Remains of World War II airman are home at last

Harford resident was shot down over Germany in July 1944

October 12, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

A few years after Army airman Sgt. Leonard J. Ray was shot down over an east German farm field in 1944, his father erected a headstone in a Joppa cemetery as a memorial, but the plot remained empty for decades.

Now the World War II serviceman's remains are buried under that grave marker - interred a week ago next to his father.

"He's at rest now, and at home," his youngest sister, Kathryn "Judy" Brazezicki of Kingsville, said yesterday, the day the Department of Defense announced the identifications of Ray and eight other airmen.

The nine crew members of the Army Air Forces' 856th Bomber Squadron, 492nd Bomber Group, were on a B-24J Liberator that left North Pickenham, England, on July 7, 1944, about a month after D-Day.

Their mission was to bomb an aircraft factory near Bernburg, Germany, but captured records revealed that they crashed about 20 miles northwest of their target, according to the Defense Department.

His little sister, who was 16 at the time, remembers representatives from the War Department coming to their house late in the afternoon to notify them that Ray's plane had been shot down and that they didn't know his whereabouts.

"We all went to pieces," Brazezicki said. "We didn't have any inkling of anything that happened."

In 1945, the War Department declared Ray killed in action, although his body had not been recovered.

When her father, Oscar Ray, put up the headstone, "It was like a memorial for my brother," Brazezicki said. "He didn't think he would ever come back. He just gave up hope."

And so did she, until about five years ago, when the Defense Department contacted the family.

A German group discovered the crash site and two burial locations with personal items near Westeregeln, which for many years was under East German control, the Defense Department said.

A U.S. military team led an excavation of the crash site in 2003 and recovered more remains and other evidence. The team then used dental records and other tests - including mitochondrial DNA comparisons with possible relatives - to confirm their identities.

"I was really shocked when they found him," Brazezicki said. "I just couldn't believe it. It didn't seem possible after all that length of time."

Ray was the third of five children, the youngest of the family's three sons. The family grew up on a farm, and he and Brazezicki, the baby of the family, did chores together. Though her brother was six years older, "he and I were buddy-buddies," said Brazezicki, 80, who still lives on the farm next door to her sister, Thelma M. Christian.

Her brother quit school to enlist in the Maryland National Guard, then in Dundalk. He patrolled the East Coast for German submarines before he was shipped over to England, she said.

A week before his death, Ray's plane had been shot down in enemy territory, but he escaped with the help of the French resistance, according to Paul Arnett, a historian in Mesa, Ariz., who researches the 492nd Bomber Group. Arnett's father, Charles, served with the group and is now a retired lieutenant colonel.

Arnett said Ray was one of the senior crew members and was on the plane that day in part because he had turned down a promotion to lieutenant in order to stay with them.

"He was well-known by everyone in the group," Arnett said.

Ray was part of what was known as "the Hard Luck Crew" when they embarked on was to be their last mission, Arnett said. Flying with at least a dozen other planes, they successfully bombed the aircraft factory but were attacked by German fighters on their way back to base, Arnett said.

He said the crew had a high casualty rate because their planes were made of shiny aluminum, which made them easy targets. "You might as well call them up and tell them where you were going to be," Arnett said.

The news that Ray's remains had been found shook up his family, said Leonard Brazezicki, Ray's 60-year-old nephew, who was named in his honor.

Ray was buried at Mountain Christian Cemetery in Joppa, where he was interred with full military honors Oct. 5.

The next day, Leonard Brazezicki said, he went to the funeral of a fellow airman, Staff Sgt. Robert J. Flood of Neelyton, Pa., who was buried in Dry Run, Pa. The others will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later.

Some wanted to bury Ray at Arlington, but his baby sister said that was too far, considering how far away he's been for so long.

"At least we can go visit him here," she said.

Capital News Service contributed to this article.

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