Tuskegee Airman’s Remains Identified After Vanishing in WWII Mission in Italy

Scientists used DNA to identify Fred Brewer, a member of the renowned Black fighter pilot unit.

DNA was used to identify the remains of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Fred L. Brewer Jr., whose plane crashed in a remote location near the Austrian border with Italy during WWII, the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced Friday (Sep. 1).

Brewer, 23, was a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, a Black American pilot unit that bravely fought in the European skies abroad and racism at home.

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He took off on Oct. 29, 1944 in a P-51C Mustang fighter plane from an American base in Italy to escort bombers to their target in Regensburg, Germany but never returned. Brewer, flying a plane nicknamed Travelin’ Lite, was one of 57 fighters assigned to the mission. When they encountered heavy cloud conditions, witnesses said Brewer attempted a steep climb to get above the cloud cover, but the maneuver caused his engine to stall.

The Washington Post reports that local Italian officials removed his body from the wreckage and buried the remains in a civilian cemetery. In 1946, his body was moved to an American cemetery in Mirandola, Italy. Two years later the skeletal remains, identified then as X-125,  were disinterred, and a few months after that were moved to an American cemetery in Florence, Italy.

The unidentified remains of X-125 were exhumed for forensic analysis in 2022, according to DPAA. Scientists at the DPAA Laboratory used anthropological analysis, circumstantial evidence and a DNA link to a paternal cousin to identify the remains as Brewer.

Brewer, whose father was a hotel bellman, graduated in 1942 from Shaw University, a historically Black institution, in Raleigh, N.C., the Charlotte Observer reported. He joined the Army in 1943 and received pilot training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and combat training in Michigan and South Carolina.

“I remember how devastating it was when they notified my family, my aunt and uncle, that he was missing,” said his cousin Robena Brewer Harrison, 84, told The Post. “It just left a void within our family. My aunt, who was his mother, Janie, she never, ever recovered from that.”

Brewer’s family was presented with a Purple Heart and Air Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster after his death.

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