Sgt John Thompson, a British special forces flight engineer during the second world war, was considered missing in action for more than 70 years. Not any more.
His 92-year-old sister, Dorothy Webster, received his ring on Monday from a family in Albania together with a box of debris from his Halifax bomber. The plane, with a seven-member crew on board, had crashed in the eastern European country on 29 October 1944 while transporting assistance to local anti-Nazi fighters.
In 1960, Jaho Cala found Thompson’s finger with the ring on Sinoi mountain, 25 miles (40km) north of the Albanian capital, Tirana. He kept the ring and hid it at his home, afraid to show it to the then-communist authorities.
Cala asked his son Xhemil to look for the family of the owner and after he died Xhemil contacted the embassies of the US and Britain – the two countries that helped liberate Albania from the Nazis a month after Thompson’s death.
After three months, the British embassy confirmed that the ring was Thompson’s and told his family and the families of the other six crew members.
“70 years we’ve waited. We can’t believe that we’re here today celebrating this after all this time,” said Webster, who was accompanied by other family members at a ceremony at the Albanian defence ministry. “My father would have been thrilled to pieces with it all.”
“All these years it has been a story of loss,” said one of her sons, Alan Webster. “We now know almost everything that happened. It’s a sense of closure. We know where John is. He’s over there in the mountain.”
Alan’s brother Brian said their grandparents never locked their house in Matlock, Derbyshire, because they were waiting for their missing son. The authorities never told them anything about Thompson because he was part of “a secret operation in Albania”, the family said.
After the US and UK embassies started to piece together bits of evidence surrounding the ring, the words “Joyce & John” engraved inside it helped identify it as belonging to Thompson and his newly wedded wife, Joyce. She married again after losing John and has since died.
With only the ring and a little plane debris found until now, Barry Hill, another of Thompson’s nephews, said they would come again in some months to go to the crash site.
Albania was first occupied by fascist Italy in 1939 and then by Nazi Germany in 1943. Led by the Communist party, its partisans liberated the country on 29 November 1944.
“Your brother, Mrs Webster, helped liberate my country. Let his memory remain unforgettable,” said the Albanian defence minister, Mimi Kodheli.
Xhemil Cala said he was relieved to have fulfilled his father’s request to return the ring to the owner’s family. “I will go to his grave and say rest in peace for your dying wish has been fulfilled,” he said.