Willow Run Bomber Disappears, Italian Sherlock Holmes Solves Case 70 Years Later

On the 28th of February, 1945, American forces undertook an ambitious strike against the heart of the Axis powers. For Willow Run Bomber #42-51642 and her crew, it would be the last.

The mission plan called for the entire 15th Air Force, based in southern Italy, to strike targets along the strategically important Brenner Pass supply line linking Austria to battlefronts in northern Italy.

It was rumored that German troops were being moved up the Brenner Route, to be redirected to the southern front against the Russians. A successful attack on the Route’s bridges and marshaling yards (railroad yards in military use) would disrupt an orderly retreat, and cause traffic backups that would provide easy future targets for the Allies.

A Dangerous Mission Against a Well-defended Target

The strategically important Brenner Pass Nazi supply route

All four groups of the 15th AF’s 47th Bomb Wing were tasked that fateful day with destroying a critical railroad bridge at Albes, Italy, south of the Brenner Pass.

The B-24 Liberator bombers of the 449th Bomb Group were to lead the mission, and began taking off from their air base at Grottaglie, Italy at 8:46am. The formations were spaced 12 minutes apart to allow smoke to dissipate between bombings. In the deputy lead position, in the first formation, was pilot Howard Hanson of the 716th Bomb Squadron and his 11-man crew, flying a Willow Run-made B-24 with the serial number 42-51642. #42-51642 was what the men called a “Mickey ship,” equipped with then-new RADAR technology. The crew had an extra man, a specially trained radio operator dedicated to operating the newfangled equipment.

Just prior to takeoff, the Hanson crew’s original navigator, Anthony D. Fermano, who had flown with the crew since it assembled stateside in 1943, was ordered off the plane and assigned to another aircraft for the mission.

Close to noon that day, after reaching the IP (initial point of the bombing run) and as the group was approaching the target, they encountered moderate but highly accurate anti-aircraft fire. The fire was so accurate, in fact, that all 8 airships of the lead 716th Squadron took hits and had to drop their bombs short of the Albes bridge due to extensive damage. The remaining squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group scored some good hits, but also took damage.

They were followed by formations from the 450th, 98th, and 376th Bomb Groups, who achieved good bomb coverage of the target, with only one ship lost (from the 450th.)

It was a successful mission, but a costly one for the lead squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group.

The 716th Squadron Returns to Base, But One Lib Never Made It…

The Hanson crew: their ship was Willow Run B-24 Liberator bomber #42-51642

After dropping their loads, the ships of the 449th Bomb Group’s 716th Squadron turned to limp home, all 8 retaining damage. Three ships managed to land at friendly fields to get aid for wounded crew members. Other B-24s of the squadron were able to return to base in spite of heavy damage. Among the group heading for Grottaglie after the bombing run was the Hanson Crew in ship #42-51642.

The Hanson Crew had left the target with two engines out, and began to lag behind the returning formation. Navigator Anthony Fermano, assigned to another ship in the formation, heard his crewmates’ call for help as pilot Hanson radioed, “May Day, May Day.” Fermano watched helplessly as his friends dropped out of sight in a long, slow spiral, near Lake Weissen, Austria. The ship and crew never returned to base, and their fate was unknown.

The men lost with ship #42-51642 that day were: pilot Howard Hanson, co-pilot Edward Betz, navigator Clarence Dragoo, RADAR navigator Richard Horwitz, bombardier Darrell German, flight engineer Lawrence Brady, left waist gunner Adolph Turpin, radio operator/right waist gunner Lawrence Nally, nose gunner Thomas McGraw, ball gunner Albert Acampora, and tail gunner James Cox.

Rueful Recovery in the Aftermath of War, and a Touching Ritual of Remembrance

Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, made possible by the bombing missions of the 15th Air Force. In the chaotic aftermath of the war, one of the critical tasks undertaken by all nations was to identify war dead, notify families, and properly bury or re-bury the remains of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Allied forces classified the Hanson crew as missing in action after the Albes mission. But throughout the summer months of 1945, the bodies of gunner Turpin, bombardier German, gunner Cox and co-pilot Betz washed ashore near various Italian towns along the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, and were interred in local cemeteries by townspeople. As American forces learned of the burials later in the year, the men were re-interred in American military cemeteries in Italy.

This, of course, was evidence that ship #42-51642 and her crew had been lost at sea on the return from the Albes mission. But the location of the wreckage and the other crew members remained a mystery as World War II concluded, and the matter was not investigated.

Years later, in 1950, Acampora’s remains were netted and hauled aboard a fishing boat near Chioggia, Italy and buried in a local cemetery without any notification of American authorities. It wasn’t until 1957, when the German War Graves Commission was in the area retrieving German war dead for re-interment, that Acampora’s remains were discovered and identified by dog tag, and returned to the US for burial in the ball gunner’s home state of Connecticut.

But ship #42-51642 and 6 of her crew members remained lost.

After the war, the Hanson crew’s original navigator Anthony Fermano, who had been reassigned at the last minute, never forgot his lost crewmates. Each year on Feburary 28, until he died at the age of 91, Fermano went to church and lit a candle in memory of his friends.

Sixty Years Later:  An Italian “Sherlock Holmes” Takes the Case

As the postwar decades unfolded in Italy, divers and fishermen in the vicinity of the town of Grado on the Adriatic Sea became familiar with an aircraft wreck about 8 nautical miles off the coast. The identity of the craft was unknown. Over the years armaments, propellers, and other parts were stripped off by souvenir-hunting divers.

As the 21st century dawned, retired Italian archaeologist and aviation researcher Freddy Furlan took an interest in the wreck and undertook a serious effort to identify the craft. Earlier, it had been assumed that the wreck was the B-24 Vivacious Lady of the 484th Bomb Group, known to have ditched in the area. But Furlan was not convinced and decided to investigate further. Unfortunately, nothing remained that would carry the plane’s serial number, and the radio and guns (which have serial numbers of their own that can be traced) were long gone.

A Fascinating Feat of Detective Work

Retired Italian archaeologist and military aviation buff Freddy Furlan solves the mystery of Willow Run bomber #42-51642

Determined to solve the  mystery and identify the wreck, Italian archaeologist and aviation enthusiast Freddy Furlan put on his detective cap and got to work. An examination of photos of the wreck revealed that the #3 engine had been feathered. From official documents, he learned that none of the aircraft known to have ditched in that area of the Adriatic had the #3 engine out, including the Vivacious Lady (she had lost engines #1 and #2 before witnesses saw her crash.) So this information seemed to rule the Lady out, but did not offer a clue as to the wreck’s real identity.

Furlan’s first real clue came when he learned that in the fall of 2009, a Browning M2 machine gun had been netted by a fishing boat near Grado. The gun’s serial number was traced back to ship #42-51642 and the Hanson crew. Since the Hanson crew’s official MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) stated that this ship was last seen over Austria, Furlan wondered how one of its guns ended up in the Adriatic. Further research unearthed the IDPF (Individual Deceased Personnel File) of pilot Howard Hanson. This document noted the 1945 discoveries of the remains of Turpin, Betz, German and Cox in the Adriatic sea and speculated that the ship had crashed in the sea near Venice, Italy.

A study of actual prevailing currents in the Adriatic convinced Furlan that #42-51642’s crash site would most likely have been near Grado, in the area of the wreck and where Turpin’s body and the Browning gun were found, and that currents likely carried the other crew members’ remains closer to Venice… a reverse of the speculation in Hanson’s IDPF.

In addition, the MACR for the Hanson crew noted that the plane was last seen with the #3 engine out and feathered, providing more evidence that the Grado wreck was the Hanson plane.

Further investigation revealed that a serial number on one of the wreck’s engine oil tanks linked the tank to the Willow Run Bomber Plant, where ship #42-51642 was built. However, the Vivacious Lady, as well as over 8,000 other Liberator bombers, were also built at Willow Run.

Right stabilizer of Willow Run bomber #42-51642 finally provides positive identification of the wreck.

A glass tube that had been found at the wreck was identified as part of set of RADAR equipment, installed only on certain aircraft:  Hanson’s ship #42-51642 was a special RADAR-equipped “Mickey Ship” with a radome replacing the ball turret, outfitted for the purpose of flying lead or deputy lead in formation.

Although nothing definitive could be associated directly with the wreck, a preponderance of evidence pointed to the Hanson crew’s ship #42-51642 as its correct identity. So in 2013, Freddy Furlan presented his research to local Italian marine protection authorities. Inspired by his story, authorities organized a special dive to search for an artifact that could positively identify the plane.

What was found on that summer 2013 dive was the plane’s right vertical stabilizer, carrying the aircraft’s serial number, buried in the sand near the wreck. That serial number was #42-51642, and after 69 years, the fate of the heroic Hanson crew and their Willow Run bomber was finally known.

Bringing Our Heroes Home

A hero’s homecoming, 70 years later, for B-254 nose gunner Thomas McGraw.

The 2013 dive also revealed possible human remains, so the findings were reported to the United States DPAA (Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency), a military agency dedicated to providing the fullest possible accounting for American casualties of all conflicts. Grado, Italy’s Civil Defense department guarded the site in the interim to prevent any further disturbance by souvenir hunters. The DPAA dispatched an underwater team to investigate the Grado crash site in May of 2014. The team confirmed Furlan’s identification of the wreck, and recommended the site for recovery operations.

From August to October of 2015, the DPAA conducted salvage operations at the site. A specially trained DPAA underwater recovery team aboard the USNS Grasp (a US Navy salvage ship) collected remains, personal effects and artifacts from the site to be sent to the US for analysis. Once stateside in the DPAA laboratories, the recovered bones underwent a desalination process to prevent them from shattering when dried. Desalinated and dried out, they could then undergo lab analysis and DNA testing, making positive identification of the remains possible.

Three positive identifications were made as a result: by comparison to DNA donated by near relatives, the remains of nose gunner Thomas McGraw and substitute navigator Clarence Dragoo were positively identified. The remains of “Mickey” (RADAR) radio operator Richard Horwitz were identified by dog tag.

This past September, McGraw’s remains were laid to rest in a ceremony in Cleveland, OH attended by over 60 family members from across the country.

This weekend, on October 14, 2017, funerals for Horwitz and Dragoo will be held in their hometowns in Massachusetts and West Virginia. These ceremonies will coincide with the annual reunion of the 449th Bomb Group Association, which will be attended by several 449th veterans. Also to be held on that day is the Rosie The Riveter World Record event in Michigan, to raise awareness of the effort to preserve and renovate the historic Willow Run factory where the lost crew’s B-24 bomber was built.

According to the DPAA, there are 73,119 service members missing and not yet recovered from World War II. 

It is certainly a time to ponder the courage and fortitude of those who came together to achieve Victory in that conflict, both overseas and on the Home Front.

And a time to remember the heroism of those who made the ultimate sacrifice… and to honor and welcome home the lost crewmen of Willow Run bomber #42-51642.

Many thanks to the 449th Bomb Group Association for the information and photos contained in this story.