There were 27 Tuskegee Airmen listed as missing in action during World War II. Now, there are 26. On Friday, the Defense Department confirmed that it had identified and recovered the remains of U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Lawrence E. Dickson, a member of the famed all-black 332nd Fighter Group, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, whose plane crashed by the Austria-Italy border in 1944.
The 24-year-old Dickson was already an accomplished flyer and had even been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross before he was assigned to his 68th mission that December, escorting a swift-but-unarmed photo-reconnaissance plane toward Nazi-occupied Prague.
Soon after the mission began, Dickson realized he was having engine trouble and radioed that he needed to head back to base in Ramitelli, Italy. His two wingmen followed. But Dickson’s engine troubles escalated on the trip back, and he was forced to bail out of the craft. One of the wingmen, who had to swerve to avoid being hit by the plummeting plane, later told Michael E. Ruane at The Washington Post that he swore he saw Dickson eject the canopy of his cockpit before he lost sight of him. But after the plane went down, the wingmen could find no sign of Dickson’s parachute or the burning wreckage of the plane against the white backdrop of snow. There were no further attempts to locate Dickson at that time, and he was officially listed as MIA.
After the war, Ruane reports that the Army did search for the remains of Dickson and other downed pilots. The remains of the New York native, however, were deemed “not recoverable.” Then, years later in 2011, Joshua Frank, a researcher for the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), was assigned the task of reevaluating World War II-era crash sites in Italy. After compiling a list of reports, he also looked at German records of downed planes. What he found was a record of a downed American plane from the same date, not in the area of Tarvisio, but six miles north across the Austrian border in Hohenthurn.
Frank asked a local researcher, Roland Domanig, to investigate. It turns out Domanig knew the site well. In fact, he had visited it many times as a child in the 1950s until he spotted what may have been human remains. In May 2012, Frank went back to the site, pulled back the moss and found bits and pieces of the crashed plane. “They still had the ash on them, still burnt,” he tells Ruane. “All of the older pine trees around the site had scars on the trees from when the plane was burning and the .50-caliber rounds popped off and hit the trees.”
Last summer, an archaeological crew excavated the site, and in November of that year, some recovered bone was sent to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, for DNA analysis. It was recently confirmed that the DNA matched Marla L. Andrews, Dickson’s daughter, who is now 76.
It’s believed that Dickson is the first Tuskegee Airman recovered since the end of World War II. From its inception, the field of aviation was highly segregated and it was difficult for black Americans to get in the cockpit at all. But in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Army Air Corps would begin training black pilots. Those trainees, however, were segregated and instructed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, separate from the main force of white pilots. In total, 1,000 pilots were trained there as well as 14,000 mechanics, air crew and support staff.
The Tuskegee-trained flyers eventually flew 15,000 missions over North Africa and Europe, mainly out of Italy, with 150 pilots earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. During 200 escort missions, Tuskegee squadrons only lost around 25 bombers, which History.com reports is much greater than the average success rate of escort groups. Through their skill and sacrifice, the flyers proved that black pilots were as qualified as white flyers, and their service helped convince President Harry Truman to integrate the U.S. military in 1948. The site where the pilots trained in Alabama is now a National Historic Site.
Andrews tells Ruane she hopes to bury her father’s remains in Arlington National Cemetery, though there is no information yet on when that might take place.