OVERLOOKED PEOPLE WHO DESERVE TO BE REMEMBERED
On December 23, 1944, Tuskegee airman Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson went down in his P-51 Mustang in the vicinity of the Italian-Austrian border. A seasoned pilot, he was on his 68th mission and had received the Distinguished Flying Cross just months earlier, but an engine failure sealed his fate. The 24-year-old officer left behind a widow, daughter, mother, and two brothers.
Attempts were made to find him for several years after the war ended, but while other crash sites in the vicinity were located, his wasn’t.
We’re all familiar with the military doctrine of “no man left behind,” but many don’t realize it has no expiration date. The hardworking people of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) are dedicated to finding and identifying the more than 82,000 service members who remain missing long after the battlefields have gone quiet. While the bulk of its effort is focused on World War II and Korea, the mission covers more recent (e.g., Vietnam), more distant (e.g., WWI), and non-combat (e.g., Cold War) conflicts.
To accomplish this, DPAA employs a multidisciplinary team of experts skilled in “foreign government negotiation, formulation of national policy, remains recovery and identification, DNA science, archival research and intelligence analysis.” Genealogists are also a piece of this puzzle, as are a growing number of specialized third party institutions.
Fast forward seven decades from the time of Capt. Dickson’s loss. Joshua Frank, a DPAA research analyst, cross-pollinated American and German reports. While Capt. Dickson was believed to have crashed in Italy, Frank found a German record for a downed P-51 six miles away in Austria, and sent local investigator Roland Domanig to take a closer look. Domanig already knew the site, recalling it from his childhood.
In the summer of 2017, a team composed of DPAA personnel and professors and students from the University of New Orleans and the University of Innsbruck excavated the site. These two universities have a well-established relationship geared toward providing field experience for archaeology students in Austria, so offered an ideal complement to DPAA for this undertaking.
Among the findings were part of a harmonica, a ring with the initials of Capt. Dickson and his wife, and remains. All were sent to the U.S. for further study.
Where’s His Family?
At the same time the team was in the field, I was also researching Capt. Dickson, but through a paper trail. In 1973, a disastrous fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. 16–18 million military personnel files from 1912 to 1964 were destroyed, the Army being the hardest hit with a roughly 80% loss. This means that finding the families of those who served in World War II (and other 20th century conflicts) can be challenging. That’s where genealogists come in. We find each service member’s primary and secondary next of kin, as well as a combination of relatives who share his DNA (Y-DNA, mtDNA, and autosomal).
As both a professional genealogist and Army brat, I feel privileged to be part of this repatriation initiative, and having investigated almost 1,400 soldiers, can tell you that this work is humbling. No matter how experienced you might be, these cases throw out unimaginable curves that constantly remind you there’s always more to learn.
I was taken with Capt. Dickson the moment I learned that he had taken an electric guitar to war. He had died well before I was born, but this detail was a reminder that we’re dealing with young men.¹ He was also the first Tuskegee airman I had the honor of researching (another 26 remain unaccounted for).
His was a family on the move with an intriguing combination of Great Migration and Caribbean immigrant go-getters. Lest there be any doubt that this was a family to be reckoned with, Capt. Dickson had two years of college (at a time when only 35% of Americans graduated from high school) and there were two other Tuskegee airmen in the family, including one of his brothers.
Finding the required family members entailed pushing back to the mid-1800s, but was especially rewarding when his daughter, Marla Andrews, was beyond delighted to be contacted. His widow — then 96-years-old — passed away shortly after, but I like to think she understood.
Some people say there’s no such thing as closure. I disagree. It’s heart-breaking to lose a loved one to war, and this is only exacerbated if you’re left wondering what happened to him or her. In March, Capt. Dickson’s daughter will finally have the chance to say her goodbyes when he is laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Now in her 70s, she’s been waiting for this since she was a toddler. “No man left behind” is so much more than an expression — it’s what we owe our service members and their families, no matter how long it takes.
¹ Of my cases to date, only one has been female.