Captain Lawrence Dickson was just 24 when his red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighter was downed in 1944. He was an African-American fighter pilot, trained at the Army's famed Tuskegee Army Airfield. Of the more than 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee's segregated flying school, Dickson was one of 27 to go missing in action over Nazi-occupied Europe. Presumed dead, his remains went missing for more than 70 years.
Dickson was leading an escort for a photo reconnaissance mission that day, taking off from an Allied airfield in Italy, bound for Prague. But Dickson's plane began to have engine trouble. No sooner did the pilot radio his squadron about the issue did his wingman report Dickson clearing the canopy of his fighter to bail out, according to the Washington Post. He made the jump at 26,000 feet.
No wreckage or parachute evidence was ever found.
Before taking off for the last time on Dec. 23, 1944, Lawrence Dickson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Since it was his 68th mission, he was just two shy of getting to go back to the U.S. for leave from the war. Considering the war in Europe would end less than six months later, he very likely would have survived.
In August, 2017, a team of researchers in the Austrian Alps came across the wreckage of a P-51 Mustang and some human remains. They contacted the U.S. Army. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency analyst Joshua Frank found a crash site similar to Dickson's listed in captured Nazi downed aircraft records. The DoD agency tested the DNA of the body found at the site against those of his now-75-year-old daughter, Marla Andrews.
Lawrence E. Dickson (second left), pictured in 1942 with other airmen at Tuskegee Army Army Air Field.
It was a match.
Sadly, Dickson's wife Phyllis did not live to the see his remains repatriated to the United States. All she was ever told was that his body was nonrecoverable in 1949. But his daughter Marla still decorates her home with photos of her heroic father, his training certificates, and his medal citations.
She also keeps the letter from her father's wingman, written 50 years after the war's end.
"The act of writing to you so many years after … brings to me a sadness. And yet I hope it will bring you a moment of peaceful remembrance of a loving father whom you lost."