The last flight home: Tuskegee airman laid to rest nearly 80 years after he went missing
Second Lieutenant Fred L. Brewer Jr. was honored in his hometown of Charlotte.
Second Lieutenant Fred L. Brewer Jr. had been missing for almost 80 years, ever since an Oct. 19, 1944, mission in Italy where he served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of African-American military pilots and airmen who served during World War II.
Lt. Brewer was one of 57 pilots assigned to escort bombers from Ramitelli Air Field in Italy to their targets in Regensburg, Germany during the war that fateful October day.
Aboard his plane, a single-seat P-51C Mustang nicknamed "Traveling Light," Lt. Brewer attempted a steep climb to get above the cloud cover when his aircraft rolled over with the canopy jettisoned. Brewer’s remains were not recovered, and he was subsequently declared missing in action.
"It was a good thing being connected to a Tuskegee airman," Clement Brewer, third cousin of Fred Brewer, told ABC News. "It feels special."
But on Dec. 6 -- 79 years later -- Brewer was finally laid to rest in his home state of North Carolina, surrounded by family he never got to meet but who for years have fought to find him and bring him home.
Lt. Brewer was laid to rest at the Salisbury National Cemetery in a military burial where he was honored for his service.
Brewer is only the second man from the renowned Tuskegee Airmen to be identified after years of being considered missing in action. The first man, Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson was officially identified in 2018 after going missing in 1944 in Austria. An additional 25 Tuskegee Airmen still remain missing.
"A FedEx package came to my parents’ house," Clement Brewer said of the DNA testing kit sent to his house. "And it was for both me and my father. And it had the story about Lieutenant Fred Brewer, who I hadn't heard of until then, about him becoming missing in 1944."
Following the war, a body was recovered by U.S. personnel from a civilian cemetery in Italy, but limited technology at the time made it impossible for the remains to be identified. The remains were interred as “unknown.”
"The first step of that was historical research, trying to find a way to match the remains that we knew were in a grave in Florence with Lieutenant Brewer's crash site," said Joshua Frank, a research analyst at Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), a department of the military dedicated to finding military personnel missing in action.
In 2011, DPAA researchers examined the case, and discovered an Italian police report that indicated the remains were recovered from a crashed fighter plane on Oct. 19, 1944.
Over a decade later, the remains were disinterred and sent to DPAA’s Omaha, NE, lab in June 2022.
"We had to do a disinterment and exhume those remains to get them to our laboratory for anthropological and DNA testing," Frank said.
The agency first announced Lt. Brewer’s positive identification in early September after he was finally accounted for on Aug. 10. However, on Thursday, Brewer embarked on his last mission -- flying from the DPAA lab in Omaha, Nebraska, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to finally rest at home.
"It was like what an unbelievable experience," Clement Brewer said.
ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.
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