ROME -- Italian volunteers located the plane of a German ace shot down during World War II as well as the pilot's remains, including the dog tag and good luck charms he carried into combat. The volunteers found the plane flown by Flight Sgt. Maximilian Volke--a Munich-born pilot credited with shooting down 37 enemy planes--near the site of the German defensive line that witnessed months of bloody battles as the Allies fought to liberate northern Italy.
Italian volunteers of the Romagna Air Finders dig out the plane flown during WWII by Luftwaffe Flight Sergeant Maximilian Volke. Romagna Air Finders, h.o. AP Photo
The amateur researchers narrowed down their search area based on information from state archives and accounts of those who witnessed the ace's final air battle in 1944, said Leo Venieri, the president of Romagna Air Finders, a group that scours the countryside for missing World War II pilots around the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna. Volke's Messerschmitt Bf 109 was dug out of a farmer's field just north of Modena in July. The pilot's remains, which had sunk to a depth of 11 meters (36 feet) in the soft terrain, were well preserved, Venieri said.
A volunteer shows the electrical equipment's identification plate of the plane of Flight Sergeant Maximilian Volke. The Luftwaffe NCO met his demise when he attacked a flight of nine American B-25 bombers on September 4, 1944. Romagna Air Finders, h.o. AP Photo
The dig yielded artifacts including the plane's engine and the pilot's radio microphone, as well as a wallet with money, documents and images of the Virgin Mary and an African elephant. ``He probably carried the images for good luck,'' Venieri told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. ``The positive identification came from the dog tag we found in his pocket.''
Volke, a veteran of campaigns in Russia and Africa, was 29 when he took off from a northern Italian air base on Sept. 5, 1944, with three other fighters to intercept a group of nine American B-25 bombers. He was shot down by gunners in one of the U.S. planes, Venieri said, citing witness accounts and the bomber squadron's logs.
Identification tags found in the wreckage definitively identified the remains to be those of Sgt. Volke. Romagna Air Finders, h.o. AP Photo
The pilot's remains have been sent to the University of Modena for an autopsy and Venieri's group plans to bury him in September at the German war cemetery of Passo della Futa, between Bologna and Florence. Venieri said he has been in contact with one of Volke's cousins in Munich and plans to ask the family to attend the funeral.
Gerhard Bletschacher, whose wife is Volke's cousin, told the AP the family was surprised to hear of the find earlier this year--particularly since they had been informed in 1944 that Volke's body had been found and properly buried.
Luftwaffe Flight Sgt. Maximilian Volke, a Munich-born pilot credited with shooting down 37 enemy planes. Romagna Air Finders, h.o. AP Photo
``It is naturally a surprise--on one hand we have this notice that he was buried and now on the other this that he's been found after 60 years--we don't know what is right,'' Bletschacher said from his home in Munich. He said the original letter could have been just an attempt to make the family feel better, however, and that maybe modern techniques like DNA matching could help put the matter to rest. ``It's great what they are doing there,'' he said of the Air Finders group.
World War II finds remain common in areas of Europe that saw fierce fighting, including the Italian regions of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, where Nazi troops held the ``Gothic Line'' in 1944 and 1945 to try to stop allied forces from breaking through to northern Italy. The 60 volunteers of Romagna Air Finders have located the remains of 19 planes as well as four German pilots, two Britons, two Italians and one Brazilian since the group was founded in 2000. The pilots are usually given a funeral and their personal effects and planes are put on display at a museum set up by the group in the town of Fusignano, east of Bologna. ``There is a humanitarian value to giving a burial to missing soldiers and there is a message of peace that we send when young people come to ourmuseum and see the effects of war,'' Venieri said.