MIA: No man left behind? Two B-24 crash sites off the northern Italian Coast – By Bill Beigel

Tail right stabilizer 2
Tail Right Stabilizer of the B-24 being recovered

Two crews from the 449th Bomb Group were lost 13 months apart; one in January of 1944; the other in February of 1945. Both went down off the coast of Northern Italy. And though their wartime missions were very different, in the end, their stories are the same.

B-24 tail #41-29217, was piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Ben Newman Kendall, 23, born in Abilene, Texas, on December 14, 1919. He was the son of Owen W. Kendall, a veteran of World War 1, and Sarah J. Kendall. Lieutenant Kendall entered the Air Corps from Las Animas County, in southern Colorado, part of the dry high plains country bordering northern New Mexico. Kendall was an experienced flyer for one so young, and was one of the original cadre of pilots belonging to his squadron, the 718th.

The Luftwaffe airfield at Udine, in Northern Italy, was Kendall-and-crew’s target on January 30, 1944. While over the target, at about 12:30, they were jumped by the Luftwaffe, flying both Me 109 and Fw-190 fighters.

Two other flyers from the 718th reported what happened next:

“. . . As I looked down I could see the right wing on Lt. Kendall’s ship ablaze. I also saw two enemy fighters diving on him and firing as they came. The ship went out of formation into a long downward glide. I did not see anyone bail out.” –Staff Sergeant John E. Nash

“. . . The right wing was in flames and the ship was in a long downward glide with two ME 109s on her tail firing into her . . . . the ship was badly crippled and a crash was inevitable.” –Staff Sergeant Joseph F. Clark

No American military witnesses could pinpoint where exactly the B-24 went down, but the remains of Lieutenant Kendall and his copilot, 1st Lieutenant Fletcher S. Porter, were found by German personnel near the small village of Sanmardenchia, and buried nearby in the civilian cemetery at Grado. After the war, Lieutenant Kendall was buried in the Florence American Military Cemetery at Via Cassia, Italy, while the family of Lieutenant Porter opted to have his remains returned home. Lieutenant Porter was buried at the Georgetown Cemetery in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1950.

Remarkably, the flight engineer of the crew, Staff Sergeant Harvey Gann, survived the crash, and escaped from his POW camp on his fourth attempt. In his book about the events of January 30, 1944, Escape I Must (Woodburner Pr, 1995), it was revealed that the B-24 crashed on the little island of Morgo, in the shallow lagoon off Grado, Italy. It was from this location that the remains of 2nd Lieutenant Harry B. McGuire, of Randolph County, IL, were recently recovered. The wreckage is believed to still lie in in about 10 feet of mud on Morgo, but has not been fully investigated by American military authorities, despite ongoing efforts by families of the crew.

The rest of the crew are still considered missing. The full crew were:

  • 1st Lieutenant Ben N. Kendall, Pilot (Abilene, TX), Age 23, KIA
  • 1st Lieutenant Fletcher S. Porter, KIA
  • 2nd Lieutenant Harry B. McGuire, Navigator, Age 24, MIA
    2nd Lieutenant Pershing J. Hill, Bombardier (Nanticoke, PA), Age 26, MIA
  • Staff Sergeant Given C. Grooms, Radio Operator (Pike County, OH), Age 21, MIA
  • Staff Sergeant Nick Gavalas, Gunner (Birmingham, AL), Age 20, MIA
  • Corporal Gerald W. Herrington, Assistant Flight Engineer (Lansing, MI), Age 22, MIA
  • Sergeant William A. Jones, Assistant Radio Operator (Floyd County, GA), Age 27, MIA
  • Staff Sergeant Harold T. Thompson, Ball Turret Gunner (Latah County, ID) MIA

Thirteen months later, on February 28, 1945, with the end of the war in Europe only weeks away, B-24 tail #42-51642 headed down the runway for a mission to Northern Italy. Their target was the Isarco-Albes Railroad bridge, a conduit for German forces being rushed to battle to the south.

One of the gunners of this crew was Staff Sergeant Albert Acampora, of New Haven, Connecticut. He was the son of Anthony and Fortunado Acampora, and had been in the Air Corps since March 31, 1943. He served his Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, qualifying as a rifleman. From there, he volunteered for flight duty, and was sent to Amarillo, Texas, then to Lowery Field, Colorado, then Tyndall Field, Florida, and finally Westover Field, Massachusetts, prior to being sent overseas. He was 23 years old on the date of his final mission.

Lt Hanson
1st Lieutenant Howard Hanson

The crew to which Sergeant Acampora belonged was piloted by 1st Lieutenant Howard Hanson, of Stoughton, Wisconsin.

The entire crew were:

  • 1st Lieutenant Howard Hanson, Pilot (Soughton, WI) Age 23, MIA
  • 2nd Lieutenant Edward H. Betz, Co-pilot (Buffalo, NY), KIA
  • 2nd Lieutenant Clarence L. Dragoo, Navigator (Sandyville, WV), Age 21, MIA
  • 2nd Lieutenant Richard M. Horowitz, Radar Navigator (Brookline, MA), Age 22, MIA
  • 2nd Lieutenant Darrell E. German, Bombardier (Dayton, OH), KIA
  • Technical Sergeant Lawrence W. Brady, Flight Engineer (Tyler, TX), Age 22, MIA
  • Technical Sergeant Lawrence F. Nally, Ball Turret Gunner (Pittsburgh, PA), Age 23, MIA
  • Staff Sergeant Adolph Turpin, Right Waist Gunner (Bedford, IN), KIA
  • Staff Sergeant James Cox, Tail Gunner (Hopedale, MA), KIA
  • Staff Sergeant Thomas M. McGraw, Nose Gunner (Lakewood, OH), Age 27, MIA

Adoph Turpin - ltr & news report_Page_1

After being hit by enemy aircraft fire, the plane struggled to keep up with the rest of the formation. There were no survivors from the crew, but one witness, 2nd Lieutenant Harold Hultquist, of Walthill, Nebraska, saw the bomber “. . . skimming the mountain tops. Two engines were out . . . .” No one knew for certain where the doomed bomber went down.

It took years of investigation after the war to learn more about the doomed B-24. On July 6, 1949, Major General Edward F. Whitsell, of the Adjutant General’s office, penned a letter to Sergeant Acampora’s parents.

Thomas M. McGraw is the center, flanked by two of his mates.
Thomas M. McGraw is the center, flanked by two of his mates.

“When over the target, the aircraft was seriously damaged by enemy antiaircraft action and, although it kept pace with the other planes in the formation when rallying from the bomb run, it was seen to lose altitude and veer to the right, toward the Adriatic Sea. Subsequently, the bodies of three of the members of this crew (Betz, German, and Turpin, author’s note) were found at three Italian coastal towns located on the Gulf of Venice, an arm of the Adriatic Sea. In view of the above, it is reasonable to conclude that the plane plunged into the Gulf of Venice and that all on board perished. There, the records of the Department of the Army are being amended to show that Sergeant Acampora was killed in action on 28 February 1945, in the Gulf of Venice.”

On December 1, 1950, a fishing troller found the remains of Sergeant Acampora 20 miles off the coast of Venice, still enveloped in his parachute. He was then buried at Pellestrina, Italy, and, after being identified, was returned to the St. Lawrence Cemetery in New Haven for final burial. The remains of Hanson; Dragoo; Horwitz; Brady; Nally; and McGraw, were never located.

b24 Grado

b24 Grado_1

In the intervening years, the wreckage of Lieutenant Hanson’s B-24 has been found, just off the coast of Grado, Italy, in 30 meters of water. The wreckage was first discovered in the 1970s and has been studied extensively by Italian historian and Freddy Furlan since the 1980s. The Hanson crew’s plane was positively identified in 2013. A propeller from the plane was salvaged and set up as a memorial to the crew in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy to airmen who died during World War II.

Skull fragment
Skull fragment found by following the remains of a parachute. They have been reburied.

 

Human remains have been found at the wreckage site (see photos). Souvenir hunters have been seen at this underwater crash site, stripping away parts of the plane, equipment, possessions of the crew, and it is believed that they have also carried off some of the remains of the crew themselves. Like the final resting place of its brother B-24 from the 449th Bomb Group, containing the remains of the Kendall crew, the crash site has yet to be forensically investigated by the appropriate U.S. military personnel, despite ongoing efforts by the families of the lost crew members.

2011_07_17_B24 GRADO_ (53)_WEB

Seats
Seats

Update: A recovery expedition is planned for late summer, 2015. For the families, it can’t be soon enough. You can follow progress on a Facebook page dedicated to the Hanson crew.

Below is a link to video from the Sept. 14th, 2014 diving expedition to the Hanson Crew crash site by Freddy Furlan and his team, courtesy of historian Freddy Furlan of Italy and James Fox, nephew of SSGT Thomas McGraw.

Tail right stabilizer 1
Right Tail Stabilizer as found

Bill Beigel is an American military casualty researcher, specializing in facts relating to Americans who died or went missing in active duty in World War II and the wars with Korea and Vietnam. Beigel’s research assists individuals and groups seeking the  circumstances of military deaths in 20th-Century wars, as next-of-kin usually received very little information during wartime. To date, Beigel has researched more than sixteen hundred individuals for over a thousand clients. Beigel holds a BA in History and a Masters in Geography, both from UCLA. A large collection of Beigel’s research was recently accepted into the American Air Museum in Duxford, England. For more information, please visit http://ww2research.com.