The 10 U.S. airmen aboard the B-24 Liberator were returning to their base in Italy after a bombing raid when storms forced the plane to go south - and closer to the range of German gunners.
Soon, the sky was filled with fire from anti-aircraft guns. The burning plane spun out of control and plowed into an Albanian village. It was Aug. 10, 1944.Last week, a U.S. military unit that searches for missing American servicemen who are presumed dead finally returned to bring the remains home. It was the first such mission for the U.S. military in Albania.
"It's incredible after all these years to come upon the site and even see bits of the plane still there," said David Roath, the unit's director from his headquarters in Landstuhl, Germany.
The end of the Cold War opened up vast new areas for Roath's team. Albania, almost entirely closed to the outside world for decades, represents an area of great potential for military forensic investigators.
"There could be other sites out around Albania with U.S. military remains. At this point, we just don't know," said Roath. "We hope that this mission will open other leads."
The ill-fated plane was returning to Brindisi, Italy, after a bombing run over Romania when it came under attack. The shattered B-24 crashed into a home in the village of Goraj, 45 miles south of Tirana, killing 13 people.
The tail gunner was blasted out of the plane. Four crew members parachuted and were taken prisoner by the Germans. Three airmen died as the plane was devoured by fire.
The two remaining airmen jumped clear of the plane but died of burns and were carefully buried by Albanian villagers. Finding their graves was the goal of Roath's unit.
The search was spearheaded by the brother of one of the men lost in the crash. Since the early 1990s, James McConnon of Wynnewood, Pa., has worked with an Albanian researcher to locate the mountain village.
McConnon, who was raised with his brother in Pittsburgh, accompanied the forensics team to Albania, although it is still uncertain whether his late brother, 2nd Lt. John Steel McConnon, was one of the two men buried.
The body in one grave had been placed in Muslim tradition with the head facing toward the holy city of Mecca. Both graves were tended to with care.
"If that was his grave I saw, then he was buried in a beautiful spot and his grave was lovingly cared for more than 50 years," said McConnon. "You can't ask for more than that."
Parts of the plane were used by villagers, who lived in a desperately poor region. A wing was used to build part of an outhouse, and parts of the fuselage became shelters for animals.
The remains were transported to Germany and will be sent to the U.S. military identification lab in Hawaii to officially confirm the identities.
"It's a great feeling to be able to return the remains to the family," said Roath. "That's our entire goal."
There are about 78,000 U.S. military personnel who fought in World War II who are still missing. Most are believe to have perished at sea, said Roath. It's unclear how many remains may be found across Eastern Europe.