Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Family following investigation of B-24 crash site where Lakewood, Ohio, flier may lie

CLEVELAND, Ohio – On Feb. 28, 1945, an American B-24 Liberator bomber dropped out of formation after being hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing mission on a railroad bridge in northern Italy.

Other planes of the 449th Bomb Group, stationed in Italy during World War II, reported seeing the plane losing altitude with two of its four engines disabled. Its 11-man crew included Staff Sgt. Thomas McGraw, 27, a nose-gunner from Lakewood who was flying his last, fatal mission.

The bomber disappeared, flying into the skies of mystery. In the following months, four bodies identified as crewmen from the ill-fated B-24 either washed ashore or were netted by fishermen from the Adriatic Sea near Grado, Italy. The skeletal remains of a fifth crewman surfaced five years later.
McGraw was not among them.

Years passed and the bomber was eventually discovered where it had crashed about 10 miles from the Italian coast in the Adriatic Sea. The B-24 was lying 40 feet under water, broken apart and partially buried in sand. Divers soon stripped the wreckage of anything that might make a good souvenir or salvage profit.

The bomber’s grave became a popular spot for recreational diving – to the shock and horror of McGraw’s nephew, Jim Fox, formerly of Lakewood and now living in Georgia. After the aircraft was positively identified late last year, Fox learned the fate of his long-lost uncle and launched an online petition to have the U.S. government immediately recover McGraw’s remains and those of other missing crewmen that may still lie there and at another B-24 crash site nearby.

Citing widespread coverage of the plane’s discovery in the Italian media, Fox recently said, “It’s gotten to the point where this is not a burial site any more, it’s a circus. This site should be left alone.”

He described the underwater souvenir hunters as “grave robbers. It’d be like me digging in a graveyard just to see what I could find.”

Fox has been communicating with the Italian diving team that identified the wreckage and has been working with authorities in efforts to preserve and protect the site. During visits to the sunken bomber, divers brought up a skull fragment (now in custody of the Italian police) and also found bones that were carefully re-covered with sand to hide them.

Fox said the dive team was able to determine that when the B-24 crashed, it broke in two. The front of the plane dropped to the bottom, and the rear portion settled on top of it, burying the nose in the sand. The skull fragment was found in that area, according to Fox.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Floyd Trogdon, president of the 449th Bomb Group Association, said the group has been working with federal MIA recovery officials regarding investigation of both the site where McGraw’s bomber crashed, and the wreckage of another B-24 that was shot down in 1944 and crashed on land, in the same general area.

Trogdon said the association was able to track down surviving family members of all 12 missing crewmen from both bombers so DNA samples could be obtained for possible identification of remains. He said it was the first time in its 31-year history that the 1,500-member group had taken on this task.

The former World War II aviator is concerned regarding possible looting at both sites.

Trogdon also wondered if the recently announced re-organization of the U.S. Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Pentagon’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office will affect MIA search and recovery missions.

“We’re trying to keep the pressure on,” he said. “I don’t know what the re-organization will look like. It’s going to be taking their eyes off the ball. But JPAC has promised there will be no delay in getting to our sites.

"As long as they can stay on track, we're going to give them all the support we can," he added. 

Maj. Jamie Dobson, of JPAC, said a team will visit the site of McGraw’s B-24 in May to verify the plane’s identity and determine the requirements for a full recovery mission in fiscal year 2015.

Dobson noted that although the team does not plan to recover any remains during next month’s visit, that might happen if any remains “are thought to be in imminent danger of loss or disturbance.”

Freddy Furlan, an Italian diver and author who has researched and written about crashed World War II aircraft in Italy, said in an e-mail that authorities have prohibited any anchoring, fishing and diving within 150 meters of the wreck. But he noted the prohibition is temporary, and feared that if it is not extended, "in a few months the site will begin to be visited by hundreds of divers."

He is particularly concerned about divers pillaging the wreck for souvenirs, ruining any chances for recovering remains.
That's the blessing and the curse in discovery of the site, according to Fox. There’s a chance that remains of his uncle could be found and recovered. There’s also a chance that they won’t. 

 “If they crashed in deeper water, probably no one would be the wiser,” Fox said.

His uncle was the oldest of nine children including seven boys; six who served in the military during the war. In his youth, Fox tried to talk with his other uncles about their brother who didn’t come back from war, but “they were always hush-hush about it,” he recalled.

He said he later learned that McGraw’s mother took her son’s loss badly.

“I can understand that,” he added. “I’ve always taken a keen interest in my missing uncle. Every Memorial Day I put a sign in front of my house that says: Thomas M. McGraw, World War II MIA, LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.”

The sign will be back up this year.

Fox’s sister, Cecilia Ann Backman, of Olmsted Falls, said the lost flier’s mother “used to always hope he was somewhere in Europe. She had a hard time dealing with his death.”

Backman has donated a sample of her DNA for possible use in identifying her uncle’s remains. “I’m hoping for my grandparents’ sake we can get him home and bury his remains on U.S. soil,” she said.

She said if McGraw’s remains are found and identified, they could be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Cleveland, where his parents are buried, or at a military cemetery.

Maggie McGraw, of Bryan, Texas, the daughter of Joseph McGraw (Thomas’s brother) said she learned of the bomber’s identification on Veterans Day last year. Her father had just died a few months earlier, the last of the nine siblings to go, and she said, “I just couldn’t believe it. It was just so amazing. It’s a shame my grandmother and my dad and all his siblings are gone.”

She said her father told her about her missing uncle when she was very young, and she responded, “ ‘But Dad, wait, maybe he’s still alive.’ I had dreams that he was living in Italy, but then, that’s a child. So hopeful and everything.”

McGraw said she recently found some strands of her father’s hair that she plans to send to the 449th Bomb Group Association for possible use in DNA identification. She also plans to attend the association’s annual reunion in Dayton this summer.

“It’s a relief to know that his remains will be discovered and identified. I’m just overwhelmed,” she said. “If and when he comes home, we’ll be up in Lakewood to put him to rest.”

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