A WWII bomber pilot died saving his crew. About 75 years later, his family prepares to bury him.
By MARK REYNOLDS | The Providence Journal | Published: April 30, 2019
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Tribune News Service) — He was an alum of Rhode Island College. A husband waiting for the birth of a child.
And a bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying over Romania in a heavy, slow-flying B-24 bomber one morning in late June 1944.
The attack that would kill 1st Lt. John Dudley Crouchley Jr., and leave him missing in action for the rest of the millennium took place at an altitude of about 23,000 feet.
But Crouchley's valor would save his entire crew from the roughly 50 enemy fighters, including black and silver Messerschmitts with swastikas on their tails.
Almost 75 years later, Crouchley's valiant final act has direct bearing on some high drama unfolding this week in his home state, where his granddaughter now has the gold wedding band he wore to his death. Where on Saturday his family expects to carry out his long-awaited burial.
It's a story that involves the survival of Crouchley's crew, a prison camp, curious family members and a retired police detective and cold-case investigator who devoted himself to finding the missing pilot.
But first, back to the skies over Bucharest, where the pilots of Crouchley's Italy-based bomber wing were part of an air assault that dropped 82 tons of 500-pound bombs on the morning of June 28.
"Attacks were aggressive coming in from all around the clock," says a mission report written by the bomber wing's commander and obtained Monday by The Providence Journal.
The German aircraft mounted a continuous attack on the formation of bombers for 35 minutes, says the report.
As Crouchley flew over the targeted Titan Oil Refineries, enemy gunfire cut into the plane, igniting fires in two engines, according to Jerry Whiting, a California police detective turned historian who investigated the aerial battle on his way to helping the U.S. Department of Defense find the missing pilot.
To blow out the fires, Crouchley put the plane into a steep dive, Whiting says. Ultimately, he would keep the four-engine plane aloft for an hour as his gunners fought off repeated attacks.
But eventually, the shot-up plane began to fall out of the sky. It was time to bail.
An autopilot feature could keep a B-24 flying steady long enough for the entire crew, including both pilots, to jump out with their parachutes.
But the autopilot on Crouchley's plane was destroyed, according to Whiting, whose father was a B-24 tail gunner who served in the same unit, the 385th Bombardment Group.
Crouchley kept the plane aloft as nine other men jumped out and deployed their parachutes. The plane was only 400 feet off the ground when the last one, his copilot, hurled himself out.
Crouchley, whose nickname was "Dud," saved them all. But he did not save himself before the plane flew into a mountain.
In Rhode Island, Crouchley's wife, the late Dorothy (Barber) Crouchley, soon after gave birth to their son, the late John Dudley Crouchley III, who grew up in Barrington and had a son John Dudley Crouchley IV and a daughter, Autumn (Crouchley) Williams.
The U.S. military seemed to believe Crouchley's plane had gone down in Romania. Despite the survival of his entire crew, his son and his grandchildren didn't learn much about his sacrifice.
"All we knew was that my grandfather went down somewhere in Romania and his body was never found," recalled Williams, 42, of Bristol.
But by the 1990s, the adult children of other veterans, including Williams' relative, Dan Crouchley, grew curious about his missing uncle. They all dug in.
The son of one crew member, Mark LaScotte, had heard the story of the hero pilot from his father. His father had told him about his own time in a prisoner of war camp — not in Romania but in Bulgaria. LaScotte went on to identify and make contact with family members of nearly the entire crew, according to Whiting.
Not long after, Whiting, too, became interested. He had spent a 25-year career in law enforcement, much of it as a detective investigating violent crimes. He, too, would become interested in the history of the bombing group that his father had served.
He wrote a book, published in 2005, that told the stories of bomber crews shot down over Europe. But the complete story of one particular crew, Crouchley's, raised some unanswered questions: Where had the plane crashed? Where was the pilot?
Three witnesses named in a military report, who had been surviving lethal attacks during the time in question, had told investigators that Crouchley's plane had gone down in Romania, spelled Rumania at the time.
But Crouchley's crew, Whiting realized, had been held in Bulgaria. Was that where the plane had gone down?
It took about 14 years, much doggedness, numerous exchanges with staff from the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War Missing Person Office and the assistance of a retired Bulgarian military colonel and academic, who found a record that noted a plane crash, a burial of remains and a man named "John Krachali."
It required an archeological dig in a remote area in mountains near a Bulgarian village and DNA testing. It took patience, too.
The government investigators invited Whiting to help them adopt some of his techniques. But the rules, he says, did not let them divulge that they had recovered Crouchley's remains until the job was complete.
Finally, the news came in September 2018. Autumn Williams already has her grandfather's initialed wedding band.
Whiting, 68, of Walnut Creek, California, says he will be in Rhode Island on Saturday for the burial after Crouchley's remains arrive in Rhode Island on Thursday after traveling from a military facility in Nebraska.
"I don't think it would have happened without his perseverance," Williams says.
Says Whiting: "It has been 14 years of working on it, off and on. Words can't express how I feel. It's just great. I'd always hoped for this day. Realistically, I wasn't sure it would ever happen."