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Bruce Fenstermaker
Aircraft Salvager Turned MIA Researcher
Bruce Fenstermaker began traveling to the Pacific and Irian Jaya in the 1980 and early 1990's. He initially recovered aircraft wrecks for California aviation museums then became interested in Missing In Action (MIA) cases..
In memory: Bruce Fenstermaker passed away April 27, 2020.

Tell a little about yourself and your background

I've been married for 31 years to my wife, Linda. We have three grown children: Malynda, Jennifer, and Greg, and two granddaughters: Chelsie, and Rose. I grew up in Chino, California, with my parents, Doris and Lee, and three brothers.

How did you first get interested in the Pacific?
Click For EnlargementI guess you could say I inherited a love of aircraft from my father. His father (my granddad) used to take him to the Cleveland Air Races with his siblings when they were small children, something he had fond memories of as an adult. As a kid, I rode my bike seven miles one way from my home to Chino Airport. At Chino I got to wash and work on planes and become a general nuisance to the aircraft owners. The guys, who owned WWII era aircraft, didn't seem to mind too much, though, something that I was thankful for.

The group of guys my age I chummed around with had pretty much the same interest as I did- planes. We were known as the Chino Kids- a group that were willing to beg, borrow, and steal to simply be near the aircraft at the Airport. Being able to hang out with the Planes of Fame Museum founder Edward Maloney was an added bonus. I enlisted in the U.S. Army Helicopter Program during the Vietnam War, but had an uneventful stateside career.

When did you begin traveling to the Pacific?
Click For EnlargementIn 1983, dissatisfied with my career as it was, I set off to salvage aircraft abroad, though not without my wife’s blessing and encouragement. In starting out, I knew that most of the good aircraft had already been salvaged and the likelihood of my finding easily accessible aircraft was zero to nil, so I spent much of the first year researching various locations in the South Pacific to get a feel for what I was getting myself into. I then spoke to a good friend and neighbor, Soup Hoisington, looking for some pointers. Soup was the owner of a WWII aircraft modification and repair center Aero Sport at Chino Airport and had in the past worked with David Tallichet and others in recovering aircraft five years prior to my arriving on the scene.

Click For EnlargementSpeak your Salvage work for Museums
With that learning experience, I returned back home to the States, moderately disheartened but thinking that there had to be some some way to cut through the red tape. After about four years of surveys and careful negotiations with the Indonesian military and civilian government, I was granted through exchanges permission to salvage complete aircraft.

Click For EnlargmentLike the story of the lost Dutchman’s mine, one area called Babo Airfield had rare aircraft and word was getting out. Time was running out so in order to beat the competition. I recovered A6M3 Zero 3869. The aircraft was recovered and subsequently brought back to the U.S. and sold to Santa Monica Museum of Flying. After the sale I was approached by Santa Monica about a joint venture and I agreed, recovering G4M1 1208, D4Y1 Judy and Ki-61 Tony, plus the partial shipment of an A6M3 Model 22 Zero, A6M3 Model 32 Zero and Ki-45 Nick. The joint venture soured, spelling financial destruction for me. It broke my heart.

Click For EnlargementYet, for all of the bad, there was some silver lining. During those first surveys, I found some planes, alright, but that was not all. Quietly resting in the cockpit of a downed P-38 cradled in the jungle trees (to my shock and surprise) were the remains of an American pilot, canopy closed. I know it may sound strange, but looking at this long dead hero, my priorities shifted.

What got you interested in MIA cases?
Click For EnlargementI had never expected to or wanted to find MIAs, I’d been thinking all along that the missing air crew reports were just left alone- not updated as the men were recovered through the years. I recall a letter I sent to my wife not long after my discovery, “If I don’t bring any planes home, at least one MIA will come home.” As time went on thoughts of the huge profits the planes brought in became less and less as thoughts of sending these men back home at last became more and more frequent- all of this even before the joint venture fiasco. I then started using the money from the aircraft parts more and more on MIA research that turned into success.

P-47D Thunderbolt Serial Number 75940
Pilot Frankfort April 27, 1944

Thank you for the interview, Mr. Fenstermaker.

Dignity Memorial - Bruce Edward Fenstermaker October 30, 1949 – April 27, 2020

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