The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After 73 years, the remains of a Tuskegee airman lost over Europe may have been found

Marla Andrews holds a photograph of her father, Tuskegee Airman Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson, back row, third from left. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

EAST ORANGE, N.J. — World War II in Europe was over, the celebrations had ebbed, and peace was on the horizon. But from her apartment in Harlem on June 5, 1945, Phyllis C. Dickson wrote a plaintive letter to the War Department about her missing husband.

Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson, 24, a black fighter pilot who had trained at the Tuskegee Army Flying School, had gone down over Italy, it was thought, on Dec. 23, 1944.

Months had passed since she’d heard any word. “Please believe me when I say I have been greatly distressed,” she wrote. “I have tried to be brave (but) it has really been an effort.”

“I meet the mailman daily hoping & praying for some news but so far none,” she wrote.

Seventy-three years later, the Defense Department may finally have some.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is investigating the possibility that human remains and other items recovered from a wartime crash site in Austria this past summer may be those of Dickson.

If so, he would be the first of the World War II black aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen whom the DPAA has accounted for, and probably the first missing Tuskegee Airman found since the end of World War II.

Heroism amid bigotry: He was the last Tuskegee Airman to earn his wings and fly

The agency stressed that it is not certain the remains are Dickson’s, that scientific testing is still underway, and it cannot tell when or if a positive identification would be made.

But strong circumstantial evidence points toward Dickson.

The crash site is a few miles from where his P-51 Mustang was reported to have gone down. Debris at the site was from a P-51. And German records report a lone P-51 crash there the same day Dickson disappeared.

“Historically, the site is a match,” Joshua Frank, a DPAA research analyst, said in a recent interview.

There are 27 Tuskegee Airmen missing from the war, Frank said. “Captain Dickson is one of those,” he said. “If his remains are identified, he would be the first of the 27.”

Dickson was among the more than 900 black pilots who were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama during the war.

They were African American men from all over the country who fought racism and oppression at home and enemy pilots and antiaircraft gunners overseas.

More than 400 served in combat, flying patrol and strafing missions, and escorting bombers from bases in North Africa and Italy. The tail sections of their fighter planes were painted a distinctive red.

He was on his 68th mission

Two days before Christmas 1944, Dickson took off from his base at Ramitelli, in southern Italy, in a sleek P-51D nicknamed “Peggin,” headed for Nazi-occupied Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Dickson was on his 68th mission and had already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for meritorious service.

He was leading a three-Mustang escort of a fast but unarmed photo reconnaissance plane, according to the account of a wingman, 2nd Lt. Robert L. Martin, many years later.

(After 70 missions Dickson would have been eligible for R&R back home, Martin recounted in a 1997 letter, adding that white pilots needed only 50 missions for such a break.)

The four planes headed over the mountains for Prague. About an hour into the trip, at an altitude of 26,000 feet, Dickson radioed that he was having engine trouble and began losing speed.

His wingmen stayed with him as he dropped back. The twin-engine reconnaissance plane sped on and was soon out of sight.

Dickson decided to turn for home in his crippled plane, and his buddies stuck with him, Martin reported: “He did not order us to go after the photo plane.”

“The pilot of the photo plane had a chance to complete his mission in that with his maneuverability he might evade … attack and get home safe,” he wrote. “If we were to leave our flight leader in a plane with unpredictable engine problems high above the Alps his life would be forfeited.”

The trio gradually descended, as Dickson looked for a spot to land or bail out. Martin thought they were near the town of Tarvisio, in a mountainous area of northeastern Italy.

He saw Dickson jettison the canopy of his cockpit before bailing out, and swerved to avoid Dickson’s plane. But when he looked again, Dickson was gone.

Sisters gather at Arlington for farewell to a brother and lost Tuskegee airman

The two wingmen circled, looking for a parachute, a column of smoke or burning wreckage. There was nothing but an empty, snow-covered valley. They started for home, but had second thoughts and went back.

Again, they saw nothing but “the whiteness,” Martin wrote. He fired a burst from his machine guns to alert anyone below who might search, then headed back to the base.

No further search was conducted.

Holding out hope

On Jan. 8, 1945, Phyllis Dickson got the dreaded telegram.

“The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regret that your husband Captain Lawrence E Dickson has been reported missing in action,” it read. “If further details … are received you will be promptly notified.”

Phyllis and Lawrence Dickson had been married in November 1941. He was a native of South Carolina, had taught himself how to play the guitar and spent two years studying chemistry at the City College of New York.

He often went by his middle name, Everett.

She was Phyllis Constance Maillard, 23, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. She later got the nickname Fifi.

On July 14, 1942, in Harlem’s old Sydenham Hospital, they had a daughter they named Marla.

Two old creased snapshots show them sitting in chairs holding their daughter, who looks like she is only a few weeks old.

In her June 1945 letter, Phyllis told the War Department that Marla, then almost 3, “speaks about (her father) daily.”

Phyllis still held out hope that her husband was alive.

“I can’t even sleep for thinking about him being sick somewhere & not having anyone to care for him properly,” she wrote.

On July 21, 1945, the Army Effects Bureau sent her a form letter stating that it was forwarding two cartons of her husband’s things.

She replied on Aug. 18, saying she had received her husband’s clothes but not his electric guitar. “I would appreciate it very much if it could be sent to me as there is a great deal of sentiment attached to it,” she wrote.

The Army later explained that it did not have the guitar.

After the war, the service searched for Capt. Dickson near Tarvisio and nearby Malborghetto. Other crashed planes and remains were found, but not his.

In 1949, the Army recommended that his remains be declared “nonrecoverable.”

An unexpected call

This past August, a white-haired, 75-year-old woman named Marla L. Andrews, got a phone call at her home in northern New Jersey from the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch.

It was about her father, Lawrence Dickson. The caller asked a few questions but was vague about what was going on. “Have you found his body?” Marla said she asked. “No, but we’re looking,” she said the caller replied.

A few weeks earlier, an archaeological team in Austria had excavated the spot believed to be his crash site. The team had found pieces of a P-51 and human remains and was beginning the process of potential identification.

The work had started in 2011, after Frank, the DPAA analyst, was assigned to take a new look at World War II crash sites in Italy.

Frank compiled a database of reported sites, including Dickson’s, and was preparing a trip to Italy.

But first he checked German “downed allied aircraft reports” that had been seized by the Americans after the war. “Those are German reports of any shoot-downs of allied planes and capture of allied personnel and burial of allied personnel,” he said.

He found a record of a crash on Dec. 23, 1944, not in Italy, but just over the Austrian border near Hohenthurn.

Frank knew that only a handful of P-51 Mustangs went down in Europe that day. All but one were hundreds of miles away in northwest Germany.

Hohenthurn is six miles from Tarvisio.

“I think this is him,” Frank said he thought.

He asked an Austrian researcher, Roland Domanig, who had helped the DPAA in the past, to investigate. Two weeks later Domanig reported that he had found the crash site.

In May 2012, Frank and a small team went to Austria for one day. He met Domanig, and a local man who said as a child in the 1950s he often visited the site, until he found what looked like a human leg bone in the dirt.

“It scared him,” Frank said. “He never went back to the site after that.”

The man agreed to take Frank there.

The spot was in a pleasant clearing in the forest off a logging road near Hohenthurn.

There was a shallow crater, and moss covered the ground. When Frank pulled back the moss, airplane parts, consistent with a P-51, were right beneath the surface.

“They still had the ash on them, still burnt,” he said. “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.”

Experts would later identify airplane bullet casings, part of a machine gun ammunition loading chute and human remains buried in the dirt.

In November, the human remains were sent for analysis to the DPAA laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, outside Omaha.

Looking to fill a void

One day last month, Andrews sat in her small house here and pulled out page after page of letters and documents pertaining to the tall, handsome father she never knew.

She’s legally blind now and can’t see much anymore. But the walls of her home are covered with pictures of him in his crisp officer’s uniform, him with his Tuskegee comrades in their goggles and parachutes, and him with his wife.

(Phyllis died on Dec. 28 in Nevada at the age of 96.)

There’s a framed invitation to his Tuskegee graduation ball in 1943, copies of his medal citations and his 1943 pilot training diploma from Tuskegee, dated March 25, 1943.

And in her files is the yellowed telegram and the letter that her father’s wingman sent her 50 years after the war explaining how he was lost.

“The act of writing to you so many years after … brings to me a sadness,” Martin wrote. “And yet I hope it will bring you a moment of peaceful remembrance of a loving father whom you lost.”

Together, the items make up part of the composite of a man she has longed to know, and whose life she has had to piece together over many years.

She has always wondered: What was he like? How was she like him? How could she be like him?

“I kept looking for ways to connect,” she said. “It’s always been an obsession. … It was always a questioning, a void, and I never could get enough.”

Her mother remarried after her father’s death and had two more children.

Andrews grew up, went to college and raised three children. She has lived in the same house for 47 years.

She and other family members recently provided cheek swabs so their DNA can be compared with that of the remains.

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s DNA operations branch has extracted DNA from a bone from the crash site. And Timothy P. McMahon, the DNA operations director, said experts are working to amplify and sequence it.

Andrews, meanwhile, is hoping to fill the last part of her void. She knows the case may or may not be resolved soon.

“At this age, I’m supposed to know that you roll with the punches,” she said. “You take it as it comes.”

She just hopes she’s still around when it comes.

Read more:

Remains of sailor killed at Pearl Harbor finally make their way home

2 POWs, 2 World War II diaries tell a story of friendship, suffering and death

Seventy-six years after he died at Pearl Harbor a chaplain will get a combat medal

The Harlem Hellfighters were captured in a famous photo. Now a retired archivist has uncovered their stories.