‘NOVA: Last B-24’ follows the search for the remains of missing WWII airmen

‘Last B-24’ – Diving for MIA remains

Brendan Foley

On Dec. 17, 1944, an American B-24 Liberator bomber crashed into the Adriatic Sea following a mission over Germany, killing three crew, their bodies never recovered. The search for their remains is the subject of a documentary debuting this week on PBS’ “NOVA.”

“Last B-24,” premiering Wednesday, Nov. 7 (check local listings), follows the efforts of a crew organized by Kelly McKeague, director of the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and led by underwater archaeologist Brendan Foley, to sift through the nearly unrecognizable wreckage of the aircraft known as the Tulsamerican, broken in half and lying on its back in 135 feet of water off the Croatian island of Vis, and attempt to find and identify any remains of the missing airmen.

As the team searched for traces of the men – Lt. Eugene Ford, Sgt. Charles Priest and 1st Lt. Russell Landry – they received word of a downed B-17 in the area and conducted a reconnaissance dive. If it’s the plane the DPAA suspects, it may contain the remains of Ernest Vienneau, the co-pilot who has been missing in action since 1944.

The first site yields a number of artifacts, among them a wedding ring. And since Ford was the only one of the three who was married, confidence is high that it was his. But what the crew is really after is bone fragments, so they can match the DNA against those of descendants as well as Army records.

“When we went into the B‑24, we knew it was going to be Ford, Landry, or Priest,” Foley told a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif., “and they had referenced DNA already from family members. So that’s a lot easier than a shot in the dark.”

“Historical background in the case of the Tulsamerica is helpful,” McKeague adds. “DNA sampling, DNA sequencing is helpful. Dental is one of the most slam‑dunk lines of evidence that we utilize, but that’s also anthropological. … Your clavicle – I didn’t know this – is as unique as a fingerprint, and so we … can compare the recovered clavicle against that digitized inventory in rank order by probability who it might belong to.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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