History In The Headlines

Search for Long-Lost World War II Dead Heats Up in Italy

By Barbara Maranzani
On April 29, 1945, three armored, amphibious vehicles attached to the 605th Field Artillery unit of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division set out on a nighttime mission under a cloud of rain in northern Italy in the waning days of World War II. Tasked with hunting down retreating German troops and capturing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s mountain stronghold, tragedy soon struck the convoy when one if its amphibious trucks—officially known as a DUKW but more popularly referred to as “ducks”— suddenly stalled and began taking on water. Within minutes, the duck had sunk beneath the lake’s surface, stranding 25 U.S. soldiers in its frigid waters. All but one of the men aboard the “duck” perished in the early morning hours of April 30, and for more than 68 years their remains have laid at the bottom of the lake. Now, however, marine archaeologist and World War II veterans have renewed hope that both the wreckage and the remains have been located and may soon return home.
Wreckage of WWII DUKW on the floor of Italy's Lake Garda. (Credit: Voluntary Association of Lake Garda)

Wreckage of WWII DUKW on the floor of Italy's Lake Garda. (Credit: Voluntary Association of Lake Garda)

The first attempt at locating the wreckage of the duck took place in 2004, led by a Connecticut-based underwater archaeology group, ProMare, which had successfully located similar WWII wreck sites in Japan, Greece and elsewhere, including the 2005 discovery of the wreckage of a Norwegian ferry sunk in 1944 that was believed to have been carrying cargo for the Nazi’s atomic bomb program. Equipment problems limited the team’s effectiveness, and the search was soon called off without locating the wreckage.

ProMare remained involved in the search, however, providing aid to subsequent expeditions. In 2011, a local Italian group, the Voluntary Association of Lake Garda, launched a series of high-tech expeditions including sonar and unmanned submersibles, to locate the wreckage. In December 2012, they released video of a World War II-era U.S. amphibious truck sitting more than 600 feet below the lake’s surface, which matched the description of the vehicle that sunk in April 1945. However, there were at least two other American ducks lost in Lake Garda during the war, complicating efforts for a positive identification. No U.S. servicemen were lost in the other incidents.

This week, the Lake Garda team announced plans for another search to take place later this year or in early 2014, where they hope to recover the rusted vehicle and search for any remains. So far, however, they have received no assistance from the U.S. organization tasked with locating the remains of U.S. soldiers. The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, has stated that they will not officially join the Lake Garda search until they are presented with more concrete evidence that the site contains the remains of American servicemen.

These latest efforts at locating the long-missing crew have been welcome news for World War II veterans, especially members of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, who have long lobbied for retrieval of the remains. Thomas Hough, the sole survivor of the April 1945 sinking who credited his own survival with a pre-war stint as a lifeguard, died in 2005.

More than 20,000 six-wheeled drive DUKWs saw service during World War II. Used initially in the Pacific Theater, they proved crucial in the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy and the D-Day invasions of Normandy. After the war, large numbers of the vehicles were donated to American allies who continued to use them for training exercises and as tourist crafts for more than four decades. For the United States, they were phased out after playing a key role in the Korean War.

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Categories: Shipwrecks, World War II