WWII Airman Returned to Family 70 Years After His Death as Remains Are Found Embedded in Tree

"When the plane hit the ground, it basically exploded. His bones were actually protected by the roots of the tree," his niece told InsideEdition.com.

A Washington family has found closure as a World War II airman’s remains, found embedded in a tree, are being brought back to the United States after his plane was shot down more than 70 years ago.

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First Lieutenant William J. Gray Jr. was flying over Germany on April 16, 1945 when his plane crashed. While investigators were able to recover four machine guns that belonged to him at the site years later, they were never able to find Gray’s body.

“When the plane hit the ground, it basically exploded and burned,” his niece Jan Bradshaw, now 58 years old, told InsideEdition.com. “At that point, they felt like he was just burned, and probably most of him was gone.”

When investigators returned to the site in 2016, they found human remains lodged inside the root of a tree that grew over the crash site. They were able to match it to a DNA sample the family provided, and confirmed it was Gray.

“His bones were actually protected by the roots of the tree,” Bradshaw said. “We had 11 pieces of him that they recovered – very small pieces. There were pieces of foot, pieces of arm.

"Some were so small and burned so badly that they couldn’t take out the DNA.”

Gray’s remains were returned to the family, who live in Washington state, last week. Bradshaw told InsideEdition.com they have since buried him next to her father, Jim Louvier.

Louvier died in 2010, and Bradshaw said they never buried him.

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“We couldn’t decide as a family what to do with his ashes, so they remained at the house,” Bradshaw said. “When we first found this out about Bill, what could be more perfect than to reunite these two and bury them at the same time? That made the whole experience more special to us to do right by them.”

She explained Louvier and Gray grew up together and were friends throughout their school years. The two families were close, and they bonded over doing paper routes together.

"They decided to enlist together with the idea they wanted to fly together,” Bradshaw said. “They made a promise, if something happened to one, the other would come home and take care of their family."

A family scrapbook that resurfaced last month documented countless letters from Gray that explained his love of flying and his love for his family.

“He would continually check up on his family and he would send money home. He would talk about his army experiences and some of the funny things that happened,” Bradshaw recounted. “He was so frustrated because of the weather, [he wrote that] he wishes it would just clear out so he could get back to the mission.”

Sure enough, when Louvier returned to the news that Gray had died in the war, he consoled the family and ended up falling in love with and marrying Gray’s younger sister — and Bradshaw’s mother — Jean.

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Bradshaw said growing up, the topic of Gray’s death was rarely brought up. Regardless, she said she feels her family has finally found closure.

“It’s disbelief; it’s joy; it’s grief; it’s excitement,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a month down the road, when we can work through these emotions and I can walk up to their graves again and just enjoy the beauty of them being together.”

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