Divers Recover Remains of WWII Airman, 80 Years After He Crashed in the Mediterranean

Underwater archeologists in Malta worked with the U.S. government to identify the 22-year-old from California

The B-24 Liberator on the Maltese Seafloor
Divers from the University of Malta began exploring the sunken plane in 2018. University of Malta / Heritage Malta

In 1943, an American bomber headed for the tip of Italy was shot down over the Mediterranean. Of the ten crew aboard, nine escaped and were rescued. The last, a 22-year-old airman from California, went down with the plane. Eighty years later, an underwater archaeology team based out of Malta has at last recovered his remains.

Led by archaeology professor Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta, a team of divers began investigating a sunken plane off Malta’s Bengħajsa Point in 2018, Jessica Arena reports for Times of Malta. After recognizing the aircraft as American, the divers connected with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), who, along with the Maltese government, supported Gambin’s team in their efforts to recover the soldier.

“The U.S. makes a promise to all its servicemen that no man will be left behind,” Gambin tells the Times of Malta. “The entire time we were working, the whole team wanted to go the extra mile to bring this boy home.”

One of the Plane's Engines
One of the warplane's engines University of Malta / Heritage Malta

After performing dental and DNA analysis, the DPAA announced his identity in August: Sergeant Irving R. Newman of Los Angeles, who went missing in action during World War II and was later designated “non-recoverable” by the military.

On May 6, 1943, Newman and his crew were on a mission to bomb Italy's Reggio di Calabria harbor, according to the DPAA. En route to their target, the B-24 Liberator’s engine faltered, forcing its pilots to fly off course and into the line of enemy fire. As they attempted to make an emergency landing in Malta, the B-24 combusted, ultimately plunging into the sea. Five crewmembers were injured, but they and four others still managed to escape, while Newman sank with the bomber.

The sunken plane was first discovered in 2015, after being detected by a remote-sensing survey, reported Gambin and Lucy Woods for Naval History Magazine in 2021. Located about 180 feet below the surface, lying right side up on a sandy seabed, the wreck’s visible parts were about 80 percent intact. Gambin’s team used sonar to create a 3D model of the wreck before excavating in and around the plane, reports NBC Bay Area.

“Humility and honor drove every single one of us to go beyond the call of duty, to do our best to get this boy home,” Gambin tells NBC Bay Area. “It must be one of the most satisfying things that the team has done to date.”

The Tablets of the Missing
Irving Newman's name is engraved on the the Tablets of the Missing at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

Newman’s name was engraved on the Tablets of the Missing at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy, with the names of other U.S. service members who disappeared during World War II. To indicate that the sergeant has been accounted for, a rosette will be added by his name on the tablet, according to the DPAA. The details of Newman’s coming burial have not been announced.

Along with the young servicemember's remains, Gambin’s team recovered material evidence and life support equipment from the wreck, reports the University of Malta’s Newspoint. The professor says his team was honored to be trusted with the retrieval mission.

“We can make a small contribution,” he says, “to bring closure for families who lost their loved ones in past conflicts.”

Editor's note, September 19, 2023: Due to an editing error, this article incorrectly referred to Sgt. Newman as a pilot. We also misidentified the location of the bombing target in Italy. These errors have since been corrected.

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