MOUNT VERNON — It’s been 67 years since a crash landing in the hills of Yugoslavia claimed the lives of seven crew members aboard a B-17 bomber during World War II. But one neighborhood resident still holds a place in his heart for the families of the victims, as well as the survivors.
Not yet born on the day of the crash in April 1945, Mario Klasnja, currently living in Bosnia, heard many stories from his father about the events which happened that day. His father was only age 14 at the time, and the events had a great effect on him.
After Klasnja’s father died in 2005, he started to feel a bit lonely, thinking about his life and his roots. This took him to WWII, and a chord struck about the people who were involved in the plane crash near his grandfather’s farm. He began to ask himself, “How many mothers, wives and children in America have never seen their husbands and fathers again? And what about those relatives that live now in the U.S.? How do they feel? Did they forget? Do they remember?”
So Klasnja began his search for the families associated with this crash. He has since made contact with members of four different families. Among the survivors was Mount Vernon native Paul Rex, who was an assistant engineer with the U.S. Air Force, 483rd Bomb Group, 816th Squadron.
Rex enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in December 1942 at the age of 18 where he attended engineering school in Dallas, Texas, and later gunnery school in Kingman, Ariz. In September 1944, he was sent to Italy where, within two weeks time, he embarked on flying 28 missions.
On Jan. 21, 1945, his crew was shot down while bombing Vienna, Austria. The entire crew bailed out of the plane with parachutes at 10,000 feet. When Rex landed on the ground, he was surrounded by Yugoslavian soldiers. But when he told them he was an American, they were overjoyed and threw a celebration for him and his crew.
Rex and his crew were listed as missing in action and were protected in a Yugoslavian village for 21 days. Trucks then arrived to take them away, and a journey through the mountains resulted in them being shot at by Germans. The troops were sick and weak with dysentery and went to a rest camp in Rome, Italy.
Later returning to his base, Rex started to fly more missions. On April 1, 1945, He was on a makeshift crew, flying waist gunner near Bosanska Krupa, Yugoslavia, when their B-17 received a direct hit and was reduced to one operational engine. The pilot had passed out, and the crew decided to attempt a landing. Striking a mountain at 100 miles per hour, the plane came down in a field, exploding and throwing all 10 crew members and a photographer from the plane.
Rex awoke the following day in a Yugoslavian hospital. During his two days in the hospital, Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
Returning to his base camp, Rex was told he was to begin flying more missions, against his best wishes. On the morning of just his second flight, as his plane was entering the runway, news came across an intercom that the war had ended. Rex then flew Army officers and troops out of Italy before being sent home four months later. His flight home went from Naples, Italy, to Dakar, Africa, then on to Natal, Brazil, to avoid flying across western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, and on to Puerto Rico and West Palm Beach, Fla.
When Rex was asked if he would do it again, his response was, “Well, if your country calls you, you would.”
Rex married his wife, Dorothy, in June 1946. He operated a Phillips 66 filling station and car wash, retiring in 1986. He later died on Nov. 4, 2002, at the age of 79.
Then earlier this year, Mrs. Rex received a letter from Klasnja asking about the family and how they were all doing. “We never thought we would hear from this Mario after all these years,” said Mrs. Rex. “He had heard the story about his father and grandfather running to help. One day he decided he would like to know what happened to these people that survived.”
Klasnja said in a letter to Mrs. Rex that he was sure his father would be glad to know that Paul was married and raised a family, as well as fellow comrade Charles Giboney. Mrs. Rex’s son, Steve, had also been corresponding with Klasnja, sending him photos of his family.
“After all these years, he still has feelings for these men who were in the crash,” said Mrs. Rex about Klasnja’s sentiments. “There’s a reason for living ... a reason for them not being killed. I spent a long time in the letter I sent back to him answering that question. I wanted to assure him that my husband did have a good life.”
“He (Mario) felt bad because they were young boys and didn’t have a family yet; there was no one to put flowers on their graves,” she said, as some were buried in Italy and others in plots next to their deceased family members.
Klasnja said in his letter, “I am trying to see a whole picture ... to see that life won over death, that those who survived, survived with reason, and their life was meaningful. That would be a true victory.”
Mrs. Rex has also been in contact with family members who were victims in the plane crash with Paul, particularly Steve Walker, the son of Orville Walker in Texas, who contacted her a few years ago.
Klasnja is continuing his search to contact more family members from that fateful plane crash. “So many things and events make our lives and make us as people,” said Klasnja in his letter. “If only all could know each other, we could see that all people were brothers and sisters and would not be at war anymore.”
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