A British pilot, a missing plane and a ring returned after 70 years

Mon Mar 9, 2015 7:01pm EDT
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By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Of 14 sorties flown by British World War Two pilots supplying anti-fascist fighters in Albania on Oct. 29, 1944, 12 returned to base in Italy, one failed to discharge its load and "the other is missing and assumed to have crashed", according to military records.

For seven decades, the Handley Page Halifax bomber was believed to be at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Then, last October, a British and U.S. team climbed 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) into the Albanian mountains to locate its wreckage, which had been spotted by a villager out collecting herbs.

"Clearly what we found was enough to suggest we had found the remains of a big four-engine bomber," said Chris Casey, a doctor at the U.S. embassy in Tirana and part of the expedition.

A British-born aviation enthusiast, Casey trawled the Internet but was frustrated in his attempts to pinpoint the identity of the plane or its crew.

The vital clue would come in the form of a gold ring, engraved "Joyce & John" and held in safe keeping by an Albanian villager and then his son.

Jaho Cala found the ring in 1960 while collecting metal and wood in the mountains, when Albania was shut off from the outside world by the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha.

"He gave it to me when I got married in 1971, but told me clearly the ring did not belong to our family and I was to return it to its owner after communism ended," Jaho's son, Xhemil Cala, told Reuters.

Twenty years later, with Albania rid of communism, Cala took to wearing the ring while serving as a police officer. But he had not given up returning it to its rightful owner. He said the ring would not stay put on his finger, twisting as he slept.   Continued...

Albanian Xhemil Cala (L) puts the ring of the British flight engineer Sergeant John Thompson, onto the finger of his sister Dorothy Webster, 92, during a ceremony held at the Ministry of Defence in Tirana March 9, 2015.  REUTERS/Arben Celi