A wedding ring found in 1944 emerges out of safekeeping to reveal a poignant WWII chronicle of love, tragedy and gratitude.

Of 14 sorties flown by British World War Two pilots supplying anti-fascist fighters in Albania on Oct 29, 1944, 12 returned to base in Italy, one failed to discharge its load and “the other is missing and assumed to have crashed”, according to military records.

For seven decades, the Handley Page Halifax bomber was believed to be at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Then, last October, a British and US team climbed 1,829m into the Albanian mountains to locate its wreckage, which had been spotted by a villager out collecting herbs.

“Clearly what we found was enough to suggest we had found the remains of a big four-engine bomber,” says Chris Casey, a doctor at the US embassy in Tirana and part of the expedition. A British-born aviation enthusiast, Casey trawled the Internet but was frustrated in his attempts to pinpoint the identity of the plane or its crew.

One vital clue would come in the form of a gold ring, engraved “Joyce & John” and held in safekeeping by an Albanian villager, who then passed it on to his son.

Jaho Cala found the ring in 1960 while collecting metal and wood in the mountains, when Albania was shut off from the outside world by the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha.

“He gave it to me when I got married in 1971, but told me clearly the ring did not belong to our family and I was to return it to its owner after communism ended,” says Jaho’s son, Xhemil Cala.

Twenty years later, with Albania rid of communism, Cala took to wearing the ring while serving as a police officer. But he had not given up returning it to its rightful owner. He said the ring would not stay put on his finger, twisting as he slept.

Cala quotes a Muslim cleric who told him: “It is not yours, that is why.”

Cala tried to intercept a visiting British envoy to pass him the ring, but was shooed away by defense ministry guards. When his commanding officer visited Britain, Cala gave him the ring but he brought it back saying he had no luck finding the owner.

Finally, he appealed to a regional government official, who alerted the British embassy more than two years ago.

“The ring … really helped us to solve this riddle,” says Casey.

The riddle of the ring

A flight engineer, Sergeant John Thompson and Joyce Mozley married in June 1944 but only spent a weekend together before he was posted overseas, according to Thompson’s nephew, Alan Webster, at a ceremony in Tirana on March 9.

Gerd Kaceli, a military assistant at the British embassy, says Thompson’s plane had dropped supplies to the Biza valley, but on turning west to return to Italy it clipped the top of the mountain and crashed, killing the crew.

Kaceli says Thompson’s widow had remarried after the war and died in 1995. He also spoke of “mystical” powers that had combined to shed light on the fate of the plane.

At the ceremony in Albania’s Defence Ministry, Cala kneeled as he handed the ring to Thompson’s 92-year-old sister, Dorothy Webster, along with a fuel gauge from the aircraft and a piece of rock from the mountain that brought it down.

Above, Albanian Xhemil Cala (left) puts the ring of the British flight engineer Sergeant John Thompson, on the finger of his sister Dorothy Webster, 92, during a ceremony held at the Ministry of Defence in Tirana, Albania, on March 9, finally fulfilling instructions from his father to return it to its rightful owner. Below, Webster wears her brother's wedding ring and holds a box containing the remains of his Halifax bomber– Reuters 

“Your brother helped to liberate my country. He will never be forgotten,” says Defence Minister Mimi Kodheli as he gave the ring to Webster.

“I remember him very well, as if it were yesterday,” says Webster, adding she was “overwhelmed … getting all these keepsakes that we never thought we would ever get”. – Reuters