Cover Story

When Soldiers Don't Come Home

Pfc. Richard M. Dawson was MIA for over 50 years

 

by Andrew Packett, Contributing Writer

 

 

Frances “Fannie” Jane Withers Dawson saw a lot in her 102 years.

Nineteen U.S. presidents served in office during her lifetime. She came of age with the introduction of the automobile and the installation of electricity in the home. She saw her husband buried as a young man, leaving her with five children on their Haynesville, Va., farm. She watched her children grow into adults during the Great Depression. And she bid her second son, Richard M. “Norris” Dawson, farewell as he left the family farm to join the Army and later serve in World War II.

But one thing Fannie Dawson did not live to see was Richard come home.

Richard Dawson was born Dec. 4, 1918. He was the middle child of Morgan and Fannie Dawson. May and Franklin were Richard’s older siblings, Maxine and Christine “Chris” were younger. Morgan died in 1934, leaving Fannie to raise the children and take care of the Haynesville Farm in the middle of the Great Depression.

In August of 1940, before the war, Dawson enlisted in the U.S. Army and received his basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He sent $10 of his monthly $21 pay home to his mother. In each letter, Dawson asked about his mother’s welfare, his brother and sisters by name. After basic training, he was in a Fort Myers cantonment until being sent to Trinidad. When the United States entered World War II, the Germans focused a submarine offensive on the Caribbean and the South Atlantic Ocean. Trinidad was a key base for U.S. and British air and naval forces engaged in convoy and anti-submarine expeditions.

By February of 1944, General Frank Merrill had organized the 5307th Composite Unit. This was an all-volunteer unit of 3,000 men formed to fight the Japanese alongside the British and Chinese in the China-Burma-India Theater. Merrill was a student of the Japanese language and military tactics and was an expert on the enemy. Allied Forces needed to control the airfield at Myitkyina, Burma, to deliver crucial supplies to China.

Dawson, who was stationed in Jamaica, volunteered to be one of “Merrill’s Marauders.” He was shipped to India to train for jungle warfare. Merrill’s Marauders marched into the Japanese-occupied jungle to do battle behind enemy lines. They used pack mules to carry supplies and equipment into the dense, nearly impenetrable jungle. They traveled over 800 miles to reach Myitkyina. Along the way, the Marauders fought the Japanese, as well as malaria, typhus, dysentery and other diseases. In 100 days, Merrill’s Marauders won five major battles and 32 minor engagements. The American and Chinese soldiers disrupted enemy supply lines and pushed deep into enemy territory, until at last they reached and captured the airfield at Myitkyina.

The Myitkyina Airfield was important for American pilots flying C-47 Skytrain cargo planes over the Himalayan Mountains (referred to as “The Hump”) to drop food, ammunition and supplies to Allied troops in the jungle. The Hima­layas were extremely dangerous to pilots because of fog, unpredictable updrafts and a lack of reliable charts or navigation aids. And because the planes were so heavily laden with supplies, they were especially difficult to control. The airborne resupply missions were crucial to the survival of the men on the ground, because Merrill’s Marauders carried only three days of food supplies in their packs as they cut their way through the jungle, fighting the Japanese and building small air strips.

Richard Dawson again volunteered, this time as a “kicker,” who pushed supplies out of planes for cargo drops. Myitkyina Airfield came under Allied control on May 17, 1944. Six days later, on May 23, Richard Dawson boarded flight C-47A#42-23510, 4th Troop Carrier Squadron. That flight’s crew roster included Army Capt. Joseph M. Olbinski (pilot), Chicago, Ill.; 1st Lt. Joseph J. Auld (co-pilot), Floral Park, N.Y.; 1st Lt. Robert M. Anderson (navigator), Millen, Ga.; Tech. Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz (radio operator), Tyrone, Penn.; Pfc. Richard M. Dawson (drop crew), Haynesville, Va.; Pvt. Fred G. Fagan, (drop crew), Piedmont, Ala.; and Pvt. Robert L. Crane (drop crew), Sacramento, Calif.

With Dawson, Fagan and Crane were the other “kickers” for the air drop. The C-47 lifted off from the airfield in Dinjan, India, headed for Myitkyina.

The plane never made it.

Dawson’s younger sister, Chris Dawson King, remembers Warsaw native Robert W. Lowery, a paratrooper in the famous 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, who had been wounded at Anzio and was recuperating at home. He delivered a telegram from the U.S. government dated June 11, 1944, stating that Richard had been missing in action since May 23.

Over the next two years, Richard’s mother Fannie corresponded with the other mothers of the missing C-47A#42-23510 crewmen, and with the wife of Lt. Auld. Their letters offered each other encouragement and hope that, somehow, these soldiers were alive and making their way out of the jungle. Pvt. Fagan’s mother, Annie Fagan, wrote of having her five sons serving in World War II. Capt. Olbinski’s mother, Mary Olbinski, related how one of her sons, a bomber pilot, had already been shot down and was a prisoner of war in Germany. Mrs. Olbinski hoped for a similar fate for son Joseph when she wrote to Fannie: “Joe wrote many times of the men in his crew, and it was evident that he thought a great deal of them. It is a comfort to know that wherever they are they are together.”

Chris, the only surviving member of Dawson’s immediate family, reflects, “I was a young child when we received the telegram that Richard was missing in action. Mama said that losing a child was the worst thing in the world. And not knowing what became of Richard was even worse.” Dawson’s niece, Jane Bell Harcum, says of her grandmother Fannie, “Grandmama cried every time she talked about Richard.”

By October 1945, the U. S. Army Air Force had conducted 12 search missions in the air and on the ground, totaling 66 hours, to try to locate the downed plane. On April 3, 1946, the U.S. government issued a finding of death for each of the airmen on C-47A#42-23510. The unofficial tally of aircraft that went down flying “The Hump” in the China-Burma-India Theater is more than 600. The jungle in Burma is so thick that an aircraft making a crash landing could be entirely covered by new vegetation within three days. Because the area in which the plane likely went down included hundreds of square miles of mountainous jungle terrain, the American Graves Registration Service board concluded the crew would “never be found except through chance.” 

But in 2001, a village priest reported the possible wreckage of a C-47 airplane approximately 15 miles west of Myitkyina to the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma. The information was forwarded to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Although the wreckage had been scavenged — in Burma, metal pieces of crashed aircraft are removed from the wreckage to use like bells (signals) in remote missions — photographs and identification tags were sent to the JPAC, where data was matched with information concerning the crew of C-47A#42-23510.

In January of 2003, JPAC investigators traveled to Burma to survey the wreckage site and conduct interviews, and the final recovery was conducted in 2004. Among items recovered from the wreckage, including human remains, was Richard M. Dawson’s identification tag. The remains of Lt. Auld and Lt. Anderson were identified through DNA testing. Other evidence recovered from the wreckage further confirmed it as the lost

C-47A#42-23510.

On July 15, 2010, 66 years after the deaths of the crew of C-47A#42-23510, the remains of the men were buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Family and friends of the crew attended the funeral-home visitation and the services at Arlington.

The United States Army and the U.S. Air Force hosted the families of the long-missing soldiers with pride and honor.  Richard Dawson received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, as well as the Presidential Unit Citation and several other awards, posthumously.

For 55 years, a lone portrait had hung on the wall of Fannie Dawson’s living room — a picture of Richard in uniform. For 55 years, the photograph was a constant reminder as she waited for news of her son.

Fannie Dawson didn’t live to see it, but her son Richard had finally come home.

References: U.S. Army in World War II, The China-Burma-India Theater, Stillwell’s Command Problems, Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland. Special thanks to: Robert E. Passanisi, chairman/historian Merrill’s Marauders Association, Inc. www.marauder.org;

Lt. Colonel Christopher B. Aycock, USAR 75TH DIV (BCTD) CMDGRP; Dr. Mark Fagan (nephew of Fred Fagan); head, Sociology and Social Work, Jacksonville State University. Visit Dr. Fagan’s website at www.jsu.edu/ socialwork/fredfagan/index.html.

Lest We Forget

Americans were united in the effort to defend freedom during World War II. Every American was called upon to make sacrifices for the war effort. Women left home to work in the war industries in response to the manpower shortage. Automobile manufacturing plants were converted to make aircraft. War-ration books and tokens were issued to each American family, controlling quantities of gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, nylon and other items any one person could buy.

A total of 16,353,659 service personnel fought for their country during World War II. There were 124,079 American prisoners of war. There are still 78,750 soldiers missing in action. The American death toll for WWII is over 404,800 men and women.

This Memorial Day, remember to say “thank you” to our veterans — the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and other service personnel — and their families for the sacrifices they made and continue to make to protect these United States. And a special, reverent thank-you is due to the families of the soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, people like Pfc. Richard M. Dawson and the crew aboard C-47A#42-23510.

 

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