By Kristiana Hall
The remains of a WWII bomber pilot who sacrificed himself so his crew could escape have been found 74 years after he disappeared – more than 230ft underwater.
US army air force Second Lieutenant Ernest Vienneau disappeared while piloting his B-17 bomber on November 6, 1944 after being hit by anti-aircraft guns.
While co-pilot Ernest, 25, managed to land the aircraft in the sea off the coast of Vis, Croatia, so his crew could escape, his body remained on the plane when it then sank later that day.
Despite attempts to contact the Army, his parents were only told the former mill worker, who was a bachelor when he died, was ‘lost at sea’ – leaving loved ones questioning the circumstances of his death.
Now, an underwater photographer has revealed Ernest’s final resting place after discovering his body lying intact in the wreckage of his aircraft and capturing pictures of the abandoned aircraft.
Snapper Steve Jones, 47 from Aberdare, South Wales and Andi Marovic, who runs a local dive centre, discovered the wreck of the bomber in September 2016.
Later, with the help of a single image and research from Croatian historian Daniiel Frka, they were been able to contact Ernest’s family for the first time.
Steve said that despite the jubilation he felt when he first descended on this iconic bomber it was nonetheless a sad moment, knowing the co-pilot lost his life on the fateful flight.
Steve said: “The aircraft was in such remarkable condition, it was as if it had just landed.
“Daniiel had discovered that the pilot had made a skilled water landing after they lost power to the last engine while trying to land at Vis airfield, a place where many crippled bombers headed for after being shot up over Europe during the war.
“Ernest’s body was left on board as the crew had no time to evacuate him before the aircraft filled with water and sank.
“The dive was a solemn experience as we knew Ernest’s remains were on board.
“The whole experience had a personal dimension for me as my own grandfather was a gunner on RAF bombers in WW2.
“Later, my image was commended in the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2017 competition and due to Daniiel’s research in identifying the plane, I was able to mention Ernest’s name in the image caption.
“I was stunned when the organisers of the competition passed on an email from Ernest’s nephew, Robert Vienneau, who was trying to track me down after a friend of theirs recognised the unusual surname the caption.
“I’ve been in touch with Ernest’s descended family ever since.
“These images meant so much to them, as they had not until that point known about nor seen the final resting place of Ernest, who like so many others had his life cut short at a young age.”
According to what the family knows about Ernest’s background, he grew up in a paper mill town, Millinocket, Maine, USA, and had ten living siblings as well as two more who died in childhood.
He served with the 340th Bombardment Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group and died during a bombing mission over enemy targets in Maribar, Yugoslavia.
Searches for his remains were conducted after the war but had been unsuccessful – and his family were only told he had died at sea, despite writing letters to the army asking for details of his death.
While his parents had done as much as they could in the 40s, it was Robert who when he was living in London discovered details of Ernest’s memorial on the Tablets of the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy.
Ernest’s family have also now requested that if the divers ever return to the wreck that they leave flowers on the co-pilot’s seat for them.
They have also raised a headstone in the Millinocket Cemetery in his hometown so if discussed plans to remove his remains in future are successful they can be transported to a grave there.
Robert Vienneau, 76, who lives in Boston, said: “Ernest died in 1944 when the oldest of us were infants.
“His parents wrote letters to the Army asking for details of his death but they were advised he was lost at sea and not much more.
“One of my old friends, Charlie, had seen the article and the name Vienneau popped out in the picture caption.
“He had only met one Vienneau in his lifetime, so he assumed I might know him and contacted me on February 2017.
“Since then we have contacted a number of the 35 first cousins and collected pictures and memories of Ernest and the family.
“Sadly our grandparents and all of Ernest’s siblings have passed, except from two spouses who are still with us and helped in pulling together pictures.
“The internet has many detractors, but without the internet this story could not have been told.
“I initially asked the divers and people involved that if they ever dove on the plane again, would they leave flowers on the co-pilot’s seat for us.
“Since then a number of others have become involved and there could be a plan to retrieve his remains.
“Should that happen, he has a grave waiting for him in Millinocket and the veteran’s group have agreed to have an honour guard and escort for his returns.”
Chelsea Carbonell, a great-niece of Ernest, said: “We were amazed when we saw the photo.
“I had heard vague stories about my great-uncle Ernest as a child, but had no idea they found his plane.
“I am so moved by this whole experience, and grateful that my great-uncle is being remembered and honoured for his sacrifice.”