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Nile Kinnick Final Flight Site Located?
Carlson: Site of fatal Kinnick crash found
By JOHN CARLSON
The little fighter plane has been at the bottom of the sea for 59 years, seven months and 24 days.
Maybe it should stay there forever.
It's just that there's this very determined Californian, a lawyer and
former FBI agent, who has vowed to find and raise the plane that carried
Navy Ensign Nile Kinnick - Iowa's greatest football hero - to his
"I've been wondering about this for years," 77-year-old Richard Tosaw said by telephone from Trinidad, where he spent two days last week searching a tiny area of the Caribbean between Trinidad and the Venezuelan coast. "I decided it was time to see where Nile died and to find the plane."
Tosaw, using old ship's logs and new technology, believes he's found the exact spot where Kinnick, the only player from an Iowa college ever to win the Heisman Trophy, crashed his plane during a World War II training exercise.
An honest-to-goodness Iowa legend, Kinnick was a boyhood hero to Tosaw and probably thousands of other American boys.
Kinnick came out of Adel and starred for the great 1939 University of Iowa Hawkeye team that became known as the Ironmen. He won the Heisman that year and was voted the nation's top athlete, defeating the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis. The Hawkeyes' stadium is named in his honor.
He was the classic all-American boy - Phi Beta Kappa, a leader, the kind of person who friends said could become anything. Even president of the United States.
The 24-year-old Kinnick had just taken off from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington on June 2, 1943, when oil started pouring from his plane's engine.
Kinnick could have tried a landing back on the carrier's deck, but that would have endangered the dozens of pilots and crewmen who were still launching planes. Instead, he ditched the plane in the water, about four miles from the carrier.
Rescuers arrived within a few minutes but found nothing but an oil slick on the water.
Tosaw, an Omaha native who lived for a time on western Iowa farms, and whose brother briefly played football at Iowa in 1938 with Kinnick, says he found the crash site on the second day of his search.
"It's in 101 feet of water. That's not very deep. We took a sample from the bottom and talked to fishermen in the area. It's in an area that's heavily silted in. Real muck. We believe it's sunk several feet into that at the bottom."
Tosaw and Martin Woodward, a diver friend from England who has located numerous shipwrecks, spent Wednesday and Thursday searching a fairly narrow area in the Gulf of Paria on the edge of Venezuelan territorial waters.
"We knew exactly where to look," Tosaw said. "We have the coordinates from the Lexington ship's log that gave details of the crash. We have a Global Positioning System unit. That's how we were able to get right to the location."
Navy authorities said Kinnick was likely knocked unconscious when his plane hit the water. If that's true, he wouldn't have had a chance to get out of the cockpit. His remains might well still be in the plane.
"Maybe we'll be able to retrieve his dog tags," said Tosaw. "The ultimate would be to bring up the entire plane, or whatever is left of it. That's our plan, or at least our hope."
What would he do with the wreckage?
"I think it ought to be taken back to Iowa and put on display in some manner, probably at the university," he said. "If that's not practical, it would be an appropriate item to be placed in a museum."
Tosaw knows some people will consider his attempt to locate and remove items from the grave ghoulish and disrespectful.
"It's a legitimate point of discussion," he said. "I don't feel it's wrong to be doing this. I spoke to Nile's father about this probably 20 years ago, and he wasn't too interested. He said it sounded to him like I'd be digging up the graveyard, so I left it alone. But Nile's parents and siblings are all gone. It won't bother anybody now."
Tosaw and Woodward once tried to find the downed plane of Iowa-born bandleader Glenn Miller, who died in a World War II crash in the English Channel. That wasn't practical, he said, given the harsh water and weather conditions at the crash site.
Locating the site of the Kinnick crash was relatively easy, given the technology, he said. The only remaining problem he foresees is receiving permission to take equipment to the area to work on raising the plane. The searchers will use a magnetometer to pinpoint the plane's location before making the dive.
"We're working out of Trinidad, but the crash site actually is about four miles inside Venezuelan territorial waters," he said. "I don't believe that will be an insurmountable obstacle. The plane has no real value. It's not like we're looking for gold or something."
It's an expensive project, but Tosaw, a bachelor with no children, says he doesn't mind.
He wrote a book on the disappearance of infamous airliner hijacker D.B. Cooper and owns a business in California that locates heirs of people who died leaving unclaimed estates.
"I can take off to the Caribbean and do this sort of thing if I want," he said. "I've made some money over the years. I can afford to have a little fun."
So what's the point of all this? Why spend thousands of dollars to poke around a hero's grave?
"Maybe we'll be able to clear up some questions," he said. "Maybe we'll find something and be able to determine how Nile died. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time. It's a personal adventure. It's a way to solve a mystery."
Iowans will have to decide for themselves whether the Kinnick crash
is a mystery that needs solving.
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|Page last updated 21 Feb 2003|