As reported by the Associated Press and NPR, David C. Cox’s wartime journey began after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when the North Carolina native left college and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. After his graduation from flight school in July 1942, he married his high school sweetheart, Hilda Walker, before his departure for Europe. To celebrate the successful completion of Cox’s training and his Army commission, his parents gave him a gold signet ring that featured a propeller and wings, along with an inscription inside reading “Mother and Father to David C. Cox Greensboro NC 10-4-18-42.” (The numbers represented Cox’s birth date and the current year.)
Assigned to the 305th Bomb Group, 364th Squadron, Cox was in England by October 1942. He would fly a dozen bombing missions over Germany and occupied France as co-pilot in a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” the powerful multiengine bomber introduced by Boeing in 1941 and used extensively in World War II. In May 1943, a raid killed half of his 10-man crew, and Cox helped get his burning plane back to England; he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the incident.
That July, Cox’s plane was shot down over Kassel, Germany; he parachuted to the ground and was taken prisoner by German forces. He was shipped to the Nazi POW camp Stalag Luft III, located 100 miles southeast of Berlin, in what is now Poland. Cox would spent nearly 18 months in the camp before January 1945, when he and other Allied officers were moved to Stalag VII-A, another Nazi prison camp located near Moosburg, northeast of Munich. Over the next few months, more and more POWs poured into the camp as the German war effort collapsed all over Europe. Rations provided by the Red Cross dwindled down to nothing, and Cox and the other prisoners were forced to survive on meager portions of soup and bread, sometimes infested with bugs. When an Italian POW managed to get his hands on two bars of chocolate, the starving Cox traded his precious ring for the sweet treat.
On April 28, 1945, Gen. George S. Patton’s 14th Armored Division liberated Stalag VII-A, and Cox was on his way home to North Carolina, after being promoted to 1st lieutenant for his service. With his brother, he started a tire retreading equipment company, and he and Hilda had three children. Cox had a replica of the lost ring made soon after his return, and wore it until several years before his death. When he died in 1994, he passed it to David Jr., who also wore it until it broke.
Meanwhile, the real ring had made its way into the hands of Martin Kiss, a member of a Hungarian family from the northern part of present-day Serbia who has lived in Germany since 1971. Kiss’ late grandmother told him that a Russian soldier gave his family the ring on his way home from the war, presumably in exchange for room and board in the small pub they owned near the Danube. When Kiss moved to Germany, his grandmother gave him the ring for good luck; after wearing it on his pinkie for a time, he decided to keep it in a corked glass bottle for safekeeping.
Earlier this month, Kiss and his wife invited their neighbors Mark and Mindy Turner, an American couple stationed at the U.S. Army installation in Ansbach, for dinner at their home in the Bavarian village of Hohenberg. Kiss showed the couple the ring, and asked them if they could help locate its owner. Within 20 minutes of searching, Mark Turner had located a 2005 master’s thesis from North Carolina State University, written by Norwood McDowell and based in part on the wartime diary of his wife’s grandfather: David C. Cox Sr. Though the episode about Cox’s trading the ring for the chocolate did not appear in the diary (which ended before Cox’s plane was shot down), McDowell included it as an anecdote. When the Turners contacted McDowell, he connected them with David Cox Jr., who immediately confirmed that the ring in Kiss’ possession was his father’s.
Though Cox offered to pay for the ring, or for postage to return it, the Kiss family refused. This week, after Cox opened the package and held the long-lost ring in his hands, he said he thought immediately of his father: “I thought about him the moment I opened the box, and I thought how wonderful it would be if he were the one doing it rather than me. I’m sorry he can’t be here for it … He would have been overwhelmed like we are. He would have loved it.”