Named for the Alabama town in which they trained, the Tuskegee Airmen had to "fight just to fly." Capt. Dickson, whose plane went down in the mountains between Italy and Austria during his 68th mission, is one of 27 Tuskegee airmen missing since WWII. Can DNA analysis identify him?
Finding a Lost WWII Tuskegee Airman
Published: November 30, 2018
Marla Dickson Andrews: This is my father, Captain Lawrence Everett Dickson.
Narrator: His daughter Marla was just a child when he disappeared.
Andrews: My father was in the third graduating class of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
Narrator: Named for the Alabama town where they trained, the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight just to fly.
Andrews: The basic sentiment of the country at that time felt that black people were not intelligent enough, they weren’t brave and courageous enough.
Narrator: The Tuskegee pilots proved their critics wrong, but at a price: they were asked to fly 70 missions, far more than their white peers. Marla’s father, was on his 68th mission in a distinctive red-tail P-51.
Christmas was only days away.
Andrews: They expected him to come home very soon, because he only had two more missions to go.
Narrator: Just after the new year, they get a telegram.
Andrews: It said he was missing in action.
Narrator: He was never seen again.
Andrews: All through the years, I would ask everybody, "Did you know my father? Were you over in Italy?" And I never had any luck.
Narrator: For 50 years, Marla had little more than his medals to remember her father by…
Andrews: It’s the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Narrator: …until 1998, when she got a letter from her father’s wingman, Robert Martin.
The letter revealed that over the mountains between Italy and Austria, her father’s plane began to give him trouble.
Andrews: He saw my father having difficulty with the engine. It sputtered out one time, and he got it started again, after trying. And then it sputtered out again, and he got it started again. But the third time, it didn’t work.
Narrator: Neither of the two pilots flying with Dickson saw if he got out.
Andrews: They went back, and they circled what they thought was the area. And I could tell from the letter how awful he felt.
Andrews: I got a call from an army representative, and her specialty was genealogy. At first, I said, "Oh, gosh. I’m going to have to hang up on this person. This is some kind of scam."
Narrator: But it wasn’t a scam. It was legitimate.
Andrews: I didn’t know how to handle it. I know that sounds silly because I’m old enough to be able to handle almost anything.
Narrator: The remains that were found were sent to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System for analysis. Here, one at a time, D.N.A. transforms the missing into the found.
The D.N.A. is extracted from bones and teeth and then sequenced.
Timothy McMahon: Which is a way for us to determine the actual base pairs. So, when I talk about D.N.A., D.N.A.’s made up of four base pairs: G, A, T, C.
Andrews: The army asked for my D.N.A, and they asked for my father’s brother’s son’s D.N.A.
Narrator: The work is painstaking. It will take some time.
Of 27 Tuskegee Airmen missing since World War II, he is the first, and so far only one, to have been recovered.
In July 2018, the D.P.A.A. notified his daughter Captain Dickson had been found.
Andrews: Because he wasn’t treated properly when he was alive, I’m taking him first class to Arlington. I want to take my CD of Donald Byrd, the jazz trumpeter, ’cause that is so cool. He would really, really like that, and he’d say, "Thanks, Marla. You know how to send a person off.”
Produced and Directed by: Kirk Wolfinger
Written by: Owen Palmquist
Digital Producer: Sukee Bennett
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018