Russia Searches for U.S. Plane That Vanished Mysteriously in World War II

Mud flies as a U.S. Catalina flying boat lands at an airbase. Russian authorities believe they have found one such plane which had been lent to Moscow by the U.S. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Experts in Russia may have discovered the wreckage of a U.S.-made seaplane that was lost in a blaze of fire near the end of World War II, according to Moscow officials.

Drilling into the ground of Russia's far eastern Primorye region, a team of regional and foreign experts believe they are about to unearth what is left of a PB1-Catalina flying boat that crashed off the Sea of Japan in 1945. Bits of the aircraft are ready to be age-tested, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Monday.

"The researchers were able to recover samples from the flying boat's outer layer and a range of marked parts, and fragments of military uniform that were part of the flight parachute equipment," said Nikolay Voskresenskiy, spokesman for Russia's Pacific Fleet. The findings will undergo forensic testing to determine if they resemble the U.S.-made planes of the 1940s.

Whether the aircraft was shot down or crashed for other reasons, Voskresenskiy did not say. Soviet records show the plane collided with a hill in the nearby area, causing the crash and subsequent blast that violently scattered parts of the aircraft across the vicinity. What researchers know already is that the U.S.-made plane was not part of an American mission in the North Pacific.

The Russian fleet confirmed that the lost seaplane was likely piloted by one of their own operatives, after being given to Moscow by the U.S. military.

Related: Russia searches Sea of Japan for submarines lost during World War II

The wreckage is assumed to be the result of a crash in 1945 by Soviet Pacific Fleet's reconnaissance force, which used the PB1-Catalina to run missions north of Japan. The plane is also known as a "flying boat" because of its ability to make amphibious landings at sea and in muddier waters closer to land.

The Catalina seaplane was one of hundreds provided by the U.S. to the Soviet military during the war as part of a relief effort in the face of depleted capabilities, according to the Russian defense ministry. The so-called U.S. Lend-Lease Act allowed for Soviet, as well as British and Chinese, forces to receive American military kit as of 1941.

Attempts to recover the aircraft were made in 2005 and 2006, according to state news agency RIA Novosti, but neither was conclusive. The recovery of the Catalina plane is part of an effort by the Russian government to explore sites of suspected U.S.-made aircraft, with the help of American experts.

Although Soviet-U.S. relations before and after the war were tense, the deal meant Washington considered Soviet defense against the Nazis "vital to the defense of the United States."

The Soviet resistance against Nazi Germany's advance in western Russia and Eastern Europe played a decisive role in the Allied victory. The Kremlin eventually declared war on Japan in the latter half of 1945, and hostilities lasted just over three weeks until Tokyo surrendered, following two U.S. nuclear strikes and a Soviet-backed counteroffensive in Manchuria.

Most Russians today believe the Soviet Union could have defeated Germany without Western help, and historians consider the lend-lease effort an important factor in the Red Army's success.

The Soviet military's most decorated officer, Georgy Zhukov, said in a 1966 televised interview that "the Americans gave us so many materials, without which we would not have been able to form our supplies and would not have been able to continue the war." The interview only made it to air after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Update | Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the Catalina was not a jet plane.