Through the window of their van, the picturesque scenery swept past. Wildflowers dotted lush meadows. Pines and spruce trees towered overhead. A 12th century church stood as a monument to man’s history in this place, where the Austrian Alps offer a breathtaking backdrop all their own.
Yet for all the beauty around them, there was something else on the minds of these 12 University of New Orleans students as they took this 30-minute drive to a field outside of Hohenthurn, Austria, five days a week for five weeks.
It was the plane crash of Capt. Lawrence Dickson, a Tuskegee Airman who’d been missing for more than seven decades. This was near where Dickson was last sighted Dec. 23, 1944 while flying a reconnaissance mission during World War II.
As the students stepped off the van in the quiet of a wooded area, they knew their task: to carefully dig up this earth, sorting through dirt and time to try to find evidence of one man’s life and possible death. Theirs was an educational and historical mission made possible through a collaboration among the University of New Orleans, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the National WWII Museum, Austrian authorities and the University of Innsbruck.
“We truly didn’t know what we’d find,” says Titus Firmin, a graduate history student at UNO.
Before the first metal detector ever chirped at this well-shaded spot near the Italian border, it took months to coordinate the project.
“The DPAA has a team of historians that researches MIA cases,” says D. Ryan Gray, assistant professor of anthropology and the lead archaeologist on the project. “They also have local researchers go and do on-the-ground interviews to see if they can find out any leads on a particular loss. In this case, there had recently been a forest road cut through near the possible site, with aircraft wreckage reported nearby. They were then able to identify eyewitnesses to help pinpoint the location.”
The DPAA had recently begun working with universities in its search to account for missing service members around the globe, and the University of New Orleans seemed a logical partner on this project. Gray, whose specialty is urban archaeology, had led summer field schools before, and UNO has a well-established relationship with both the city of Innsbruck, Austria and the University of Innsbruck. This year, the two institutions marked the 42nd anniversary of the UNO-Innsbruck International Summer School. UNO’s Division of International Education played a crucial role in ensuring that the student archaeologists received course credit as well as arranging accommodations in the town of Villach, a three-hour drive from Innsbruck, but just 30 minutes from the dig site.
After sweeping the area with metal detectors, the team—which included two students from the University of Innsbruck, as well as Tom Czekanski, a senior curator with the National WWII Museum—began the painstaking process of creating a grid and digging in 10 centimeter increments.
There are thousands of plane crash sites throughout Central Europe but, according to Gray, fewer than 50 Tuskegee Airmen remain missing in action. During World War II, the African-American pilots who made up the 332nd Fighter Group and had trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I think all of us were very motivated to get this done for the family, for the DPAA, for ourselves,” says Drew Kinchen, a senior anthropology major. “We were all really emotionally invested in it.”
For seven hours a day, the team dug, sifted, photographed and took detailed notes of everything that it found. Two urban studies doctoral students, Helen Bouzon and Brittany Waggener, served as the crew chiefs.
This was 80-year-old Ralston Cole’s 10th trip to Austria. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, Cole had traveled the world as the owner of his own diesel engine distribution company in Harvey, La. After selling his company, the lifelong history buff enrolled in the graduate history program at UNO. He gets emotional when he talks about the dig.
“It was wonderful,” Cole says. “Every day was different. A lot of days were just hard work. We had a couple of days that were so outstanding, it was indescribable.”
Visitors routinely stopped by the dig site. Representatives from the DPAA. Embassy officials. Austrian news crews. Local residents. Hermann Kandutsch, an Austrian who visited nearly every day, had a close connection to the project. His mother was an eyewitness to the crash in 1944 and he foraged around the site as a boy, collecting whatever he could find with his brother. Decades later, he and his wife refueled the excavation team with a truckload of baked goods and coffee.
“This was a very important event for this village,” Kinchen says. “It’s a very small community and this was obviously a very bad time for them, with the war. And I think this had been sitting with them for a very long time and they were looking for some resolution, and they felt that it was right that this man be found and brought home.”
The town of Hohenthurn even threw an Austrian barbeque for its visitors at the local firehouse.
As the project progressed, the team found a variety of aircraft wreckage, much of it consistent with an American P-51, allowing them to gain insights into what happened at the site in 1944 and in the years since. Some evidence recovered from the site will be transported back to the DPAA’s lab in the U.S., while some of the wreckage is undergoing further assessment by Harald Stadler from the Institute for Archaeology at the University of Innsbruck. Ultimately, it will be up to the DPAA’s lab and archaeologists to assess the dig’s results.
“As a historian, I’m used to sitting in my room, reading books and learning about the lives of other people,” said Firmin, who’s also a member of the Louisiana National Guard. “But the closest I get to come to history is like going on a trip to Savannah or Charleston and going to Fort Sumter. Or going to the World War II Museum. My contact with history is very limited but to actually be able to be hands-on and touch a piece of history was unreal.”
After Firmin completes his master’s degree, he wants to pursue a doctorate, with the ultimate goal of teaching. Kinchen is interested in the fields of forensic anthropology and bio-archaeology. Both say their ambitions were further cemented by their summer spent digging and discovering in the Alps.
“It was a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime event,” Kinchen says.
Gray is in the process of completing a detailed search and recovery report for the DPAA. Once analyses are complete, the DPAA will determine if it can positively identify the remains of a long-lost American serviceman.
Even as the members of the excavation team await the news, they are already appreciative of the rare opportunity to come face-to-face with history.
“I would have to rank this as one of the great experiences of my life,” Cole says.