Dive to the bottom of the Adriatic Sea in search of the Tulsamerican, a B-24 bomber that crashed off the coast of Croatia during World War II. In 2010, divers located the plane. Now the Department of Defense, aided by the Croatian Navy and some of the world’s leading underwater archaeologists, sets to work investigating the wreckage. Join the team of archaeologists and forensics experts as they search for the crew and identify their remains.
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PBS Airdate: November 7, 2018
NARRATOR: A mystery beneath the waves, a lost B-24 bomber, shot down in World War II…
VAL MILLER (Bombardier, Tulsamerican): The pilot said, "We’re going in."
NARRATOR: The remains of three brave airmen may still be here, somewhere.
Now an elite team of divers, sent by the U.S. Department of Defense is on a mission to bring these men home.
PHIL SHORT (Chief Diver/Safety Officer): First team in will be Brett, Nikos and myself.
NARRATOR: It’s part of a worldwide effort to search out and recover tens of thousands of U.S. service members, still missing…
KELLY MCKEAGUE (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency): We are tasked to provide that closure and hopefully one day fill that hole in their heart.
NARRATOR: …like the case of a Tuskegee Airman, who vanished in 1944…
MARLA DICKSON ANDREWS (Daughter of Captain Lawrence Dickson): All through the years, I would ask everybody, "Did you know my father? Were you over in Italy?
NARRATOR: …or the co-pilot of a B-17.
CHELSEA CARBONELL (Great-Niece of 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Vienneau): He flew his plane over their summer house to say goodbye, and then they never heard from him again.
NARRATOR: But after more than 70 years, can any of them be found? From the bottom of the Adriatic Sea, to cutting edge tech on board a Croatian ship, to forensic labs back in the U.S.
TIMOTHY MCMAHON (Armed Forces Medical Examiner System): This is where we take the unknown and we put a name to them.
NARRATOR: …only science can unlock this puzzle. The Mystery of the Last B-24, right now, on NOVA.
Thousands of miles from the nearest American shore, the U.S. Department of Defense has embarked on a unique expedition, on the hunt for precious treasure lost beneath the surface of the Adriatic Sea.
The Croatian navy has donated its services.
NARRATOR: As the ship locks into position…
PHIL SHORT: Okay, guys, briefing for today’s operation…
NARRATOR: …an elite team of technical divers and underwater archaeologists slips into the water.
They will sink nearly a hundred-thirty-five feet beneath the surface, in search of a missing piece of American history, a warplane, lost more than 70 years ago: Tulsamerican.
Once a fierce weapon of war, it is now a jumbled mass of parts: a wing, a wheel, a parachute canopy, draped like a burial shroud. The plane is flipped upside down, broken in half, one wheel jutting upwards. It looks like nothing more than a tangle of wreckage, and yet, they hope it holds the last remains of three American airmen who never made it home: flight engineer Charles E. Priest, navigator Russell C. Landry and the pilot, Eugene Ford.
They are the reason for this mission, the reason for almost 50 people and roughly 15 tons of equipment, both military and scientific, brought here in the hopes of finding them.
But after 70 years on the bottom of the ocean, there are no intact skeletons, no clothing, no trace of the missing men. It’s a puzzle, a deep and dangerous mystery they can only hope will be unlocked by science.
The mystery traces back to 1944, the height of World War II. Six months after the Allies’ D-Day invasion, huge portions of France and Italy have been liberated, but the Germans have just begun a major counterattack.
VAL MILLER: It was the day after the Battle of the Bulge had started. The Germans had made a lot of progress, had broken through our lines around Belgium and that area.
NARRATOR: As the ground battle rages, a ferocious air war unfolds in the skies above. Lieutenant Val Miller was there.
VAL MILLER: We sent every plane that we could fly. It was a large, large bunch of planes from not only where we were, but from other divisions in the area.
NARRATOR: The assault consists of B-17 Flying Fortresses, and a newer plane introduced in 1940, the B-24 Liberator.
Four 1,200-horsepower engines and a more efficient wing design allow it to fly faster and farther than the B-17s. It carries 10 crew—six manning fifty caliber machine guns—and a bombardier, to direct its 8,000 pounds of bombs.
The B-24 was a powerful and effective weapon, but in the face of enemy fighters, as much prey as predator.
JEREMY R. KINNEY (National Air and Space Museum): The reality of air combat over Europe was it was a very harsh, unforgiving, chaotic environment: the antiaircraft artillery that comes through paper-thin skins of airplanes, so cold that if your bare skin touches the aluminum of the airplane, it sticks to it.
NARRATOR: Casualty rates are high, but suffered as a necessary tradeoff.
JEREMY KINNEY: One bomb salvo from a B-24, that’s probably equivalent to destroy a large multi-story building, even a small factory, just from one airplane.
NARRATOR: Allied planners want to drop these high explosives on the German fuel refineries at Odertal. Take away the oil, and the Nazi war machine grinds to a halt.
The flight would take nearly eight hours. Twenty-two-year-old Val Miller was the bombardier on board the Tulsamerican. The plane was one of over 18,000 B-24s built during the war, but she is unique among them.
The last B-24 to roll off the factory line in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was paid for by the factory workers out of their own pockets. Local press has been closely tracking her progress. Now, she is headed out on another extremely dangerous mission.
VAL MILLER: We were told we would not have any fighter protection. We had to go through very thick clouds, and suddenly we were attacked by a whole bunch of German fighter planes. There was no conversation, but there was a lot of activity. People were manning their guns. We shot down two or three of them, but they kept attacking and attacking.
NARRATOR: The Tulsamerican successfully escaped the German fighters, but she was critically wounded, with damage to one of her engines, fuel tank and hydraulics.
The crew had a decision to make. Below them was enemy territory…
VAL MILLER: The pilot didn’t want to bail out. He knew that if we did, we’d be taken captive by the Germans, and more than likely, they would kill us.
NARRATOR: …but home base in Italy was over three hours away, more than 100 miles of it over open sea. But there was a backup plan.
VAL MILLER: We decided we’d try for that little island of Vis. It’s a small landing area, but it’s a place where we had had planes fly down and land there before.
NARRATOR: Threading the needle to land here was the last hope for many Allied planes, but it was no simple feat.
VAL MILLER: We’d already had one engine shot out, we were about 200 feet off the water, it looked like we were going to make it.
NARRATOR: At such low altitude, a parachute isn’t an option.
VAL MILLER: As we were chugging along, trying to get to that little landing strip, two more engines quit. The only warning we had was the pilot said, "We’re going in."
NARRATOR: The crash of a nearly identical B-24 depicted in the film Unbroken is eerily similar.
VAL MILLER: The water came in on me. I didn’t remember seeing anything around me.
As I was just floating there, suddenly there was a little boat that came up by me. I have no idea who they were, to this day.
NARRATOR: Miller later learned that six other crewmen had been rescued. But the pilot, navigator and engineer vanished without a trace. For decades the military listed them as unrecoverable, then, in 2010, an amateur diver came across a rusting wreck. It was eventually identified as the Tulsamerican.
With the plane identified, a little known group within the Department of Defense, called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the D.P.A.A., began planning this expedition.
Their job is to find lost service members and provide information to families who may have been waiting for decades.
G. R. "ROCKY" GILLETTE (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency): We try to give them as much as we can: the theater, the campaign, the battle, perhaps even that final hour where they lost their service member. And that helps bring a sense of closure to them.
NARRATOR: The D.P.A.A. goes around the world to carry out its mission, like the recent recovery of potential remains of U.S. troops from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. An estimated 82,000 American soldiers are still missing.
KELLY MCKEAGUE: It may be a number, but that’s 82,000 unique stories, 82,000 circumstances, 82,000 sets of memories, all unique.
NARRATOR: But at this site, a hundred-and-thirty-five feet under water, finding the missing men and bringing them home will be very complicated, which calls for an expert team, led by Brendan Foley.
BRENDAN FOLEY (Lead Investigator): So, there’s a lot of aircraft wreckage that we have to move around. There’s jagged metal that could easily cut us. We have to be really careful in there.
NARRATOR: Brendan is not a military officer. He’s a scientist who leads a team of highly skilled underwater archaeologists. Shadowing the scientists is a second team of elite technical divers, led by dive safety officer Phil Short.
PHIL SHORT: Yeah, bear in mind, scientists have real jobs, so they don’t get to dive every day. So you’re not ready with a motor reflex to respond to the emergencies.
NARRATOR: And that’s why no one dives alone.
PHIL SHORT: Each scientist, like Dr. Foley, has got a guardian, and their job is to ghost the scientist, to watch them while they work.
NARRATOR: Also joining the team is underwater photographer Brett Seymour. He takes hundreds of photographs topside. He stitches the 2D images together to build a 3D model of the site.
The graphic image clearly shows that the cockpit is in ruins.
BRETT SEYMOUR (National Park Service): The site is quite a bit more broken up than I thought. I had seen some images that the tail wasn’t there, but I had no idea that the cockpit was so ...
EVAN KOVAC: Yeah, I didn’t realize it was quite so damaged.
BRETT SEYMOUR: … torn apart.
NARRATOR: The first dive has made it clear what they’re up against: a confusing mass of wreckage, which means the search for human remains just got more difficult.
BRENDAN FOLEY: It looks like when the aircraft hit the water, it was a heck of an impact, and so it’s peeled open, almost like a banana.
NARRATOR: The search will begin around the heavily damaged cockpit. According to Val Miller’s testimony, that was where the three missing men were positioned at the moment of impact.
VAL MILLER: I was right behind the pilot. I could have reached out and touched him with my hand.
NARRATOR: The engineer, Priest, the navigator, Landry, and the pilot, Ford, should be right there.
The next team prepares to descend. Just like on land, the excavation begins with a grid system.
BRENDAN FOLEY: The wreckage is pretty well concentrated. It makes the job a little bit easier for us.
NARRATOR: Their goal for this phase is to examine the area around the cockpit, in case any remains were ejected from the wreckage.
BRENDAN FOLEY: With the grid we can go very, very systematically and scientifically, day after day.
NARRATOR: The team scans the seafloor with forensic lights capable of detecting bones.
BRENDAN FOLEY: With a filter on over our eyes, over our masks, we shine these blue lights on the seafloor, and they cause bone to fluoresce. So, it makes detection a lot easier and a lot more complete.
NARRATOR: Powerful dredges work like giant vacuums, sucking up the silt. The sediment is bagged and sent to the surface, where a team, including Croatian archaeologist Helena Tomas, begins sifting through it.
HELENA TOMAS (Archaeologist): It has to be sieved and processed in the, precisely the same way that we archeologists are used to.
NARRATOR: As the bags continue rising from the depths, Helena recruits the Croatian sailors to assist her team.
HELENA TOMAS: We had so much work to do, we decided to ask sailors to help us sieving the soil that came from the bottom of the sea around the wreckage.
NARRATOR: Even Captain Neven Katic joins in and finds the first significant, personal item…
HELENA TOMAS: So, he came to me, and he said, "Oh, there is a really shiny object inside. What is this?"
NARRATOR: …a wedding ring, untarnished by the saltwater. It’s an emotional moment.
BRENDAN FOLEY: It catches me now; it caught all of us, something so personal as one of these airmen’s wedding band, still shiny gold.
NARRATOR: Such a unique find may even hint at the original owner. That’s because records show the engineer, Priest, out of Kansas, was never married. The next man, Landry, with a brother and sister waiting back home, was also marked single. The only man who was married was the pilot, Lieutenant Eugene Ford. He left behind a wife, an unborn son and a daughter.
NORMA FORD BEARD (Daughter of First Lieutenant Eugene Ford): And he actually saw me once he came home on leave, but then he went back, and he died. So, I don’t remember him at all.
We had an encyclopedia of pictures of World War II, and we did look for B-24s and we memorized the number of rivets there are and things like that. But there was this sadness that my mother had that I just could not comprehend.
NARRATOR: The ring suggests their father, lost all those years ago may be close by, but it’s not enough to establish a positive I.D. So, while the discovery is encouraging, the work is far from over.
PHIL SHORT: Okay, guys, so, briefing for today: first team in will be Brett, Nikos and myself.
NARRATOR: The team works in shifts. As one crew rises to the surface, the next one is ready to take its place.
PHIL SHORT: Our team has got 60 minutes per diver per dive, and we’re putting nine men on the bottom per day. We’re basically getting nine hours of productivity per operational day.
NARRATOR: On land, archaeological digs are measured in weeks or months; here, the excavation will be measured in hours.
As the digging continues, a radio headset appears. Divers bring it to the surface, where the bags of silt are also yielding results: a 50-caliber cartridge, flight boots, what archaeologists call "artifacts."
HELENA TOMAS: So, artifacts would be remains of the plane, parts of the uniform, something that can tell us, give us an indication of identities.
NARRATOR: But the "holy grail" is "osseous remains," human bones, carrying a hidden treasure: an individual’s genetic material, D.N.A. Recovered items, like uniforms, even dog tags, are usually not enough, even when combined with medical records.
Dental records are useful, but D.N.A. is the best way to make an identification, like an investigation the D.P.A.A. recently reopened.
MARLA DICKSON ANDREWS: This is my father, Captain Lawrence Everett Dickson.
NARRATOR: His daughter Marla was just a child when he disappeared.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON ANDREWS: It said he was missing in action.
NARRATOR: He was never seen again.
MARLA DICKSON 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…
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON ANDREWS: They went back, and they circled what they thought was the area. And I could tell from the letter how awful he felt.
NARRATOR: For almost 70 years, Dickson was gone, vanished in the mountains, until a D.P.A.A. researcher uncovered a handful of eyewitness reports recorded in 1944. They described the crash of an Allied fighter on the Austro-Italian border, near the town of Hohenthurn.
Working with the University of New Orleans, the National WWII Museum and the University of Innsbruck, the D.P.A.A. launched an investigation. Archaeologists quickly found wreckage matching a downed P-51 fighter and fragments of bone.
All of a sudden, for Marla Dickson, there was hope.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
NARRATOR: The base pairs are simply chemicals arranged in sequence, the blueprint for what makes each person unique.
TIMOTHY MCMAHON: That difference in that individual that makes that his D.N.A. sequence, that difference is what we’re looking for.
NARRATOR: Searching through the three-billion base pairs found in human cellular D.N.A., the laboratory utilizes three different testing methods.
One approach focuses on small repetitive sequences known as "short tandem repeats," which are compared to reference samples from family members.
MARLA DICKSON 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.
MARLA DICKSON ANDREWS: I am not a patient person. One day, I’m for finding him, and one day I’m for not finding him, because it’s…I can’t explain it to you. It’s, it’s emotional.
TIMOTHY MCMAHON: It takes a while. There’s a reason for that. For better, for worse, people may think there are ways to do this faster. Sloppy science means bad results. The families have had enough heartache in their life that we do good science.
NARRATOR: Only time will tell if the remains found in Austria belong to Captain Dickson. Uncertainty is part of all of these investigations.
Back on the Tulsamerican, the archaeologists have reached their primary target: the cockpit where the missing men were just before the crash, but it’s a jumbled mess, and they don’t find much.
DAVID CONLIN (National Park Service): I spent the whole 65 minutes of my dive just working an area, dug carefully and found the other headphone. But we didn’t find anything else at all.
BRENDAN FOLEY: This is an evolutionary process. We’ve done that sort of easy part: we thought maybe the most likely place for the remains to be found. Now it gets more difficult.
NARRATOR: What’s most perplexing is that, so far, no human remains have appeared.
CARL KAISER: I wasn’t really finding anything under there at all, so…
BRENDAN FOLEY: Yeah, I think there was just nothing there.
CARL KAISER: Yeah, I agree.
NARRATOR: If the airmen ended up outside of the cockpit, the team could be wasting precious time.
BRENDAN FOLEY: The job here isn’t to remove sediment.
NARRATOR: On day 17, they find something that lifts everyone’s spirits, a set of wings.
RESEARCHER: I was really hoping we were going to find that.
NARRATOR: The center shield tells them they don’t belong to the pilot whose ring may have been found, but could they belong to one of the other missing men?
BRENDAN FOLEY: The job here is to bring these three men home, bury them in the National Cemetery with the honors that they’re due. And every day, we’re thinking about that mission entirely.
NARRATOR: These unsolved cases can be agonizing for families back home, waiting for news.
FAMILY MEMBER #1: I’m here representing my cousin, Flight Officer Samuel William Desoto, lost May 15, 1946.
FAMILY MEMBER #2: I was 16, and I got to kiss him goodbye that morning. We have two other sisters also, so Daddy had five girls, and we’re all waiting.
FAMILY MEMBER #3: My father was Private Rodolfo Valsquomeza. I never knew my dad. He turned 19, on October the 12th, in Korea.
NARRATOR: There are tens of thousands of such families around the U.S.
KELLY MCKEAGUE: People are just looking for that closure. They’re looking for answers as to why their loved one was lost. And having the closure to bring them back home on American soil is what they strive for…
NARRATOR: The U.S. military began this work in 1947.
FAMILY MEMBER #4: I didn’t realize, either, that, how difficult it was for my mother. She cried herself to sleep quite frequently, so that hole was getting bigger and bigger.
KELLY MCKEAGUE: …to provide that closure, to provide the answers and hopefully one day fill that void, fill that hole in their heart as to why their loved one hasn’t been home, in 70 years in the case of World War II.
NARRATOR: Back in Croatia, the team keeps that mission foremost in their thoughts, but there is still little sign of Ford, Priest or Landry. The team has fully excavated the cockpit area and come up empty.
Is it possible the men were ejected by the force of the crash?
VAL MILLER: I don’t know. They were right where I could have touched them when we hit, but I never saw them again and never heard of them. I don’t know what happened to them.
NARRATOR: With much of their dive time burned, the team must move quickly. Unfortunately, foul weather is moving in. They must seek calmer waters.
NEVEN KATIC: We are moving now, because the state of sea is not good for anchorage. And we are going in the harbor Vis, because wind not blow.
NARRATOR: But even with the divers out of the water, the archaeological work can continue.
The team has a new piece of technology, which acts as a larger version of the forensic flashlights used earlier. They call it "the blue light special."
BRENDAN FOLEY: The idea is we load the material onto this top conveyor, and it passes underneath a diffused laser. And that laser is set for 450 nanometers, and that frequency causes bone and teeth, osseous material, to fluoresce.
NARRATOR: The scanner picks up protein in human remains, something that rocks and shell lack in significant amounts. This test bone for example, rich in protein, glows like a spotlight.
ALEX SOTIRIOU (Lead Technician): So, you see, it’s like an x-ray. You see things that are not of interest, and this, that is of interest, actually pops out.
NARRATOR: After hours of scanning, it appears the blue light special has found something important…
BRENDAN FOLEY: It’s possible, possible osseous.
NARRATOR: …what might be a tooth.
BRENDAN FOLEY: I’m not a specialist in what this could be, but this is exactly what we were looking for.
NARRATOR: It is tagged and bagged for further analysis.
BRENDAN FOLEY: Hey, it’s not our determination. That’s what the lab is for. We’ll send it on home.
NARRATOR: But it’s highly encouraging. It means there may yet be human remains at the crash site.
And there’s another piece of exciting news. A local diver has information on another U.S. warplane, with another missing airman possibly on board.
DANIJEL FRKA (Croatian Diver and Historian): I can show you where he is.
NARRATOR: The second plane is only three miles away, but the currents are much calmer.
PHIL SHORT: We’ve got poor weather over the B-24, which gives good conditions over the B-17. And we’re using this weather window to do a reconnaissance dive on the B-17.
She sits at 72 meters of depth, on the seabed.
NARRATOR: It is deeper than the Tulsamerican, a darker, more treacherous dive.
The downed plane is incredible. It is a B-17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse of the U.S. Army Air Forces. First deployed in the 1930s, the B-17 had a reputation among its crews for its ability to take a beating.
Not surprisingly, in contrast to the Tulsamerican, the B-17 appears completely intact, resting on the seafloor as if on a runway.
GEMMA SMITH (Technical Diver): It’s just laying there on the seabed, and it just appears out of the mist like this ghost plane wreck.
PHIL SHORT: It’s like they drained the ocean, landed a plane and put the ocean back.
NARRATOR: After his first trip to the wreck, the local diver, Danijel Frka, researched the story of the plane.
DANIJEL FRKA: I know, because I got a letter from the pilot and the gunner, and they explained in detail everything what happened.
NARRATOR: The plane was on a bombing mission, similar to that of the Tulsamerican, when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The B-17 attempted to make an emergency landing at Vis. It fell short, but all crew survived, except for one.
DANIJEL FRKA: So, all 10 of the crew were saved, except of the 11th guy that was the co-pilot who was left in the plane.
NARRATOR: His name was Ernest Vienneau. Wounded in the attack, Vienneau couldn’t be pulled from the plane in time. His family has been searching for him ever since.
CHELSEA CARBONELL: My name is Chelsea Carbonell, and I’m here to remember my great uncle. He was the only one to die in that plane.
INTERVIEWER: What do we think?
CHELSEA CARBONELL: Especially that smile, Brendan, ’cause he has that, that smile.
NARRATOR: Chelsea Carbonell and her son have inherited the search for their long-lost uncle.
CHELSEA CARBONELL: When Ernest left, he flew his plane over their summer house in Twin Lakes and tipped the wings to say goodbye. And then they never heard from him again.
NARRATOR: Like the Tulsamerican, Vienneau and his plane were long considered unrecoverable.
CHELSEA CARBONELL: We have been trying to find his remains and bring him back home.
NARRATOR: Now, unexpectedly, Vienneau may be within reach. If this is his plane, he may still be here somewhere, or in the silt nearby.
PHIL SHORT: So, I think, basically, there’s a fairly high chance of some remains being found.
NARRATOR: But there’s a problem. There is no official permission to search further. They have to stop here.
The D.P.A.A. cannot approve a new mission without proof that this is indeed Vienneau’s plane. For now, they must focus on other cases.
Meanwhile, the wreck raises an intriguing question. Why is the B-17 so intact? No crew died in the crash itself…
PHIL SHORT: It’s probably the most intact aircraft wreck I’ve ever dived.
NARRATOR: …while the Tulsamerican is a mangled wreck that took three airmen with it. Why are the two planes in such different conditions?
Even stranger, Frka, has dived on other B-24s with similar damage.
DANIJEL FRKA: They’re in exactly the same condition, always. The front part of the plane is upside down, and the back, the tail part is tangled with it or very close with it.
NARRATOR: It’s a striking detail. Did the B-24s have some kind of fatal design flaw?
JEREMY KINNEY: The B-24 was nicknamed the "flying coffin" by its crews, because it’s very hard to get out of the airplane.
NARRATOR: B-17 bombers, despite being an older design, seemed to enjoy a better reputation.
JEREMY KINNEY: The B-17 was a much more robust aircraft in the combat environment. It was able to take combat damage. It was able to get back on less engines, less than four engines.
NARRATOR: An obscure but startling piece of test footage offers insight: a controlled crash of a B-24: despite the optimal conditions, the plane still comes apart. The front end is mangled, just like the Tulsamerican.
JEREMY KINNEY: Only 25 percent of B-24 intentional water landings were successful, and that’s due to the construction of the airplane.
NARRATOR: The body of the B-24 rests below the wings, exposing it during a water landing.
JEREMY KINNEY: So, as the airplane hits the water, it could break in half very easily.
NARRATOR: In contrast, the B-17 had a low wing, giving it a broad landing surface.
JEREMY KINNEY: Which allowed the airplane to be set down into the water much more easily.
NARRATOR: As the dive team gets back to work on the Tulsamerican, they’ve come to terms with the fact that the cockpit is empty. They decide to investigate a feature that they had seen earlier: a parachute.
With time running out, this may be their last best hope.
Divers typically try to avoid underwater obstacles that can snag and tangle.
BRENDEN FOLEY: And the parachute is trapped, snagged on, wrapped around this part of the aircraft wreckage. We need to excavate underneath that.
NARRATOR: They have just a few days left to make it happen.
Moving the parachute generates dangerous clouds of silt, obscuring jagged metal and tangling wire. But through the haze, divers sees something that may be just what they’re looking for.
For hours, the crew says nothing, keeping the sensitivities of the families foremost in mind. Finally, permission is granted to reveal what they’ve found.
BRENDAN FOLEY: We’re under very strict guidelines as to what we can say and what we can’t say, but I am authorized to say that today we recovered possible human remains. And it’s extraordinarily emotional.
GEMMA SMITH: This hit me in a way that no dive has ever hit me before.
BRENDAN FOLEY: It was the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done under water.
NARRATOR: After repeated dives on the parachute, the team recovers a significant number of intact bones, teeth and numerous other fragments.
For now, they can only hope it will be enough to answer the question on everyone’s mind: whom have they found?
BRENDAN FOLEY: I hope that we fulfill the biggest promise of the mission, which is to bring closure to a family or families.
NARRATOR: The fallen are finally returning to U.S. soil, and waiting families will find out who they are.
The D.P.A.A. operates the largest forensic anthropology lab in the world.
FRANKLIN DAMANN (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency): We process the site like a crime scene. There’s never a day in which you don’t remember that these are somebody’s son.
NARRATOR: The work is done entirely in the blind, to ensure no bias is introduced.
DEBRA PRINCE ZINNI (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency): So, there will be anthropological analyses, dental analyses, there could be histological or D.N.A. analyses, as well as material evidence analysis.
NARRATOR: Larkin Kennedy is a forensic anthropologist assigned to analyze the artifacts. In addition to the wedding ring, Larkin can glean some detail from the flight wings: they’re definitely not the pilot’s.
LARKIN KENNEDY (Forensic Anthropologist): So, we would expect, if those wings belonged to the pilot, that they would have this shield-shaped central motif. The object that we do have, is more specific to an aircrew member. We can be fairly sure that that would have belonged to a different individual.
So, it looks like we have at least two individuals represented in this assemblage.
NARRATOR: As Larkin continues her analysis of the artifacts, forensic anthropologist Tyler Dunn conducts his assessment of the bones. But he and Larkin do not trade notes.
TYLER DUNN: It’s my job to do a skeletal analysis blind, so I don’t bias myself.
We were presented with 11 teeth; a right humerus, that’s relatively intact compared to everything else; a fragment of a vertebra; a handful of, sort of, non-diagnostic long bone fragments—we can more or less just tell that they’re bone; some fingers, a bit of a toe, and then most of the lower right leg, so a tibia and a fibula.
The first question I generally ask is the minimum number of individuals. So, we try and figure out if this could be, or is, more than one person.
NARRATOR: The recovery team had hopes that they had found more than one airman, but this is not what Tyler sees.
TYLER DUNN: Based on this case, the skeletal—it’s called M.N.I. or "minimum number of individuals" — the skeletal M.N.I. is one. I have good reason to think that this is one individual.
NARRATOR: This is backed up by the dental analysis.
TYLER DUNN: So, I can tell that this is all teeth from one individual, based on tooth shape, the size of the tooth, and more or less what they look like.
NARRATOR: It appears that only a single airman was recovered, based on the skeletal evidence. But is it Pilot Ford or one of the others?
TYLER DUNN: Based on condylo-malleolar length of the tibia, we more or less measure how long the tibia is. The stature for this individual that we estimated was right around 5 foot 10.
NARRATOR: Growth patterns also give an estimate of age.
TYLER DUNN: This is called the epiphysis. And right about 23 years of age, the epiphysis is firmly attached. So, we have some idea that this loss incident was of someone who was at least 23 years old, at time of death.
NARRATOR: Yet neither the skeletal remains nor the artifacts allow them to make a definitive identification.
Their only hope to sort it out now rests with the D.N.A.
The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System now takes over.
TIMOTHY MCMAHON: This is where we take the unknown and we put a name to them.
NARRATOR: First they extract D.N.A. from the bones and teeth and then sequence many different regions. They then compare the sequence against family reference samples, until, finally, a match is confirmed.
Is it the pilot, Ford? Or the navigator, Landry? Or the flight engineer, Charles Priest? More than 70 years ago, three airmen disappeared beneath the waves along with their plane.
Now one of them has been identified.
JIM BELL: …so, based on that, the laboratory analysis, established remains of those as First Lieutenant Eugene Ford, serial number Oscar 805804, U.S. Army Air Forces.
NARRATOR: The D.N.A. reveals the definitive truth: Lieutenant Eugene Ford has been found.
Ford’s daughter Norma was just six months old when he died. Her family told her little about what happened.
NORMA FORD BEARD (Daughter of 1st Lieutenant. Eugene Ford): I knew nothing about what happened to him. When I was 13 and my brother was 12, that’s when I first saw a picture of my father. And I found a packet of letters. And I immediately knew what they were, but I just put them back. Now, I can’t find them. I can’t find them.
NARRATOR: But now her father has been found, and she can put him to rest in a way that her mother never could.
PAUL BEARD (Husband of Norma Ford Beard): Mrs. Ford, 49 years later she said, "I would give all of my life to have 15 more minutes with Gene." I thought that was remarkable, give everything she had for just 15 minutes with him.
NARRATOR: In a ceremony like this, Eugene Ford will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The D.P.A.A. is still reviewing whether flight engineer Charles Priest and navigator Russell Landry could be recovered. But 82,000 more missing American soldiers are still out there, like Ernest Vienneau, possibly still inside the B-17 that crashed near the Tulsamerican.
HEATHER HARRIS: I’d like to talk with you about how we’re moving forward on trying to recover his remains.
CHELSEA CARBONELL: I’d love to hear it.
NARRATOR: And Captain Lawrence Dickson? 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.
MARLA DICKSON 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."
NARRATOR: There remain 26 more airmen from this storied command still to be found. For their loved ones, as for all families of the lost, hope remains. But time is the enemy.
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Jay O. Sanders
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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.
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Image credit: (B-24 underwater)
Courtesy Brett Seymour, National Park Service
- Kristoforo Bedrina, Chelsea Carbonell, David Conlin, Franklin Damann, Marla Dickson Andrews, Tyler Dunn, Brendan Foley, Norma Ford Beard, Danijel Frka, G. R. "Rocky" Gillette, Larkin Kennedy, Jeremy Kinney, Kelly McKeague, Timothy McMahon, Val Miller, Brett Seymour, Phil Short, Gemma Smith, Alex Sotiriou, Helena Tomas, Debra Zinni