The American pilot felt his aircraft wobble in the sky near the coast of West Sussex, England, where the beach gleamed below him, and the emerald meadow pastures lay ahead on June 22, 1944.
He and nine other crew members aboard a B-24 Liberator had just been jolted by a shell from a German anti-aircraft gun that tore through the plane’s metal, forcing the pilot, First Lt. William B. Montgomery, into a dire situation as he tried to fly from Paris back to base camp in Britain.
But the pilot with the U.S. Army Air Forces — 24 years old and known back home in Ford City, Pennsylvania, as a football star who liked to wear his golden fraternity college ring — appeared to know the effort was futile. He allowed his crewmates to parachute off the plane as he kept it aloft in West Sussex, historians said. Seven of them did, and survived.
Montgomery and two others remained on the plane, which nose-dived and crashed on open farmland, creating a fiery crater that buried aircraft parts and human remains roughly 20 feet underground. They came to be counted among the casualties of World War II.
For nearly eight decades, officials had designated Montgomery’s remains as “unrecoverable.” But this month, after a journey that spanned generations and involved vague clues from farmers and DNA testing, an agency with the Department of Defense said it had identified the remains of the lieutenant. Montgomery will soon be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony that will be witnessed by a septuagenarian nephew who was named after him.
“I was so shook,” the younger William Montgomery, 76, of Roswell, Georgia, said in an interview about the moment when he was told of the discovery. “I mean, shedding tears.”
The lieutenant’s namesake had heard stories about his uncle from his father, Thomas Braden Montgomery, who died in 2010. How Montgomery had saved the lives of seven men in Europe, in the midst of an epochal battle against the Axis powers. How he had captained the football team and track team at Washington & Jefferson College. And how, at an inch shy of 6 feet and about 190 pounds, he had become a strong pilot capable of flying immense aircraft like a B-24, which could weigh more than two dozen tons.
“I imagine that the families of those seven soldiers were very happy that my uncle was a great pilot,” Montgomery said.
Andy Saunders, an author in Britain who researches aviation history, had long tried to piece together where Montgomery’s remains could be.
In 1974, Saunders began investigating an aircraft loss involving a U.S. B-24 that had possibly crashed near Arundel, near the English Channel with about 3,000 residents.
One of the workers on a farm near Arundel, which was run by a local man named John Seller, told Saunders in 1974 that during the war, he had gone to the crash site and picked up a bracelet inscribed with the name “Montgomery.” The bracelet was given to authorities at the time, and it’s not known what became of it after that.
Seller also shared with Saunders in 1974 that at about 9 p.m. on June 22, 1944, he was a boy and getting ready for bed when he heard “a thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive,” according to contemporaneous interview notes from Saunders.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
The boy slipped out to the crash site and saw “little sign of debris in the grass field, only the dirt around five craters” and very little smoke. The next morning, Seller said, he could hear “ammunition exploding underground.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Saunders asked the Air Force Historical Research Agency for a report about the crash, and it documented Montgomery’s actions that day in detail through first-person accounts from surviving crew members. It also identified the two other crew members who had remained on the plane, and also died on that day, as John J. Crowther, a flight officer whose body was found yards from the crash site, and Sgt. John Holoka Jr., whose remains have not yet been publicly identified.
The crew had been sent to bomb an airfield close to the Palace of Versailles near Paris, which was under German occupation, when they were struck by flak, prompting them to flee toward West Sussex, where seven crew members parachuted, the report states.
“After I got out of the plane and my chute had opened, I saw the plane, and in about 30 seconds or less, it started into a power dive and crashed into the ground,” 2nd Lt. Herbert K. King said in the report.
Another crew member, 2nd Lt. D.M. Henderson, recalled in the report that they were near the English coast “when the order came over the interphone: prepare to bail out.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
A stunned Saunders searched the site in 1974 with others but did not find any remains as he shoveled the dirt — just machine guns and parts of engines.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
For several decades, Saunders said that he sought ways to convince the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to investigate the site. Finally, once in 2019 and again in 2021, the agency sent crews there and ran DNA tests on bone fragments found deep underground, which still smelled of hydraulic fluid decades later, said Mark Khan, a researcher of military history.
Those fragments were “very unsubstantial,” besides a tooth and a boot that had preserved bones from a foot inside of it, which may have belonged to either Montgomery or Holoka, said Khan, who assisted the archaeological team.
Other items were found, Khan said, including a bracelet that likely belonged to Holoka and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity ring that Montgomery wore.
That was the item that the lieutenant’s nephew saw recently when a military official from Fort Benning, the military base in Georgia, came to his house to go over funeral arrangements, Montgomery said. The ring was slightly bent, and its old golden sheen had acquired the faint glint of a brass antique.
He took it out of a sealed evidence bag, then looked at a photo of Montgomery smiling with his squadron. The younger Montgomery leaned in closer. Wrapped around his uncle’s finger, he saw, was a dark band. “The ring,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.