As World War II rages across Europe in spring 1945, an American airman comes to grief in the line of duty somewhere over southern Germany. For more than 70 years, his family and best friend are left to wonder about his ultimate fate. Then a team of investigators discover a tree that has been hiding an incredible secret for seven decades.
Growing up together in Seattle, Washington, William J. Gray Jr., born in 1923, and Jim Louvier, 1921, were the best of friends. The pair shared a newspaper delivery route in Rainier Valley in the city’s South End district, and remained close during their time at school. However, by the time they were young men, their world would change forever.
In December 1941 America entered World War II. Like many other patriotic young Americans, Gray and Louvier felt that it was their duty to enlist in the armed forces. Together they decided that they would take to the skies, playing their part as airmen in the long and bloody conflict.
As committed family men, Gray and Louvier were aware of the possible consequences of heading off to war. So the pair made a pact – that if anything should happen to one of them, the other promised to take care of their loved ones in their stead. Reassured by this promise to each other, the two men set off to fight many thousands of miles from home.
After enlisting, Gray became a First Lieutenant with the 391st Fighter Squadron of the 366th Fighter Group, a wing of the United States Air Force, that first formed in 1943. In this capacity, he took on the role of pilot, fulfilling the dream that he and Louvier had shared.
According to more than 100 letters sent home, collected in a scrapbook treasured by Gray’s family, the young airman enjoyed life in the forces – although he was initially annoyed about the lack of action. “He would talk about his experiences and some of the funny things that happened,” his niece Jan Bradshaw, 58, told news magazine show Inside Edition in July 2017.
“He was so frustrated by the weather,” Bradshaw continued. “[He wrote that] he wishes it would just clear out so he could go back to the mission.” As he waited for things to get moving, Gray kept in constant contact with his family, often sending a portion of his earnings home.
Soon, Gray would find all the action he could have possibly hoped for. His family letters reveal that he went on to take part in some 68 missions over the course of his war – each time surviving to tell the tale. Tragically, however, the courageous airman’s luck would eventually run out.
On April 16, 1945, Gray was piloting a single-seater P-47D aircraft over Lindau, a town in the far south of Germany close to the Austrian border. He was tasked with a dive-bombing raid, but he did not live to see it completed. Instead, his plane crashed and burned.
According to Gray’s flight leader, the pilot managed to attack a truck before the wing of his aircraft clipped some trees. Sadly, Gray lost control and his plane hurtled to the ground. Louvier, meanwhile, had become a bomber pilot who himself had survived being shot down over Austria. But with his best friend missing in action, Louvier was forced to return to Seattle alone.
Devastated, Louvier was determined to honor the pact he had made with his fallen friend. After comforting the pilot’s grieving family, he found himself growing closer to Gray’s younger sister, Jean. Eventually the pair fell in love and married, settling down to a new life in the aftermath of the war.
Meanwhile, in 1948, investigators from the American Graves Registration Command traveled to the scene of Gray’s crash to try and find any trace of the missing pilot. They discovered four machine guns bearing serial numbers which proved that they had been mounted on Gray’s aircraft. Unfortunately, however, there was no sign of the pilot’s remains.
As the years passed, Jim and Jean Louvier went on to have five children. And although they claim that the family rarely talked about Gray’s death, the mystery of his fate continued to hang over them all. Then in 2010 Louvier died. He and Jean had been happily married for 64 years.
Although Louvier was cremated, his children – Bill, Doug, Mark, Gregg and Jan – could not decide where to lay his ashes to rest. But as they deliberated, an incredible revelation was on its way to them from Europe. Unbeknown to the family, the hunt for Gray’s body had been reinvigorated by a tip-off in Lindau.
In 2012 American personnel had arrived in the German town to carry out an unrelated investigation. But once there they encountered two witnesses who claimed to have watched Gray’s aircraft crash. Furthermore, they were able to point out the exact spot where they believed it had happened.
Armed with this new information, the investigators recommended that an excavation be carried out at the site. Four years later, a team from the newly-formed Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency – which recovers missing U.S. military personnel – traveled to Lindau. Could they finally bring Gray home?
Amazingly, they were able to accomplish this objective. Bizarrely, after seven decades, the pilot’s bones were discovered embedded in the base of a tree at the scene of the crash.
“It grew over his remains and really protected and marked the spot,” Gray’s nephew, Doug Louvier, told Inside Edition in July 2017. “His bones were actually protected by the roots of the tree,” Jan Bradshaw went on to explain.
Fortunately researchers had been able to extract DNA from some of the bones, and in 2017 they announced a match for William J. Gray Jr. Finally, on July 14, 2017, the missing USAF First Lieutenant was buried with full military honors at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, WA. And what’s more – he was finally reunited with his best friend.
Louvier’s family were in agreement with a fitting way to deal with his ashes – bury them next to Gray’s remains, found at last after all these years. “What could be more perfect than to reunite these two and bury them at the same time?” Bradshaw said. “That made the whole experience more special to us, to do right by them.”