Peter Lucas: High Marks on Montenegro’s Final Resting Place for Sgt. K
KOLASIN, Montenegro -- We found the cemetery but not the grave. That had been obliterated by time, weather and war.
But the anonymous young American airman, who died here in July 1944 after bailing out of his flak-damaged plane following a bombing mission over the German-controlled oil fields in Romania, is buried here. For sure. You can feel it.
Known only as Sgt. K, the young airman was one of a 10-man crew that abandoned their severely damaged plane and parachuted into the region, landing a dozen miles north near a village called Moykovac.
They were rescued by Communist partisans who were locked in vicious guerilla war, fighting above their weight, with the Nazi occupiers and taken to Kolasin, including the dead sergeant. The town changed hands some 20 times.
At the time the U.S. flew hundreds of bomber missions over the Ploesti oil fields from bases in Italy. Thousands of airmen were killed or captured after their planes were hit over the heavily defended target. Many flight crews never made it back.
I came across an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) report of the event at the National Archives where I conducted research for my book “The OSS in World War II Albania” published in 2007.
The OSS was the wartime forerunner of the CIA. Its mission in the Balkans at the time, among other things, was to rescue downed airmen, of which there were many throughout Yugoslavia, and get them back to Italy to fly again.
Although not part of the book, the story intrigued me. What happened to Sgt. K? I was determined one day to find out. So, I went to Montenegro.
Kolasin, now a regional ski resort, is a small town surrounded by rugged mountains in a very mountainous country. We got there by driving 3-4 hours from Tirana, Albania, north through winding mountain roads. The views are spectacular.
In Kolasin there is a war museum where we were lucky to meet with Zeljko Kostich, a Kolasin English teacher and local historian. During a tour of the region, Zeljko spoke Serbian to local farmers, then translated the Serbian into English to my companion Edi, who then translated the English into Albanian for our driver. Surprisingly it worked.
Our research validated the 1944 OSS report, which noted the partisans brought the airmen to Kolasin where Sgt. K was pronounced dead at a makeshift partisan hospital.
His body was brought to the local church where three Orthodox priests read the ceremony. A partisan leader gave a eulogy in French, saying that his comrades should make sure that although Sgt. K “is sleeping a long way from his native land, he is always going to be looked after by men, women and children who, too, have suffered losses by death in war. They will always honor and take care of this last resting place of an American comrade who came so far to give his life for the cause of freedom.”
The OSS report said, “The priests sprinkled earth on the simple wooden box and the final volley was fired by a squad of partisans. The OSS officer said a simple wooden cross, obviously now long gone, marked the site.
As the OSS officer wrote, “The site of the cemetery is indeed beautiful. It nestles among the mountains three thousand feet up. The valley is green and the former flying companions of the dead sergeant roar overhead almost daily on their way to the same kind of mission in which he took part before his death.”
The description of the site is indeed accurate. It is stunning. There are the graves of some 200 young local partisans buried there and their graves are marked with white headstones, which compare to the white hair of the old groundskeeper.
But there is no marker for Sgt. K.
What happened, according to the fading memories of the locals, is that after the war the partisans gathered their local dead and reburied them at a reworked cemetery.
By that time, several years after Sgt. K had been buried under his wooden cross, his grave site was battered by several harsh winters and most likely disappeared, or that his remains in the establishment of the reworked and enlarged burial ground were mingled among the remains of the partisan dead.
Either way, marker or no marker, there is little doubt that Sgt. K is buried there among the partisan dead, all young men --boys, really-- who gave their lives in the defense of freedom.
You can feel it just standing there. So, this is his marker.
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