Relatives of missing World War II plane crew continue their search

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by Richard Khavkine/For The Star-Ledger

It has been 65 years since Staff Sgt. Lawrence Grasha and a crew of five others clambered aboard their B-24 Liberator at Waller Airfield in Trinidad, bound for Belem in northern Brazil.

Cruising about 200 mph on that early March day in 1944, the roughly 1,050-nautical-mile trek should have taken the Army Air Forces crew and their two passengers about five hours.

     

The B-24 never made it to Brazil. Maplewood’s Grasha, the bomber’s 20-year-old radio operator, and his colleagues were never heard from again. Grasha and the others were classified as missing in action.

More than a half-century later, Grasha’s nephew, Peter Boczar, is trying to keep a promise he made to Grasha’s mother, Mary, to find what happened to his uncle.

A decade ago, Boczar helicoptered into the rain forests of French Guiana to track the traces of a man he had never met. Over two weeks in the summer of 1998, Boczar and two colleagues combed the jungle. They had nary a clue, save the knowledge that the B-24’s crew had reported it was on course about 60 miles off British Guiana.

"The jungle is so thick that it’s like looking down on broccoli. The thing could be a few feet in front of you and you wouldn’t see it," Boc zar said of the hunt for the B-24’s wreckage.

The expedition ultimately proved fruitless as well as arduous. Boczar returned stateside having lost 14 pounds and with a high fever.

He was not deterred. A few months later, prior to leaving for South America on a second try to locate where the plane went down, Boczar enlisted the help of a New York-based dowser said to have helped solve several missing-persons cases for authorities.

A three-day excursion deep into the jungles, by a larger team this time, followed nearly the same path as the first. It was just as unsuccessful.

Back in the 1940s, Grasha had enlisted at 18 after attending Columbia High School. He was initially based in Langley, Va., patrolling the Atlantic Coast for German submarines. Within two years, Gra sha was seated behind the cockpit of that B-24, manning the radio.

That new set of duties would not have been unusual. With the war in Europe coming to a close, the workhorse B-24 — faster and with a longer range than the B-17, but said to be unwieldy in flight — was in heavy stateside production that spring. The four-engine heavy bombers would hopscotch their way to the European Theater, touching down in Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Brazil before crossing to West Africa and then to Allied nations, from where they would be deployed for bombing missions against the Third Reich.

Grasha told his high school sweetheart, Jean Marsh, who was the last of his friends or family to speak with him before he left, that he was headed to Italy. Boczar said he sensed that flight to Brazil was Grasha’s first.

On May 30, 1944, a week before D-Day, Grasha’s status was changed to "deceased." That designation, though, didn’t convince Mary Grasha of anything.

She died a few weeks before Boczar’s initial trek to the jungles of South America — but not before telling the grandson she helped raise on Orchard Road something that led Boczar to believe his uncle might be alive.

"She was so specific, it suggested she might have had some contact," Boczar said.

Boczar, a 55-year-old former ad vertising executive now based in Hong Kong, is laying the groundwork for one more mission. This time, he hopes to return to South America with at least one solid lead: The coordinates of an SOS signal put out by the crew as it was flying over the jungle.

That detail emerged from conversations Boczar had with his mother last year and with Jean a few weeks before she died last month.

He hopes to parlay that new information into what he called "magic and serendipity" — and achieve at least some measure of success in finding his uncle, even if the odds and years don’t appear in his favor.

"I guess it’s hard to describe the mysteries that drive human moti vation. I suppose it’s in the human spirit to discover, explore, et cetera, et cetera, but for me I’ve never put a label on it," he said. "You have to follow your heart. And sometimes when you do it’s very difficult and painful but magic happens."

Were he alive to see this Memorial Day, Larry Grasha would be in his mid-80s.

 

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