ALBANY, N.Y. - Somewhere on the bottom of Italy's largest lake lie the remains of two dozen American soldiers who died when their amphibious vehicle sank in 1945 in the waning days of the fighting in Europe during World War II.
A volunteer group's discovery of what could be the wreckage 900 feet down in Lake Garda has given aging veterans hope that, after nearly seven decades, the remains of their comrades can finally come home.
"If you talk to the World War II guys, they're looking for closure and they haven't got it," said retired Army Col. Michael Plummer, president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, the Army unit that battled the Germans in northern Italy until the last week of the war.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Brothers Dallas, left, and Bob Reynolds look at pictures of their uncle, Xwell Yon Reynolds, who died in 1945 while serving in the Army in Italy during World War II.
Of the association's nearly 1,200 members, about a third served during World War II.
"We seem to save any single soldier or find anybody in the wilds of Borneo or the mountains, and we thought it was very bad that the United States wasn't doing anything for these guys," said 89-year-old Jerry Nash, of Hudson, N.H.
Nash was laying communication wire as the 10th Mountain pursued German forces into northern Italy's rugged alpine region, home to the 50-mile-long Lake Garda. When the enemy blew up tunnels through the mountains ringing the lake's northern end, the division's commanders sent soldiers across the lake in amphibious six-wheeled trucks, known by their military designation DUKW and known to GIs as ducks.
Family always had hope
By Evan Bevins
The Marietta Times
BARLOW TWP. - Although they were notified of his death by the U.S. Army, some siblings of Pfc. Xwell Yon Reynolds still held out hope that he was alive because his body was never found.
"For years, there's been talk in the family that they thought he was still alive," said Barlow Township resident Bob Reynolds, 58, born 10 years after his uncle died with 23 other soldiers when their amphibious vehicle sank on April 30, 1945. "I think that's how some families try and deal with it."
Bob Reynolds said he doesn't think his father, the late George Reynolds, believed as some of his sisters did there was a chance his younger brother, who went by Yon, was still alive. Still, he thinks his father would take some amount of comfort if his brother's body was finally located all these years later beneath the surface of Italy's Lake Garda.
"I can see where it would be a nice resolution to things," he said.
All of Yon's seven brothers and sisters have passed away, but Bob's older brother, Dallas Reynolds, 78, of Vincent, still recalls his uncle, who he visited at the family farm in Dunham Township.
"He loved kids, 'cause me and my brother would be there and we (were) always hanging with him," Dallas said.
Dallas recalled Yon as someone who was very quiet but had a sense of humor - that sometimes got him into trouble. Once, he set off a loud noisemaker or firecracker under the rocking chair in which his father, Addison K. Reynolds, was seated.
"He jumped out and took off outside," Dallas said. "Pretty soon he came back inside and said, 'You shouldn't do that to an old man like me.'"
Bob remembers stories told about Yon that described him as an athletic young man who enjoyed the outdoors.
"It always seemed like he would outdo his older brother," Bob said. "He could do (pull-ups and chin-ups) with just one hand."
Yon, who attended Barlow Rural High School, enlisted in the Army on Jan. 25, 1943, according to data compiled by local historian Scott Britton. The May 18, 1945, edition of The Marietta Times, in reporting his death, says Yon went overseas in January of that year and was stationed with the 10th Mountain Division of the 5th Army.
In a May 8, 1945, letter, 1st Lt. Lee Snyder of the division's 605th Field Artillery, of which Yon was a member, wrote to Yon's father about his son's death. Bob Reynolds now has the letter.
"I can not find words to fully express my feelings nor the feelings of the men," Snyder writes. "Xwell was always most willing to aid in any duty, regardless of the danger involved. His loyalty and honesty won him the friendship and respect of all."
Snyder says he was in one of three of the DUKWs, or "ducks," crossing the lake. The motor on one of the ducks stalled and it had to be towed by another. That duck was damaged when it landed on the other side and unable to go back out and search for the vehicle carrying Yon and 24 other soldiers.
"When the wind calmed a little, a chief of the (section) and I went out in a small motor boat and searched all along both sides of the lake, but to no avail," Snyder writes. "We then formed two searching parties; the chief of section took one along the West shore and was unable to find anything. I took a party along the East shore and found evidence that one man might have made it to safety."
That was Cpl. Thomas E. Hough, whose address Synder sent to Addison Reynolds in case he wanted to contact the last person who saw his son alive.
Although his body was never returned to Washington County, Bob Reynolds said there is a marker in his uncle's memory in the Gravel Bank Cemetery off Ohio 7 in Warren Township.
On the night of April 30, 1945, three DUKWs left the lake's east side carrying members of the division's 605th Field Artillery. One of the vehicles, jammed with 25 soldiers and a 75 mm cannon, stalled during the journey and soon began taking on water.
According to Cpl. Thomas Hough, the lone survivor, the soldiers desperately tossed their equipment and ammunition overboard in an attempt to keep the vessel from sinking. But the DUKW went down anyway, plunging the men into the frigid waters of the glacier-fed lake.
Soon all had drowned but Hough, a former lifeguard from Dayton, Ohio, who was rescued by two 10th Mountain soldiers on shore who heard the cries for help. Hough died in 2005.
Brett Phaneuf, a researcher from the Chester, Conn.-based nonprofit underwater archaeology organization ProMare, led an effort 10 years ago to find the sunken DUKW. Hampered by equipment issues, Phaneuf found no sign of the vehicle.
But in late 2011, a local Italian group of volunteer divers started their own search. Using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle equipped with a video camera, they announced last December the discovery of a WWII DUKW sitting upright on the lake bottom.
Gruppo Volontari del Garda said it hasn't been able to positively confirm that it's the same DUKW that sank, killing the 24 soldiers, or one of the other two known to have sunk in the same area of the lake. The group said it plans to resume efforts to locate remains and recover the DUKW, possibly later this year or in early 2014.
"Seems to us only right to do everything possible in order to restore at least someone to their land," the group's spokesman, Luca Turrini, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Officials at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, the Hawaii-based unit that searches for remains of Americans from foreign battlefields, said they're aware of the group's claims but don't plan to investigate unless there's firm evidence that remains have been located.
"If JPAC were to be provided with additional information, we would gladly look into it more," Lee Tucker, a spokesman at JPAC's Pearl Harbor headquarters, said in an email to the AP.
The family of Pvt. James Hilley would like to see his remains recovered and returned to his hometown of Calhoun Falls, S.C.
When his great-nephew, Matthew Hilley, learned of the Italian group's discovery in December, he showed his aging relatives the video of the DUKW on his smartphone. It was a particularly emotional moment for 86-year-old Jewell Scott, James Hilley's sister.
"She said, 'I prayed over and over and over again that we would find James before I passed away,'" Matthew Hilley said.
For Nash and the division's dwindling number of World War II veterans, the determination to recover the lost soldiers' remains hasn't diminished with the passage of time.
"It's the old story," he said. "You never leave any man behind."