World War II hero's remains come home, 75 years after he was shot down

Seventy-five years after his B-24 bomber was shot down over Bulgaria, John Crouchley's remains found, buried alongside family in Bristol

Posted 5/7/19

As his B-24 Liberator began a spiraling descent after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Bulgaria, 1st Lt. John Crouchley knew what he had to do. Holding tightly to the controls and desperately …

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World War II hero's remains come home, 75 years after he was shot down

Seventy-five years after his B-24 bomber was shot down over Bulgaria, John Crouchley's remains found, buried alongside family in Bristol

Posted

As his B-24 Liberator began a spiraling descent after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Bulgaria, 1st Lt. John Crouchley knew what he had to do. Holding tightly to the controls and desperately fighting with two badly damaged engines, he made sure his nine-strong crew escaped with their lives before the aircraft hit the ground.

It was June 28, 1944, and the crew of “The Miss Yankee Rebel” were on their way home from a bombing mission in Romania. Those nine airmen lived to see another day; their pilot perished along with his aircraft. It would be 75 years before he would return home.

This past Saturday, Lt. Crouchley's remains were laid to rest in Bristol's North Burial Ground, in a small family plot alongside his wife, the son he never met, and other family members who last saw him nearly eight decades ago.

Born in Providence, but with family still in Bristol and Barrington, Lt. Crouchley was 25 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1942. After earning his pilot's wings, he was assigned to the 828th Bombardment Squadron, 485th Bombardment Group, in Foggia, Italy, and went into combat in May 1944.

Just two months later, his life was cut tragically short when The Miss Yankee Rebel crashed into the side of a mountain in Churen, Bulgaria. Local villagers witnessed the crash and, though Americans were seen as the enemy, they pulled the pilot from the aircraft and gave him a proper burial, including placing a cross to mark the grave.

Though decades passed, Lt. Crouchley was never forgotten. In 2017, a team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), made up mainly of U.S. service members, took part in a 69-day mission in Bulgaria’s mountainous terrain to search for the World War II hero’s remains so he could finally return home to his rightful resting place.

The team had a huge search on their hands, but over the course of two months in trying conditions they were able to complete their task. It wasn't easy.

“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,” said Master Sgt. Vedran Orgamic, a member of the 100th Air Refueling Wing, who helped with the search and served as translator between searchers and villagers, some of whom had witnessed the crash.

“Each day we made sure we had pick axes, shovels, and many other tools, as well as water and MREs for our lunch – all the supplies we needed to take to the excavation site.

“In order to get to the site, we had to cut down trees and branches, before then digging for eight or nine hours,” he said.

Their transport was an old Soviet truck, as it was impossible for a car to get anywhere near the site location, driven by a local Bulgarian man, Todor Hristov. Sgt. Ogramic stressed that without him, the mission wouldn’t have been possible.

“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. Todor also dealt with a lot of the cultural awareness issues for us; it was a tiny village and community, and Americans were their enemy during World War II, so a lot of people who grew up in the area didn’t want to disclose a lot of information to us. But he vouched for us as ‘his people’ and that made a huge difference in their openness to reveal information that was crucial to recovery,” Sgt. Ogramic said.

When Lt. Crouchley perished in 1944, a young 22-year-old named Lazar Karakashev was one of the locals who pulled his body from the wreckage. Still living in the nearby village, Mr. Karakshev, now 96, proved instrumental in helping the DPAA team in their search for Lt. Crouchley’s remains. He provided crucial information from his eyewitness accounts that helped pinpoint exactly where they should start digging — and it wasn’t at the site of the crash.

“’Grandpa Lazar’ got very emotional and broke down and cried when we talked about Lt. Crouchley, and started reliving the old scenes from World War II,” Sgt. Ogramic said.

“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.”

The villagers' generosity proved the difference and after weeks of searching, a wedding ring bearing his wife's initials was found. More finds reluctantly showed themselves.

“Every day we’d find something, whether it was the ring or a piece of clothing, and use it to motivate us to keep going, despite how tired we were,” Sgt. Ogramic recalled.
“Without the stories from local villagers to guide us, we would never have found him.”

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Crouchley’s partial remains were sent to a laboratory, along with material evidence and samples taken from his family members. A year later, he was positively identified. For his heroic actions, Lt. Crouchley was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and the Air Medal.

At the time of the search, nobody knew if their efforts would even yield any results and Sgt. Ogramic said it was hard on the entire team.

“We came here to find this Purple Heart recipient and bring him home to his family, so it was really discouraging that we didn’t have the satisfaction of knowing for sure it was him,” he said. “But when we got the email, and we then knew for a fact that the remains found were his, it was just amazing. It made everything worth it — it was unbelievable. We all called each other immediately . That mission formed a bond that is never going to break.”

Lt. Crouchley's final resting place is now a sunny spot toward the rear of the North Burial Ground overlooking Bristol Harbor. His family's small granite headstone is weathered and covered in lichen, but fresh bouquets of flowers line the stone and a small American flag flies in the Rhode Island breeze.

Note: Original story by Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, with additions by Ted Hayes

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