As a 22-year-old in 1944, Lazar Karakashev, from the tiny Bulgarian village of Churen, had rushed to the mountainside where an American bomber crashed and helped pull from the wreckage the body of a pilot -- who had stayed at the controls to allow his crew to bail out.
The pilot, 1st Lt. John D. Crouchley, 26, of Providence, Rhode Island, was the enemy at the time -- Bulgaria was still allied with Germany -- but the villagers treated the remains with respect. They dug a grave, prayed for the soul of the pilot, and fashioned a cross to mark the site.
Seventy-three-years later, at age 95, Karakashev, now known as "Grandpa Lazar," had his hands in the dirt of the mountainside again, helping teams from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) locate the long-eroded gravesite and recover remains.
In September, DPAA announced they had positively identified Crouchley's remains. Also recovered was his wedding ring with the initials of his wife, Dorothy, engraved on the inside. They had been married for less than a year when he was lost.
DPAA spokesman Chuck Prichard told Military.com Tuesday that Crouchley's family had been notified and Army casualty officers are working with them to arrange for the return of the remains and a funeral. The family has not yet agreed to any public statements, he said.
Crouchley is entitled to burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The remarkable story of Crouchley's heroism in his last moments, and the difficult and politically sensitive search to find his remains, was related by DPAA and by Air Force Master Sgt. Vedran Ogramic, a member of the search team and himself a refugee from war in the Balkans.
"[Grandpa Lazar] got very emotional and broke down and cried when we talked about Lt. Crouchley, and he started reliving the old scenes from World War II," Ogramic said in his account, written up by Karen Abeyasekere of public affairs at the Air Force's 100th Air Refueling Wing at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, United Kingdom. "But at 95 years old [at the time of the search], he still went down the mountain with us and screened heavy buckets of dirt. He got to work, wanted no help, and just acted like he was one of us."
Last Mission of 'Miss Yankee Rebel'
Crouchley enlisted in 1942 and, after earning his pilot's wings, was assigned to the 828th Bombardment Squadron, 485th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force. He first went into combat in May 1944, flying missions out of Foggia, Italy, in a B-24H Liberator bomber nicknamed "Miss Yankee Rebel."
The Liberators were called "Flying Boxcars" by the crews, and sometimes "Flying Coffins." There was one way out, at a hatch near the tail, making it difficult for the pilot and co-pilot to exit in an emergency down a narrow and cluttered passageway to the rear.
The B-24s also couldn't fly as high as the B-17 Flying Fortresses, making them more susceptible to flak and ground fire, according to Air Force historians. But they had more range than the B-17s and were the workhorse bombers of the war, flying missions in Europe and the Pacific.
On June 28, 1944, Crouchley and a crew of nine took off from Foggia in the B-24H on a bombing run to Romania. On the return, the B-24 was crippled by anti-aircraft fire over Bulgaria.
Crouchley "stayed at the controls of the plane, keeping it in steady flight while the rest of the crew bailed out," the DPAA said. He went down with the plane and would posthumously be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal.
The other nine crew members were captured and became prisoners of war, but all survived and later returned to duty, the DPAA said.
Bulgaria was still enemy territory, and no U.S. personnel could get to the crash site. On June 29, 1945, Crouchley was declared dead.
After the war, investigators from the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) compared Crouchley's medical information to unidentified remains recovered in Bulgaria, but a positive match could not be made. On July 2, 1948, Crouchley's remains were declared non-recoverable.
By then, Bulgaria had fallen into the Soviet orbit, and the search essentially ended. But in 2010, an investigative team from two predecessor agencies of the DPAA were able to do a site survey of the area where the B-24 was thought to have gone down.
They recovered weapons whose serial numbers correlated with the serial number of Crouchley's aircraft, DPAA officials said.
The 69-Day Search
After more historical analysis and sometimes difficult coordination with Bulgarian authorities, the DPAA recovery teams in July 2017 received permission to begin excavation in the general area of the mountainside overlooking Churen where the plane was thought to have gone down.
So how would they communicate with the locals whose assistance was vital? Ogramic, an exercise planner and unit inspection coordinator for the 100th Air Refueling Wing, was chosen by U.S. Air Forces-Europe to serve as a linguist for the recovery team.
Ogramic is originally from Bosnia. At age 15, he and his family became refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, moving to Seattle. He spoke Serbo-Croatian, but it was close enough to Bulgarian for him to work with the locals in Churen.
"I'm part of the Language-Enabled Airman Program, and USAFE received a tasking for linguist support for the mission in 2017," Ogramic said. "I did some research on the mission before I said yes, and I thought it was an awesome cause that I wanted to support. We couldn't drive right up to the site, so we would take a truck up there to a stopping point, gather all our tools and take them down the side of a mountain."
The old Soviet truck belonged to villager Todor Hristov.
"He coordinated everything, took us to the site every day, provided us with food, cut down trees to enable us to get to the dig site. You name it, he did it," Ogramic said.
"When we found pieces of what we thought were remains, the locals brought down a priest and had the grounds blessed, because we'd just dug up a human and they have a high respect for honoring the dead. That was something they did of their own free will," Ogramic said.
He said Hristov and Karakashev "have never forgotten about the man who crashed into their village. They never asked for any of that and they were caught in the middle of a war, but they still took the time to bury him properly. They legitimately care, and it's so humbling to me."
Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the remains found by the team later showed that they were those of Crouchley.
In July 2018, Ogramic went back with his wife to visit Churen and met again with Karakashev and Hristov. They recalled what had been their successful search for a hero of a long-ago war.
"As a war refugee myself, I can relate to death in general," Ogramic said, "but I also thought it was really cool that, even after all these years, people never give up looking for fallen heroes."
"We finally knew we'd gone there for a reason, and we'd done it for a person who gave his life away for our freedom," he continued. "[Crouchley] ultimately gave us everything we have, and there's no greater cause than that."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.