MILAN — An underwater search in Italy for the remains of 24 Americans who fought in World War II ended Thursday without finding physical traces of the soldiers whose amphibious vehicle sank in a storm on Lake Garda.
A three-person submarine scoured the bottom of Italy's largest lake during the three-day expedition to find uniforms or any remains from the men who drowned on the night of April 30, 1945 — among the war's last casualties in Italy.
Brett Phaneuf, co-founder of nonprofit underwater archaeology foundation ProMare, said the mayor of the lakeside town of Nago Torbole placed weighted Italian and American flags on the submerged six-wheeled truck to honor the soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.
American and Italian history buffs also gathered for a memorial on land.
Any remains were likely buried in the thick layer of sediment on the lake bottom, Phaneuf said.
"It's soft like talcum powder, so anything that hit bottom is in it and would be impossible to locate," he told The Associated Press after the search ended.
The 10th Mountain Division battled the Germans in northern Italy until the last week of World War II. Four amphibious trucks, the kind known by the military designation DUKW and called ducks by GIs, were making the short trip from Torbole to the northern end of Lake Garda when a storm rose up. Water swamped one of the trucks.
A soldier who had been a life guard in civilian life was the only survivor.
The four vehicles were part of an advance team for Allied troops making their way to German-held Riva del Garda. Fearing snipers, the crews drove father into the lake than usually necessary as a precaution. Unknown to them, the Germans had already retreated.
The ProMare nonprofit undertook a mission to find the lost DUKW in 2004, but was unable to locate it. An Italian volunteer group found the vehicle in December 2012 after seven outings that covered 7 million square meters (75.3 million square feet), according to Ben Appelby, an amateur historian who lives in the area.
The goal of this week's expedition was finding either human remains or uniform scraps, sufficient evidence to activate the U.S. Defense Department agency tasked with recovering American POWs or MIAs from past wars and conflicts.
Retired U.S. Col. Jeff Patton, who served as military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, said finding remains always going to be unlikely given the muddy conditions of the Lake Garda's floor.
"Which is not so terrible, if you think that they have been embraced by the country they fought to liberate, and they are resting with their comrades," said Patton, who attended the lakeside memorial ceremony.
Also on hand was Carlo Bombardelli, who reported hearing the soldiers' screams when he was a child living by the lake. Bombardelli says he woke up his father, who helped organize a rescue operation that saved the lone survivor, Cpl. Thomas Hough, who died in 2005.
The day after the truck went down, Bombardelli returned to the lakeshore and found knapsacks and other gear; the Italian man has participated in all the memorials to the U.S. soldiers since then, Phaneuf said.
"He has a personal connection to it. It made an impression on him as a young boy," he said.