, we're going to get a whole lot excited about that," Clem said, with a grin.
Perhaps the JU-88 bomber, or a Messerschmitt jet fighter is there? Those were planes popular in the 1946 open house.
The latest images are promising, but no one will dig further until warmer weather and drier ground arrive in the spring. "To realize that history, to be able to touch it and feel it and restore it and bring it back so other people can see it, is pretty exciting. In some cases it probably helped us to win the war," Cooper said.
Searchers say the mud has helped to preserve the metal plane parts over the years.
Not everything's rusty. Many of the finds are on display at the Freeman Field museum at the airport.