Fallen but Never Forgotten
Remains Buried 60 Years After Flier's Disappearance
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page B01
The soldiers fired off a salute to honor a comrade making his final trip home yesterday. The bugler blew taps, and an honor guard at Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Upper Marlboro folded the flag and presented it to the fallen soldier's daughter. They gave another flag to his wife.
It could have been any of the scenes playing out across the country as the U.S. dead return from Iraq, but this was a very different kind of military burial.
The family of 2nd Lt. John Robert "Jack" Dyer had gathered to honor a man last seen in 1944 and who exists today mostly in fragments of memory. It's taken 60 long years for his story to reach its end.
Dyer, who grew up in the District, was one of 113,000 U.S. fighting men from World War II who were missing in action and never found. On Dec. 29, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, he was flying a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter over the border of Belgium and Luxembourg when he was hit by antiaircraft fire. Two other pilots saw his plane go down, but his body was never recovered. He was 21.
Twice, in 1947 and in 1950, investigations failed to turn up his airplane or his remains. But two years ago, a team of forensic scientists from a military base in Hawaii went to Luxembourg and sifted through soil, bones and metal to discover the place where Dyer had come to rest, if not to peace.
They unearthed an ID bracelet with his name engraved on it. They found some teeth, which matched dental records the Army had on file. They found foil packets of powdered lemon juice, a Catholic medallion and a set of wings from a pilot's uniform. And in a field that a farmer had filled with animal carcasses and trash, investigators dug up a stained and scorched dog tag, clearly imprinted with the name "John R. Dyer."
In March, an Army representative called Carolyn Davis Sowell, Jack Dyer's only daughter, at her home in Clinton. Finally, there was an accounting for the father she never knew.
"Just eight little teeth and a piece of his dog tags made it real," she said.
In 1947, her widowed mother had married a soldier who made it back from the war, and Sowell, now 59, grew up as the adopted daughter of Robert Lee "Bossy" Davis, a former D.C. firefighter.
"I couldn't have had a better father," she said of Davis, who died in 2002.
But the rediscovery of Jack Dyer has raised questions that no one knew needed to be asked.
"He died two weeks after I was born," she said. "I wonder what my life would have been like with a different dad."
Sowell didn't have a picture until about 10 years ago, when a friend of her mother's found a photograph of a dashing Dyer in the cockpit of his P-47, wearing an Errol Flynn mustache and a weary half-smile. He had black hair, brown eyes and dramatically arching eyebrows.
"It was the first time I saw anyone in my family who looked like me," Sowell said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company