TWINSBURG — With Veterans Day coming up Nov. 11, local resident Chris Kraska is spending a couple of weeks on a mission to locate three World War II bombers which went down off Italy’s east coast in 1944.
It’s the latest mission that the 50-year-old special education teacher at Charles W. Eliot School in Cleveland has participated in with the Shipwreck Expeditions Association. Kraska has taken part in about a dozen diving missions, including a few in Lake Erie.
From 2012-14, he was project manager for the survey of the Sultan, which sank in Lake Erie in 1864, and one of the authors of the technical report on the shipwreck.
In August of this year, he participated in the excavation of a wreck believed to be the Lake Serpent, which sank in 1829 near Kelley’s Island. It is the oldest known shipwreck in Lake Erie.
The latter wreck initially was discovered in 2015, and in August a team of eight volunteers spent 33 hours over eight days examining the site. The Lake Serpent was about 50 feet long.
Kraska is a marine archaeologist, divemaster and underwater photographer, who has participated in numerous archaeological suveys as a diver, dive safety officer and project manager.
Starting Nov. 3, he and a team of 15 or 16 people from the United States, Poland, United Kingdom and Italy began searching for the lost bombers off the coast of Brindisi, Italy. Kraska said the mission will last about two weeks.
Led by Peter Wytykowski, founder of the Shipwreck Expeditions Association, the group was given unprecedented access by the Italian government and other entities to search previously restricted areas off Italy’s east coast.
They are searching for an American B-24J Liberator from the 885th Bomb Squadron, a Halifax MKII from Poland’s 1586th Special Duties Squadron and a Liberator MKVI from Poland’s 301st Special Duties Squadron. They all went down during a bombing raid in 1944.
"The Liberator is the plane I’d most like to locate," said Kraska. "It was the most-produced American bomber, and I’d love to be able to bring some closure to family members of the lost crewmen."
Kraska will be navigator and support diver for the project. He also laid out the search grid after researchers obtained loss reports from the Royal Archives in London.
"The search area is small — about 1 1/2 by 1 1/2 miles," he explained. "The wreckage likely will be from 16 to 100 feet under water."
If the wreckages are located, efforts will be made to identify the planes using photos and video evidence, and notify next of kin of the more than a dozen lost airmen whose bodies were never recovered.
The team of explorers will use high-tech equipment, including side scan SONAR and remotely operated vehicles to search the area for the missing planes.
According to a SEA press release, the expedition is the culmination of more than two years or archival research by more than a dozen researchers in the U.S., Poland and U.K., leading to the conclusion that several lost bombers from Allied forces remain undiscovered on the floor of the Adriatic Sea.
The special duties squadrons were part of a secret air service created to provide air transport to support the resistance movement in Axis-controlled territories.
The service helped develop and support the resistance by bringing in agents, wireless operators and supplies. All of the squadrons operated out of an airfield in Brindisi, Italy, during the last months of the war.
The SEA comprises divers, archaeologists, historians and explorers who have conducted expeditions worldwide since 2011. Several of the missions were honored with the flag of the Explorers Club, to which several members belong.
According to SEA’s website, "We don’t see shipwrecks as steel or wooden debris littering the bottom of bodies of water; we view them with the respect they deserve and work toward their protection."
MORE ABOUT KRASKA
Kraska is the son of an Irish mother and Polish father, who met and married at the height of World War II.
His father was a seaman in the Polish Navy, serving aboard several ships in combat, including the escort destroyer ORP Kujawiak, which sank off the coast of Malta during Operation Harpoon in June 1942.
In 2014, Kraska was part of a team which located his father’s shipwreck.
"I’d have to say that was my most memorable mission, because of the personal ties to the shipwreck," he said, adding his father survived the sinking.
In spring 2017, Kraska participated in raising the ship’s bell as part of a multi-national team of divers and archaeologists in conjunction with the University of Malta. The bell went to the Maritime Museum Birgu (Vittoriosa) Malta.
Kraska has been a member of the Maritime Archaeological Survey Team since 2006, and served as chairman of the board from 2012-18. MAST was honored in 2016, along with the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, with an Ohio Historic Preservation Award for their work on the wreck of the Sultan.
Kraska also is a member of the Explorers Club and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has degrees in history, archaeology and education, and has taught in Cleveland for nearly 20 years.
His wife, Laurie, is the daughter of Twinsburg Historical Society President Andy Tomko. Kraska has lived in Twinsburg since 1999.
Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 ext. 4189 or firstname.lastname@example.org