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Unearthing history: discovery of fallen WWII bomber unleashes memories.

In March, Ambassador to Macedonia Paul Wohlers asked Political Assistant Mitko Burcevski to learn what he could about an American bomber that had crashed in World War II near the village of Vratnica in what is now Macedonia. Embassy Air Attache Lieutenant Colonel Boris Gershman was helping Burcevski, and as a former military officer and history major, I was eager to assist. Sensing my fascination with the topic, they turned the project over to me.

I thought the bomber might have been a B-24 that crashed after the Ploesti oilfield raid in August 1943. But after hours of research, I had hit only dead ends. All I had were vague details from a decade-old Macedonian newspaper interview with a villager from Vratnica who recalled helping American survivors of a plane crash in 1943. I was about to give up when, after a presentation in Tetovo (about 40 minutes west of Skopje), I thought to ask how far it was to Vratnica. I learned it was about 20 minutes north.

"Let's just go there," I told colleague Adrian Ismaili, who'd joined me at the presentation. "We can walk around and ask people about the airplane until we find something."

We interviewed at least a dozen villagers, and from Vratnica's church records learned the date of the crash: Aug. 26, 1944. Buoyed by this breakthrough, I knew I had to go into the mountains around Vratnica to find the plane's remains.

Ten days later, I was on the steep face of a mountain at 5,000 feet above sea level struggling for footing as the cool air chilled my sweat. My handheld metal detector, until then frustratingly silent, began to put out a high whine. I scraped away earth with blackened fingers and discovered a mangled piece of aluminum. Holding it up to the sun's light, I could see an even line of rivets, slightly warped by heat and time.

Farther up the slope, another member of my team, Mise Misajlovski, found another piece of metal, a small disc resembling the bent top of a soda can, but heavier, like steel. I brushed the face of the cylinder top against my jeans to reveal the neat brass lettering beneath: "Regulator Assembly ... Oxygen ... AN-6022-1."

We had found the plane. These rusting pieces of wreckage would connect me with the crew and their families, whose pictures, files and letters would help turn the bits of information we collected into a detailed mosaic.

Later, I reviewed accounts of the crash and put together this scenario. On Aug. 26, 1944, 23-year-old 1st Lt. Edwin Kieselbach struggled at the controls of the silver B -24, nicknamed "Our Love," trying to keep it aloft after weathering a hail of bullets from enemy fighters. His young crew of eight airmen was in bad shape. Co-pilot 2nd Lt. John Edwards, on only his second mission, sat slumped and unresponsive at his controls, his thick flight suit turning red. Tail Gunner Staff Sgt. William Rhodes and Ball Turret Gunner S/SGT Willis Stephenson were dead or dying at their posts onboard.

The plane was falling toward the rugged peaks of the nearby Sharr Mountains. Kieselbach maneuvered it into a valley, and Bombardier 1st LT Richard McCauley and Nose Gunner S/SGT Harold Viken yanked open a floor panel in the plane's nose to lighten it. S/SGT David Koblitz and S/SGT Bruce Tuthill forced open the bomb-bay doors amidships and with gloved hands furiously dumped equipment and shiny brass belts of ammunition into the frigid air.

Then, the aircraft's two vertical tail rudders were shot off by anti-aircraft fire, sending the plane into a spin of such power that it threw Koblitz and Tuthill out the bomb-bay doors and pinned the rest of the crew inside. McCauley and Viken wrestled free of the plane's nose and jumped out. S/ SGT. Edward Ambrosini pulled himself through plane's waist window. Kieselbach clawed his way aft to the bomb--bay doors, and using all of his strength, pulled himself out onto the skin of the spinning plane and pulled the ripcord of his parachute.

On the mountainside below, villagers met Kieselbach, Ambrosini and McCauley, warning them they would be captured soon by occupying Bulgarian soldiers. The villagers carefully cut down the motionless Koblitz from his harness in a nearby tree, and carried a silent Tuthill down from the rocks above; the impact had killed him. Viken could not be found. The German-allied Bulgarian soldiers soon overwhelmed the villagers and took the survivors prisoner. A villager called after them, promising they would bury their comrades in the local churchyard, which they did.

After being transferred between several detention centers, Kieselbach, Ambrosini and McCauley were reunited at Shumen Prison Camp in Bulgaria. By mid--September 1944, the Russian advance through Bulgaria frightened off the camp's guards, and the trio fled back to their base in Italy. Afterward, they were transferred home to the United States. As for Viken, his fate would not be clear to his family until they received a notification in 1947 that his grave had been moved from Vratnica to Belgrade. His cause of death still remains a mystery.

All of the flyers' relatives whom I contacted were affected by what they learned. One, on learning about the crash and my discovery of the wreckage, responded: "With the few rusting pieces of the wreckage you recently recovered, you brought that event back to life and opened doors again for the families more than half a world away and more than 65 years removed. While there is much we may never know, your efforts sent many back to old and nearly forgotten albums, letters and in at least the case of my uncle's younger brother, to his Army-issued footlocker to review the bits and pieces of information to which their parents clung for hope during that difficult time."

The end to this story came Sept. 5, when, high on the mountain above Vratnica, Ambassador Wohlers called together a party that had hiked to the site, and included embassy staff, villagers, security guards and Macedonian officials. "I would like everyone to observe a moment of silence to remember the Americans who gave their lives on this spot nearly 70 years ago and also to remember the Macedonians who helped the survivors and buried the deceased," he said. "These airmen bravely risked their lives, and many gave their lives, far from home in places they probably had never heard of, fighting for the future of Europe and their own country."

Then, I stepped forward to read the crewmembers' names, and in the silence that followed, the sound of a lone airplane's engine high above echoed in the blue skies.
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Author:Fields, Spencer
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EXMA
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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