Under the Radar

'NOVA: The Last B-24' & the Search for America's Missing in Action

Divers display the POW/MIA flag above the Tulsamerican wreckag. (Photo by Brett Seymour, National Park Service)

The PBS science program NOVA isn't usually a show that brings up strong emotions, but its upcoming episode "The Last B-24" tells a powerful story about the men and women working to retrieve and identify the remains of American military members missing in action.

The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is actively engaged in locating information about the 82,000 missing American service members still unaccounted for and bringing them home to give closure to their families. That's a staggering number and NOVA does a great job of telling the story of this little-known agency.

The episode focuses on the search for three crew members in the wreckage from the December 1944 crash of an American B-24 Liberator bomber known as the Tulsamerica into the waters off what is now the Croatian island of Vis.

The Tulsamerican was the last B-24 to roll off the assembly line in Oklahoma. The factory workers who built the planes paid for this one out of their own pockets, so this particular crew got a lot of press coverage in the waning months of the war in Europe.

Most of the crew was rescued, but Flight Engineer Charles E. Priest, Navigator Russell C. Landry and Pilot Captain Eugene Ford vanished with the plane. Tulsamerican bombardier First Lieutenant Val Miller shares his memories of the day with the NOVA cameras. Fortunately, he was able to share his story before he passed away a few days later at the age of 94.

NOVA is a science program, so there's plenty of footage of the dives to locate remains at the crash site, detailed explanations of their recovery methods and a thorough examination of the DNA science that the DPAA uses to identify the missing crewmen.

There's also a B-17 crash site nearby. That plane is nearly intact on the ocean floor (while the B-24 is broken into myriad pieces) and NOVA takes a moment to explore the design differences between the two planes, differences that may explain why the B-24 had such a mixed record with water landings. The crew films the plane but does not have the permissions necessary to enter the plane and see if they can locate the remains of co-pilot Ernest Vienneau.

The program interviews surviving family members for the three missing Tulsamerican crew and relations of Vinneau.

There's also a parallel story about the DNA tests on remains from a P-51 crash near the Austrian-Italian border. DPAA researches believe that they may be Tuskegee Airman Captain Lawrence Everett Dickson, who disappeared in December 1944 during his 68th mission. NOVA spends time with Dickson's daughter Marla Andrews as she awaits news as to whether the tests prove that her missing father has been located after more than 70 years.

These stories are sure to stay with you long after and one number sticks: the show explores the fates of just five men and there are still almost 82,000 more out there whose families are still waiting for the truth.

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November is Military Family Appreciation Month