WASHINGTON – Army airman Sgt. Leonard J. Ray was 22 when his B-24J Liberator bomber was shot down during World War II over Germany, killing him and all hands aboard.
But his family, of Upper Falls, never received confirmation he was dead. The plane, taken down 20 miles northwest of a German aircraft factory they had bombed, wasn't recovered, and the remains of Ray and eight other men remained undiscovered in a field south of Westeregeln, Germany, for decades.
The Department of Defense closed the story publicly Thursday, announcing that nine Army airmen from the U.S. Army Air Forces, 856th Bomber Squadron, 492nd Bomber Group, have been returned to their families for burial.
The effort brought closure to the Ray family, who had given up hope they would ever learn what had happened to his body.
"It makes you feel good that you've got your brother," said his sister, Kathryn "Judy" Brazezicki, of Kingsville. "We buried him at Mountain Christian Cemetery right next to my father."
Ray was buried Friday in Joppa in front of the same headstone that his late father, Oscar, purchased in his memory just weeks after the crash on July 7, 1944. He has another sister, Thelma M. Christian, also of Kingsville.
Brazezicki, who was 16 at the time, said she is amazed by the story behind the recovery effort, which began in 2001 when a farmer stumbled upon the crash site.
Word of the site eventually trickled back to a German citizens group interested in wartime relics, the Department of Defense said Thursday in a statement. The group found it later that year, and began uncovering human remains, personal items and identification tags, which they turned over to U.S. officials.
The United States launched a full excavation of the site in 2003, recovering additional remains, more ID tags and evidence of the crash, the Department of Defense said. Dental records, mitochondrial DNA and other forms of forensics were used in the testing.
Paul Arnett, a historian in Mesa, Ariz., who researches the 492nd Bomber Group, said Ray was one of the senior crew members, and was on the plane that day in part because he had turned down a promotion to lieutenant in order to stay with them.
"He was well known by everyone in the group," said Arnett.
Ray's crew had been shot down at least once before over Germany, and their plane was badly riddled with bullets on another mission that killed a ball turret gunner, said Arnett, whose father, Charles, served with the group and is now a retired lieutenant colonel.
Ray's crew was already known as "the Hard Luck Crew" when they embarked on their last mission, Arnett said. Flying with at least a dozen other planes, they successfully bombed the aircraft factory, but were attacked by German fighters on their way back to a base in North Pickenham, England.
Brazezicki said the military first informed the Ray family in 2005 that they likely had his remains, but did not release them until last week. They arrived from Hawaii by plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, she said.
"It's amazing," she said. "We just gave up. After 61.5 years, you figure they will just never find anything."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.