As his B-24 Liberator started a spiraling descent after encountering hostile anti-aircraft fire over Bulgaria, 1st Lt. John Crouchley knew what he had to do.
Holding tightly onto the controls and desperately fighting with two badly damaged engines, he made sure his nine-strong crew were able to parachute to safety and escape 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.
John Crouchley Jr. was 25 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1942. After earning his pilot wings, he was assigned to the 828th Bombardment Squadron, 485th Bombardment Group, Foggia, Italy, and went into combat in May 1944. Just one month later, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
The B-24 crashed on the side of a mountain in Churen, Bulgaria. Local villagers witnessed the crash. During World War II, Americans were the enemy, yet the villagers had respect for the dead — regardless of the deceased’s nationality — so together they pulled the pilot from the aircraft and gave him a proper burial, including placing a cross to mark the grave.
Seventy-three years later, a team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 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 they set to work, determined to bring Crouchley home, with the vow of “Never leave an Airman behind” in their thoughts and their hearts.
Master Sgt. Vedran Ogramic, 100th Air Refueling Wing Inspector General exercise planner and unit inspection coordinator, was part of that team. In 2017, Ogramic worked for the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron as the outbound cargo NCO-in-charge. He was hand-picked by U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa as a linguist, and was the only U.S. Air Forces in Europe Airman on the mission.
Ogramic was born in Bosnia and moved to Seattle, as a war refugee with his family at the age of 15. Civil war broke out in Bosnia in the 1990s, so his parents, aunt and grandparents gathered what little possessions they had and left for a better life. As an adult, he decided to join the U.S. Air Force.
“It was solely about giving back to the country that gave me everything I have,” Ogramic said.
Eleven years after joining the military, the opportunity arose for him to be part of the mission to search for Crouchley’s remains. Although the team needed a Bulgarian linguist, Serbo-Croatian is Ogramic’s native language, and with Bulgarian being very similar, he was given the chance to go.
“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.”
He immediately became part of the advanced echelon team to set up everything ready for excavation and explained that thorough research had been done prior to July 2017, when the excavation began. Based on their findings, historical significance and eyewitness accounts, it was then determined where the search would begin.
The DPAA organized the search and recovery mission for Crouchley. Their mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation. The organization recovers fallen service members from conflicts, including World War I and II, the Vietnam War, Cold War and Iraq, and they augment support from the U.S. military on missions around the world.
“I just had the opportunity to do one mission, and coming from logistics to the middle of the woods and digging trenches, it was very humbling and unbelievable. I didn’t even know the DPAA existed and I think it’s amazing there is an agency that does this all the time,” Ogramic said, describing how the team worked 10 hours per day, Monday to Saturday, for more than two months in a very austere environment.
“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,” he said. “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,” the master sergeant 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. 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,” Ogramic said.
When Crouchley perished in 1944, a young 22-year-old named Lazar Karakashev was one of the locals who pulled his body from the wreckage. Ogramic explained that taking care of the dead was important to the Bulgarian people, even though it was in the middle of World War II, and it was an enemy pilot who crashed into their territory. It was out of respect that the locals made sure he was given a proper burial, away from the burnt-out plane.
More than seven decades later, Karakashev came back to help the DPAA team in their search for Crouchley’s remains. Still living in the village, it was the now-96-year-old who 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 Lieutenant Crouchley, and started reliving the old scenes from World War II,” 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.”
His role as the translator between Karakashev and the U.S. team meant a great deal to Ogramic. Being the go-between meant he was the first to hear the old man recount his stories.
“Really, when I saw him break down it really got to me, then everybody started breaking down,” he said. “You want to make sure you don’t lose anything, any of the feeling; it comes out different in English — there’s no literal translation for a lot of words, though obviously we could see emotion flow out. People would see that and it was just amazing.
“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.
These were just two of the many locals who helped the team with their stories and accounts, in addition to the Bulgarian government and embassy, who gave them approval to excavate the area. Having been a Communist country for many years previously, it took a long time to work out all of the issues before the mission could begin.
But through hard work and determination, and with the help of Karakashev, Hristov and other villagers, the team finally started recovering evidence that they were searching for.
“Todor and Lazar dedicating their time to helping us out of the pure goodness of their hearts. To hear these gentlemen talk about Communism and the hard times they went through during World War II was amazing,” Ogramic said. “To this day they’ve 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 cared and it’s so humbling to me.”
One of Crouchley’s personal effects found was a wedding ring belonging to his wife, which bore her initials.
“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,” 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. One year later, he was positively identified.
For his heroic actions, 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 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 remarked. “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.”
Ogramic returned to Churen and revisited the dig site in July 2018, this time taking his wife with him. They managed to find Karakashev and Hristov, and Ogramic said he sat and drank coffee with them as he took in the beautiful surroundings of the village and countryside, and chatted about the search from the previous year.
“As a war refugee myself, I can relate to death in general,” he remarked. “But I also thought it was really cool that even after all these years, people never give up looking for fallen heroes; I think that’s amazing, and I think we’re the only service in the world that does this. It would have been easy just to forget about Crouchley, but we have an entire agency dedicated to this mission — that’s just mind-boggling and it was a really awesome thing to be part of.
“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 ultimately gave us everything we have and there’s no greater cause than that,” Ogramic said.
Editor’s note: The Language-Enabled Airman Program is designed and managed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center to sustain, enhance and posture for utilizing the existing language skills and talents of Airmen. The program’s goal is to develop a core group of general-purpose force Airmen across specialties and careers possessing the capability to communicate in one or more foreign languages. For more information on the program, visit http://culture.af.mil/leap/index.html.