BOSTON — Seventy-four years ago, an American B-24 Liberator bomber known as the Tulsamerican fell from the sky while returning from a mission over Europe and disappeared beneath the waves of the Adriatic Sea. Seven crew members survived the crash and were rescued. Three men were never found, thought to be lost forever, unrecoverable.
Now, NOVA, produced by WGBH Boston, joins the U.S. Department of Defense, the Croatian Navy, and an elite team of underwater archeologists and technical divers as they excavate the wreckage of a World War II icon: The last B-24 ever built in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and paid for by the factory workers.
NOVA LAST B-24 premieres Nov. 7, 2018, at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS.
In December 1944, the Tulsamerican was badly damaged during a fight with the German Air Force over enemy territory. The crew attempted an emergency landing, but crashed into the waters off what is now the Croatian island of Vis.
Flight Engineer Charles E. Priest, Navigator Russell C. Landry, and Pilot Captain Eugene Ford vanished with the plane.
Tulsamerican bombardier First Lieutenant Val Miller vividly recounts the B-24’s final moments that day. Miller passed away just a few days after his interview with NOVA, at age 94.
Seven decades later, the Tulsamerican was discovered by amateur divers, nearly 135 feet beneath the surface at the bottom of the sea. The aircraft was almost unrecognizable, broken in half and covered in rust and silt. Serial numbers revealed the planes identity.
A specialized group within the Pentagon was alerted: The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Led by Director Kelly McKeague, the agency is tasked with searching for and identifying the estimated 82,000 missing American service members still unaccounted for and bringing them home to give closure to their families.
The DPAA formed an expedition team, including top scientists led by world-renowned underwater archeologist Brendan Foley, and some of the world’s best technical divers handpicked by dive master Phil Short. The Croatian government agreed to provide a Croatian Navy vessel as the base of operations for the expedition. The only caveat: They have just 19 days to get the job done.
With more than 40 people and 15 tons of equipment, both military and scientific, the search begins. Underwater photographer Brett Seymour takes hundreds of photographs of the site and stitches them together to create a detailed, photogrammetry model. The divers work in systematic shifts, searching a wide area around the heavily damaged cockpit.
Using the Guardian safety system, a process where every archeologist has a buddy at their back for every dive, they scan around the sea floor with forensic lights designed to detect fragments of bone. Giant vacuums suck up tons of silt, which are bagged and sent to the surface for archeologists to sift through.
Artifacts emerge: A radio headset, a .50-caliber cartridge, flight wings, and a gold wedding band, untarnished by the saltwater. These items offer clues about the lost airmen, but are not enough to establish a positive identification.
Foul weather suspends the dives with less than two weeks remaining, but the team receives intriguing news and pursues a new lead.
A local diver informs them of another downed U.S. plane nearby, a World War II era B-17 that may have a missing airman on board. The team conducts a reconnaissance dive on the B-17. The plane suffered a fate similar to the Tulsamerican, but due to the differences in construction, appears completely intact on the sea floor.
If this is the plane the DPAA suspects, it may contain the remains of co-pilot Ernest Vienneau, who has been missing in action since 1944. Ten crew members on board Vienneau’s B-17 survived the crash and were rescued, but Vienneau was wounded and unable to be pulled from the plane.
Back in the U.S., NOVA meets Vienneau’s great niece, Chelsea Carbonell, and her son, Brennan, who have been working with the DPAA in the search for their long-lost uncle. Thought to be unrecoverable, the DPAA is now investigating whether this is indeed his B-17 and if he can be recovered.
NOVA also follows another case involving a missing member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a renowned group of African-American World War II military pilots named for the Alabama town where they trained. Faced with prejudice, the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight just to fly and were asked to fly 70 missions, far more than their white peers.
NOVA meets Marla Andrews, whose father went missing in action when she was just a child. Tuskegee Airman Captain Lawrence Everett Dickson disappeared days before Christmas in 1944 during his 68th mission, a reconnaissance flight over the Alps near the Austrian-Italian border. He had been lost for almost 70 years, when a DPAA researcher uncovered a handful of eyewitness reports recorded in 1944. Working with the University of New Orleans and the National WWII Museum, the DPAA launched an investigation. Archeologists quickly found wreckage matching Captain Dickson’s P-51 plane and recovered bone fragments. After testing, the DPAA has just announced a positive identification, providing Andrews with the answers she has been seeking for most of her life.
With time running out on the B-24 expedition, the team is forced to leave the B-17 site and return to the Tulsamerican. Refocusing their search, they target a parachute tangled in the main body of the wreckage. A significant number of bones and possible human teeth are ultimately recovered and flown home to the DPAA’s forensic lab, the largest forensic anthropology lab in the world.
NOVA follows forensic anthropologists as they conduct blind analyses of the bones and artifacts before passing them on to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Tim McMahon, Chief Scientist and Director, Department of Defense (DoD) Operations, describes how each fragment of bone is sampled, the DNA sequenced and then compared against family reference samples until finally a match is confirmed. Captain Eugene Ford of the Tulsamerican has been found.
NOVA captures the DPAA’s emotional meetings with Ford’s daughter, Norma Beard, who was just six months old when he crashed. Now, she can finally put her father to rest. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The DPAA is still determining whether Flight Engineer Charles E. Priest and Navigator Russell C. Landry may still be recovered.
A key aspect of the DPAA’s mission is to keep families of the missing apprised of new developments. They continue to work with Chelsea Carbonell in the hopes of finding lost B-17 co-pilot Ernest Vienneau, and to meet with other families still waiting to hear.