A May 27 Metro article about a missing World War II pilot misstated the number of U.S. servicemen missing in action in World War II. The correct number is 78,000, not 113,000. (Published 06/04/04).
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.
But beyond the sepia image of youth, the full picture of Jack Dyer never quite comes into focus.
Dyer's widow, Jean Dyer Davis, is 83 and living in Chester, Md. She was Elinor Jean Hull when she married Dyer on Feb. 9, 1941. They had met on a blind date less than three weeks earlier and had run away to South Carolina.
She was 20 years old at the time; Dyer was 17.
"Only I didn't know it," she said. "He lied to me. He said he was 21."
Dyer actually was born May 1, 1923, according to military records, but his age was not the only thing about him that was a mystery.
"I know very little about his family," Jean Davis said. But she did learn these things: "His mother committed suicide, and his father had a drinking problem."
On March 15, 1934, a Washington Post article began with these words: "The body of Elmer Dyer, well known in Washington society circles, was identified yesterday at the District Morgue after it had lain there for ten hours."
He had been drinking for a week with another man, who didn't know his name. An autopsy said his death was "due to alcoholism." He was 36.
The final sentence of the story read, "Dyer is understood to have been unemployed for the last two years."
Elmer Dyer was Jack's father. According to the newspaper story, he "was a manager of the Wardman Park Hotel for a number of years."
The Wardman Park -- now the Wardman Park Marriott at Woodley Street and Connecticut Avenue -- was named for Harry Wardman, who also built the British Embassy and the Hay-Adams, St. Regis and Jefferson hotels, and was known as the "colossus of Washington real estate" when he died in 1938. In 1925, his fortune was thought to be $30 million. By 1930, he had lost everything, and so had his employees.
Some years before Elmer Dyer drank himself to death -- no one is sure when -- his wife, whose maiden name was Nichloson, had put her head in a gas-filled oven. The oldest of the three Dyer children, Elmer Nicholson Dyer, told his children that his mother had tried to kill his younger sister Dorothy and brother Jack at the same time. Elmer Dyer might have saved their lives.
He promptly left to join the military, becoming a career Air Force officer, and died in 1984. Dorothy and Jack were sent to Catholic orphanages. Dorothy married Washington banker J. Martin Bonesteel in 1949 and died in 1964, in her forties. She had no children.
Jack spent much of his childhood at St. Joseph's Home and School, an orphanage for boys ages 6 to 12 that was run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, at 2800 Otis St. NE. It shut down in 1967, but the building is there, now housing a Catholic charity for people with AIDS.
There were about 65 boys at St. Joseph's in the 1930s, but for reasons of privacy the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington will not identify anyone who might have known Jack Dyer. Many St. Joseph's students went on to Gonzaga College High School, but Gonzaga has no record of Dyer attending.
Dyer worked for the Shannon and Luchs real estate firm for a while, and later helped pave runways at Andrews Air Force Base before enlisting in the Army on Oct. 30, 1942.
"He told me after he had already signed up," Jean Davis recalled.
Switching to the U.S. Army Air Forces in March 1944, he was commissioned and posted to England as a pilot with the 509th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 405th Fighter Group.
His daughter, Carolyn, was born Dec. 15, 1944. Dorothy Dyer sent her brother a telegram, telling him he was a father. Exactly two weeks later, at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 29, he was shot down.
When the telegram arrived at her apartment in Southeast Washington, Jean Davis refused to open it. Her brother had to read it to her: "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband Second Lieutenant John R. Dyer has been reported missing in action since Twenty Nine December . . . "
"I was in shock," she recalled. "I just remember I sat on the bed, by the crib, and I couldn't think what to do."
The telegram came Jan. 16, 1945, the same day Allied forces secured victory in the Battle of the Bulge. A few days later, she received her final letter from Jack. He wanted to know if his child was a boy or a girl.
Jean Davis took her daughter to Buffalo and lived with an aunt for a year. After returning to Washington, she married her second husband in 1947 and had a son. Still, it took three years before she no longer felt the pain that came with that telegram.
"I never let anybody see me cry," she said.
In 1998, a television station in Luxembourg aired a segment on the remnants of a U.S. warplane that had been found in a field, just inside the border with Belgium. After a preliminary investigation, military authorities in Luxembourg alerted the U.S. Army in February 2002.
At Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, the U.S. military maintains a little-known unit called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which consists of more than 400 scientists, archaeologists, mortuary specialists and military officers whose mission is to identify the remains of missing U.S. servicemen.
Each year, the group identifies 60 to 75 missing soldiers, sailors and pilots from various conflicts. In the past two years, it has brought the remains of 45 missing servicemen from World War II back to their families.
"We view this as a humanitarian mission," said Johnie E. Webb, senior adviser to the command center, who has been with the group since it began in 1973. "It gives us an opportunity to provide answers to family members who have lived with uncertainty for 20, 30 or 60 years, and who were wondering what happened to the young man they sent off to war."
In July and August 2002, a team of excavators went to Luxembourg, where, about five feet beneath the surface, they found the engine of a P-47, four .50-caliber machine guns, buckles, buttons and scraps of canvas and leather, as well as Dyer's other personal effects.
The bracelet and dog tag containing Dyer's name now belong to Carolyn Sowell. The rest of her father's remains were wrapped in a blanket and folded inside a crisp new uniform, decorated with Dyer's medals, before they were buried yesterday.
"We have the great honor to return a hero back home," Webb said.
The Army had wanted to bury Dyer with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, but Sowell had another idea. She asked that the ceremony take place at Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Upper Marlboro.
That's where Jack Dyer was laid to rest yesterday, in a fresh plot barely 100 feet from the grave of Robert Davis, Sowell's adoptive father, who had been a quartermaster in North Africa during World War II.
As the echoes from the honor guard's rifles ceased and the bugler's final note faded, Jack Dyer had made his last and best journey home.