By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington
The B-24J Liberators of the 492nd Bomb Group might as well have been flying over Germany in the summer of 1944 with giant bull's-eyes on their wings. That's because they were the first bombers to be unpainted and silver-colored to cut costs and reduce weight.
"The silver planes were like flying giant mirrors into enemy territory," historian Paul Arnett said. "The reflecting sunlight made it easier for the Luftwaffe to establish and maintain visual contact."
On one day alone, July 7, 1944, 12 bombers and 67 men were lost, including the McMurray Crew, which dropped out of formation after dropping its bombs on an aircraft factory in Bernberg, Germany, and was never seen or heard from again.
Captured records revealed the crippled bomber - swarmed by German fighters - had crashed in an area of eastern Germany that fell under Communist control until 1990.
In 2001, a German civilian named Enrico Schwartz, using transcripts of old radio transmissions, traced the crash site to a potato field near Westeregein, about 20 miles from the original bombing target, and began excavating.
"Enrico actually found Lt. McMurray's dog tags and some watches and parts of combs and Air Force wings, and he found some skeletal remains, and that was enough for him to turn it over to the [U.S.] Army," Bob Barlett, who assisted Schwartz in his initial search, said.
U.S. military personnel completed the excavation and recovered the remains of nine airmen.
"The exact placement of the remains in relation to the aircraft debris can tell a forensic anthropologist or archeologist quite a lot about who the person might be, or where he might have been located within the fuselage," Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's MIA/POW office, said.
The remains were identified through DNA tests and returned to family members in 2007. The men are to be buried June 12 at Arlington National Cemetery (partial remains of three of them were also interred separately).
What follows is a brief tribute to each of the airmen:
1. First Lt. David McMurray of Melrose, Mass., was the plane's pilot. He flew sub patrols as a co-pilot out of Langley, Va., and was promoted to pilot at Alamogordo, N.M. He piloted 15 missions over Europe. His first bomber was shot down over France on June 15, 1944, and his second one went down over Germany less than a month later. His name and those of his crew members are inscribed on the "Wall of the Missing" in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.
2. Second Lt. Millard Wells Jr. of Paris, Ky., was the plane's co-pilot. Six weeks before Wells died, his wife gave birth to a son, Wayne. Wells wrote his son a letter, which Wayne still has. "He addressed the letter to me, and just told me to take care of my mother," Wayne told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "He was a romantic kid. He was only 21 years old when he died. It's hard to think of your father as a kid, but he never got beyond that."
3. First Lt. Raymond Pascual of Houston, Texas, was originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. He died just months before his wife gave birth to their only child, Raymond Pascual Jr. "I wish I had known him," Pascual Jr. told the Houston Chronicle. A few photographs and stories told by his mother and grandmother are all he knows of his father, a 28-year-old bombardier at the time of his death. "He was a good man, my mom told me," Pascual Jr. told the Chronicle.
4. Tech Sgt. Leonard Ray grew up on a farm near Upper Falls, Md., and quit school to enlist in the Maryland National Guard. He patrolled the East Coast for German submarines before going to England. He was 22 and the plane's engineer when he died. He was buried last October in Joppa, Md., in front of a headstone his father purchased just weeks after he disappeared. "He's at rest now, and at home," his sister told the Baltimore Sun.
5. Tech. Sgt. Hyman Stiglitz was born in Lithuania in 1919. His family lived in Cuba for 10 years before settling in Boston. Stiglitz, an accomplished violinist, was a 25-year-old radio operator when he died. He was remembered as an excellent dancer and a quiet person who kept mostly to himself. Stiglitz was buried in December 2007 in Tucson in the same plot as his parents "to symbolically reunite them," his nephew told the Boston Globe.
6. Staff Sgt. Robert Cotey was remembered as a rebel growing up in Vergennes, Vt. "When he was a teenager, he had an Indian motorcycle and tried to ride down the hiking road at Mount Philo," his nephew told the Burlington Free Press. "He broke his leg and had a bad limp after that." No remains were recovered of Cotey, the plane's turret gunner. His death was confirmed by discovery of his dog tags and the knowledge he was on the plane.
7. Staff Sgt. Francis Larrivee of Laconia, N.H., enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Jan. 19, 1942, and was a right waist gunner. He married and had a daughter, Judith, who was three months old when he disappeared. "I always thought he would come home," she told the Manchester Union Leader. "I always thought as a child he would knock on our door." Her mother remarried and little was said of her father. "Now, finally, there is closure," Judith said.
8. Staff Sgt. Robert Flood of Neelyton, Pa., was remembered as quiet and bright. He graduated from high school in 1941 and worked at the Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg before entering the military in 1944. A 22-year-old turret gunner when he died, Flood was buried last October in Path Valley, Pa. "We are so thankful he was finally brought home," a cousin told whptv.com. An 84-year-old brother survives him.
9. Staff Sgt. Walter Schlosser lived in Detroit as a child and moved to Lake City, Mich., with his mother, Hazel, and sister, Babe, and brother, Robert, when his mother separated from his father, Otto. His mother worked for a man named Walter Proctor, and Schlosser entered the Army Air Corps while living in Lake City. He was a left-wing waist gunner on B-24J's with the Eighth Air Force. No family members remain in the Lake City area.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Arnett)
Click here to view tributes to the 166 service members killed this year in the Middle East, including the following 13 casualties from last week:
1. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Cherie Morton
, 40, of Bakersfield, Calif.
2. Navy Airman Apprentice Adrian Campos
, 22, of El Paso, Texas.
3. Army Spc. Steven Christofferson
, 20, of Cudahy, Wis.
4. Army Sgt. Adam Kohlhaas
, 26, of Perryville, Mo.
5. Marine 1st Lt. Matthew Vandergrift
of Littleton, Colo.
6. Army Pvt. Ronald Harrison
, 25, of Morris Plains, N.J.
7. Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter
, 19, of Sag Harbor, N.Y.
8. Marine Cpl. Jonathan Yale
, 21, of Burkeville, Va.
9. Army Pfc. John Bishop
, 22, of Gaylord, Mich.
10. Army 1st Lt. Timothy Cunningham
, 26, of College Station, Texas.
11. Army Staff Sgt. Ronald Blystone
, 34, of Springfield, Mo.
12. Army Sgt. Guadalupe Ramirez
, 26, of Mohave Valley, Ariz.
13. Army Staff Sgt. Shaun Whitehead
, 24, of Commerce, Ga.
Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com/. The tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/.