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The search for Alfonso

The search for Alfonso:

Family hopes to take one more name off the MIA list

The search for Alfonso:

Family hopes to take one more name off the MIA list

By Jennifer Svan

Stars and Stripes

POKOJISCE, Slovenia — The earth by the headstone next to the church in this tiny mountain village was full of rocks.

Two days of digging under a hot sun had yielded buckets of gravel, stones the size of men’s fists and many piles of dirt – but no bones. After 73 years, Sgt. Alfonso O. Duran was still missing.

The team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency had arrived in the nearby city of Ljubljana in mid-July on a mission to find Duran’s remains and bring him home.

Eagerly awaiting news of her long-lost uncle’s whereabouts was a niece in Maryland.

Since last year, Pat Duran has been working through her congressman to push the Defense Department to recover her uncle’s remains, four years after a report concluded he was most likely buried in a grave next to St. Stephen’s, a Catholic church built in the 1600s in Pokojisce.

Looking for the remains of America's war dead can be tedious work, requiring team members from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to sift through tiny rocks looking for possible remains or material evidence that may have belonged to a missing servicemember.

Jennifer Svan/Stars and Stripes


“When we grew up, the idea always, always, always was that he was lost somewhere and he’ll never be found,” Pat Duran said. “All we knew is that it was somewhere in Yugoslavia.”

The Americans looking for the remains of a U.S. airman killed in World War II had come up empty-handed, underscoring the difficulties in solving a decades-old mystery that’s akin to finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.

Just as the search for his remains stalled, an unexpected twist redirected efforts that by week’s end would produce possible bones and other promising material evidence.

The substitute gunner

Alfonso Orlando Duran was the third of four children born to Gilberto and Maria Duran in 1921. He grew up in El Rito, N.M., and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942.

On Feb. 25, 1944, Duran wasn’t supposed to be on the doomed B-24H Liberator, nicknamed “Knock it Off.” Normally a nose turret gunner, Duran was the substitute tail turret gunner on the flight, replacing the usual tail gunner who had frostbite.

The plane was part of a formation flying from Gioia del Colle, Italy, to bomb a German aircraft factory in Regensburg. It was the final day of Operation Argument, a series of coordinated attacks to destroy German aircraft factories and cripple enemy fighter forces. Over six days, the 8th and 15th Air Forces launched a combined 3,800 bomber sorties against targets deep inside the Third Reich.

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Shortly after noon, Duran’s formation was attacked by enemy fighters and encountered heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire from the ground, according to a 2012 report by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, a predecessor of the current POW/MIA command.

The tail gunner in an accompanying aircraft described how Duran’s plane took a direct hit to the right wing, which tore off a section extending beyond the outboard engine. The aircraft plunged into a steep dive and passed out of sight.

Nine crew members bailed out, were captured and interrogated by the Germans. A German interrogator told several of the crew members that one body had been found in the aircraft wreckage, the report stated.

It’s not known why Duran didn’t make it out. One of Duran’s crew members said he appeared uninjured and was seated in the waist section of the aircraft when he last saw him.

Back in New Mexico, early 1944 was a tense time for the Duran family, Pat Duran said.

Alfonso’s older brother, named Gilberto like his father, was in a Japanese prison camp in Manchuria when Alfonso disappeared.

The Army sent Alfonso’s mother information on how to contact the wives of the other crew members.

“These women had already received letters from their husbands,” Pat Duran said. “The Germans wouldn’t let them write much. They said, ‘We survived, we’re being treated well,’ something like that.”

Based on that little information, the spouses told her grandmother that everyone survived. “They’re all well, you’ll get a letter from him soon,” Pat Duran recalled. “She waited for that letter and she waited for that letter, and then finally, they said no, apparently, he didn’t survive.”

Duran remembers her aunt once told her “that my grandmother went to bed and refused to speak or eat” after receiving the news.

The trail went cold. The family wouldn’t hear more about what happened to Alfonso Duran for more than 70 years.

Pat Duran, now 63, the daughter of Gilberto, was born 10 years after Alfonso went missing. But she remembers the “heartache and the sadness and the constant wonder and what a hole it left in the family,” she said. “He was so beloved.”

An unlikely Australian

In 2006, Slovenian researchers provided information about a B-24 Liberator that crashed on Feb. 25, 1944, near Pokojisce and mentioned the grave of an airman.

DPMO investigators conducted field research missions during the next several years, visiting the wreckage site and interviewing residents.

An inscription in Slovene on the lone headstone beside the church says “here rests” an unknown Australian airman along with four other Yugoslavians. Two were known partisans – Yugoslav revolutionary communists — and two were unknown Nazi collaborators, villagers in Pokojisce said.

But DPMO investigators doubted the remains came from an airman with the Royal Australian Air Force. Only one RAAF airman was reported missing in Slovenia, a flight sergeant on a British Wellington bomber that crashed in Austria or the Mediterranean Sea on Feb. 24, 1944. Investigators determined that the plane that crashed near Pokojisce was a B-24H.

In 2012, they concluded that “the remains of the airman buried above four partisans behind the church in Pokojisce are those of Sgt. Alfonso O. Duran,” according to the DPMO report, and recommended the grave be opened.

A family’s red tape

Pat Duran wasn’t aware of any of the work being done to find her uncle until Slovenian military researcher Renata Gutnik contacted her in April 2016.

Gutnik and her husband, Raul Semenic, came across Duran’s name at the American Military Cemetery in Florence, Italy, inscribed on the wall with tablets of 1,409 names of those missing-in-action. Semenic wrote several books about the crew of “Double Trouble,” another B-24 Liberator that crashed in Logatec, Slovenia, the same day that Duran’s and 23 other B-24s crashed across Europe.

Duran caught Gutnik’s eye because he was mentioned in Semenic’s book. “Double Trouble” and “Knock it Off” trained together and crashed almost at the same time on the same day, she said.

“We were surprised, big time,” Gutnik said, and wondered why Duran was still listed as missing-in-action.

She found an email for Pat Duran and sent her a message: “Are you the niece of Sgt. Alfonso Duran, who was lost over Yugoslavia during World War II, because I think I know where your uncle is buried,” Duran said.

When the family found out his whereabouts might be known, “it was like a miracle,” she said. “How is this possible?”

Duran said Gutnik sent her DPMO’s 27-page investigation report about her uncle.

After difficulties and delays working with military agencies, Duran contacted Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who wrote letters to the Army.

“We contacted them 10 years into this effort and they had no new information to tell us about it,” Pat Duran said. “Everything we found out about the investigation and the search was all from Renata.”

Gutnik also worked on the case from Slovenia, contacting the U.S. embassy, helping to secure some of the permits to open the grave and even writing a letter to the White House, she said.

“When we grew up, the idea always, always, always was that he was lost somewhere and he’ll never be found."

- Pat Duran

The dedicated grave tender

For nearly 40 years, Tonckna Dragar tended the unknown airman’s grave. Now 84, Dragar’s face is weathered but her sparkling blue eyes belie her years and the tragedies she’s seen. When she was 10, she saw the Nazis loading up the dead, bodies and heads separately. Her mother, she said, kept her younger siblings back but made her watch. “Go and see what war makes people do,” her mother told her.

Dragar has lived near the church since coming to Pokojisce as a young bride in 1955.

She doesn’t know why the airman was called an Australian. His original burial site was behind the church, in a grave so shallow that she had to add soil and leaves on occasion to keep his remains covered.

In the 1960s, the airman’s remains were moved to a common grave with a large headstone. She tended that grave for years, she said, adorning it with candles and wreaths on special occasions. In recent years, the local municipal association assumed the duties.

The new details

For two days, locals came and went, curiously watching the team of Americans dig, scrape and screen rocks and dirt.

In the small mountain village, nine DPAA members — including two anthropologists, a medic, linguist and explosive ordnance disposal specialist – milled about the pastoral church with shovels and buckets.

One local resident showed up with a basket of snacks and drinks for the team. He showed a photo on his cell phone of a bomb casing left over from World War II, now sitting in his yard, to the team’s bomb expert.

Even the U.S. ambassador to Slovenia stopped by to observe the progress.

“It’s very moving,” Brent Hartley said. “It makes me feel good as a citizen of the United States that we’re willing to put these resources into finding someone’s” loved one.

“I hope it pans out,” he said. “It would be nice to take another name off the list of missing Americans.”

On the third day of digging, the shovels hit rock, and a visit by two elderly men from the area delivered a surprise.

They told the team that the “grave” was merely a memorial and that nobody had ever been buried there.

Digging operations moved to behind the church, where the airman’s original burial site was said to be.

It was also the area where locals reported that a leg bone, possibly with a boot attached and a piece of trousers, was found during earlier work on the church.

Almost immediately, the Americans found possible human remains over a wide area. Many years ago, an excavator dug a trench while installing a lightning rod, presumably scattering the bones.

Forensic work in the months to come will determine whether the remains are human and belong to Duran. But the team also recovered promising material evidence indicating the presence of an American airman, officials said.

Approaching closure

Back in Maryland, Pat Duran marveled at the strange turn of events.

Even with the latest development, “we tell each other all the time, ‘Let’s not get our hopes up,’” she said, referring to the rest of her family, including two of her uncle’s first cousins.

“From the very beginning, we’ve been steeled for disappointment,” she said. “When you have a person who’s lost like that and they’re buried hurriedly and then the remains are moved, you could see where there could be some confusion and some mix-up, and maybe it wasn’t him at all.”

The family feels a sense of closure regardless of the outcome, Duran said.

“We have discovered so much about the circumstances of my uncle’s death,” she said. Even if his remains were scattered in the nearby forest, “a more beautiful spot would be hard to find,” she said.

Duran said while she is extremely grateful for the resources devoted to finding her uncle’s remains, she wishes military officials had shared with the family what they knew about her uncle’s death years ago.

“I guess their thinking was they didn’t want the family to be disappointed,” she said. “I think the families would rather know of any possibility.”

She said Alfonso’s older sister and brother died in 2010 — four years after the Defense Department first learned of the possibility that Duran might be buried in Pokojisce.

“What a difference it would have made to my father and to my aunt,” she said, “to know he had died and somebody had buried him and tended the grave.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator

  • Speed: 303 mph
  • Height: 17-foot-11
  • Range: 2,850 miles
  • Weight: 56,000 lbs. loaded
  • Ceiling: 28,000 feet
  • Cost: $336,000
  • Span: 110 feet

Along with the B-17, the B-24 was the mainstay of the U.S. strategic bombing campaign in the Western European theater. Its great range made it particularly suited for such missions as the famous raid out of North Africa against the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania, on Aug. 1, 1943. By war’s end, more than 18,000 Liberators were produced.

  • Speed: 303 mph
  • Height: 17-foot-11
  • Range: 2,850 miles
  • Weight: 56,000 lbs. loaded
  • Ceiling: 28,000 feet
  • Cost: $336,000
  • Span: 110 feet