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WWII airman home at last

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Even after Army Air Forces Sgt. Alfonso O. Duran’s B-24 bomber was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1944, his mother, Maria, always held out hope that he was alive.

“You know, I think mothers try to do that,” said Stan Evans of Santa Fe, Duran’s nephew.

Alfonso Duran is pictured here in this undated photo. He was 22 when his B-24 bomber was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1944.

But she died without ever knowing what had become of her 22-year-old son, who enlisted in the Army during World War II, never to return to his home in El Rito.

On Wednesday, more than 70 years after his disappearance, Duran’s remains reached their final resting place in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

“Today, we lay to rest a patriot who honorably served our nation in the preservation of the heritage of freedom,” said New Mexico National Guard chaplain Maj. Thi Truong, standing beside Duran’s flag-draped coffin. “In life, we honor the flag, and in death, the flag will honor him.”

Although Maria never received the closure of knowing her son’s fate, perhaps she would have found some comfort in the fact that although he did perish in the crash, he was buried beside a church in a small village in what is now Slovenia.

A woman there has cared for his grave for years, surrounding it with stones and placing flowers on it.

“It really touched our hearts that he was not forgotten,” his niece, Patricia Duran, said after the burial service.

Enemy fire

On Feb. 25, 1944, Duran was serving as a nose gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator. The plane was struck by enemy fire, and its right wing was damaged, prompting the crew to bail out.

Patricia Duran kneels at the grave of her uncle, WWII Army Air Forces Sgt. Alfonso Duran, following his burial service at the Santa Fe National Cemetery on Wednesday. Duran was killed when his plane was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1944. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But for some reason, Duran didn’t make it out.

While his crewmates and the U.S. Army did not know what became of Duran, nearby villagers had pulled his body from the wreckage and buried it, believing him to be an Australian airman.

Through research by local researchers there and the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, it was determined in 2016 that the remains beside St. Stephen’s Church were likely his.

DNA was taken from Stan, his nephew, and it was officially announced on May 22 that the long lost sergeant had been found.

New Mexico National Guard Capt. Gabriel Peterman assisted the family in making final arrangements for their cousin and uncle.

“This is something the Army takes very seriously,” Peterman said. “As a service member, it’s nice to know that we will not be forgotten.”

Early life

There isn’t much known about Duran himself, as family members described him as a quiet young man and those who knew him best have since passed on.

Growing up on a farm in El Rito, Duran loved horses and even traveled to California for a time to work as a groom at a racetrack.

His cousin Edmund Martinez said he was always charged with saddling up the horses when he came to visit so they could ride.

Both Stan and Patricia agreed – with smiles – that it always seemed that he was Maria’s favorite child.

When the news came that he was missing, his brother Gilbert was already in a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria, where he would remain for 3½ years.

“Two boys out of three, and you don’t know where they are?” Stan said. “That’s got to be awful tough on a woman.”

Patricia said her grandparents and his surviving siblings routinely told a couple of stories again and again about Duran, “and then it would just get very quiet.”

“I think they were really heartbroken,” she said.

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are still nearly 73,000 Americans still unaccounted-for from World War II.

“We’re all very happy to have him back,” Stan said. “The only thing I’m sorry about is that my mother and grandmother weren’t here to see this happen.”