It was April 29, 1945. World War II was nearly over. Former Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini was dead, killed by partisans at Lake Como on April 28, and his body mutilated and strung up in a Milan gas station. His Axis partner-in-crime Adolf Hitler would commit suicide in a Berlin bunker on the 30th. The Germans in Italy surrendered on May 2, 1945.
On April 29, 1945, the U.S. 10th Mountain Division was at the northern end of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, engaged in chasing the remaining Germans northward to the base of the Alps. To ensure their getaway, the retreating enemy blew up some highway tunnels along the lake’s eastern shore, effectively preventing the Yanks from pursuing them.
But the mountain troops were nothing if not resourceful. They requested some DUKWs––amphibious trucks––that would enable some of them to cross the lake to the northwestern shore and continue their advance. Fifth Army provided the vehicles.
But something on that sunny Sunday went terribly wrong. For reasons still unknown, a DUKW carrying a 75mm pack howitzer and 24 soldiers from the 10th and a DUKW crewman, sank near the middle of the lake in cold water 900 feet deep. One man survived, but the vehicle and the other men were never seen again.
A tragedy, to be sure––one of countless tragedies of that war. But that is not the end of the story. While at Texas A&M University, Brett Phaneuf did preliminary search-and-mapping work at Lake Garda, trying to locate the wreck. Based on Phaneuf’s data, an organization––Il Gruppo Volontari del Garda/Nucleo Sommozzatori (The Garda Volunteer Group and Divers Corps)––reported in January 2013 that, after a year of searching with sonar, they believe they have located the site of the sunken DUKW.
A wire-guided remotely operated underwater vehicle equipped with lights and two cameras confirmed that the object found is that of a DUKW, sitting upright on the lake bottom. The group’s preliminary report says, “Visual inspection of the wreck indicated no human remains or military gear. However, the sonar scan found numerous small targets spread around.”
Luca Turrini, spokesman for Il Gruppo Volontari del Garda, said, “Final objective of this project is to find the human remains related to the DUKW and items pertaining to the cargo. It might not be so simple since the mud at the bottom covers most of these items. In any event, our sonar has reported a great number of targets: this would encourage the success of this project. The complete recovery and bringing the DUKW to shore will be a much larger project. It will involve agencies, institutions, specialized companies, and external staff.”
Mike Plummer, president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, reported, “Italian divers discovered the underwater remains of a DUKW in Lake Garda. They have requested funds to check if it is the 10th Mountain Division’s DUKW that went down on 29 April 1945…. The Association, in partnership with the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, the National Descendants Organization, Submergence, and a foundation known as ProMare, has voted to provide funds to help defray costs for Gruppo Volontari del Garda who will film and identify the DUKW and associated targets in its vicinity. The project is not intended to retrieve the DUKW or the remains of possible 10th Mountain Division soldiers, but to verify the identification of the DUKW and the potential remains that may be nearby.”
Steve Coffey, president of the 10th Mountain Descendants group, said, “We received a request for some funds from the search group to help with expenses for a second search that will try to determine if this is the 10th Mountain DUKW or another; apparently there is more than one DUKW in the lake. If they were to find the pack howitzer nearby or human remains, for example, that would be enough. Jeff Patton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is there observing and agreed to be our eyes and ears. Jeff was the air attaché at the embassy in Rome several years ago and has stayed very interested in the project. If remains are seen, Jeff is fully aware of the process and protocol for the next steps.”
Thomas E. Hames, chairman of the board of directors, 10th Mountain Division Foundation, said that, if the wreck proves to be that of the missing DUKW, “it allows us to locate their remains and may afford the family and the U.S. Army an opportunity to recover the remains or leave them where they are. It also might present an opportunity to work with the Italians to locate a small monument to the 24 mountain troopers who perished. That monument could be located on the shores of Lake Garda.”
I have a slightly tangential relationship to this project. The men who perished when the DUKW sank were members of Batteries B and C, 605th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack). My father was a member of Battery A, 605th Field Artillery (Pack). It is quite likely that he knew some of the young men who lost their lives at Lake Garda just a few days before the war ended.
I will report on any future developments.
Flint Whitlock, Editor