Air Force Recruiting Service and Richard Petty Motorsports will pay tribute to an American hero – fallen Tuskegee Airman, Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson, as part of NASCAR’s Coca Cola 600 Memorial Day tribute at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, May 25.
Dickson’s name will be displayed above the windshield of driver Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 race car. The car will also be painted to resemble the iconic A-10 Thunderbolt II, right down to the tiger shark teeth on the grill.
Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. A national moment of remembrance will take place at 3 p.m. EDT on Memorial Day and people are asked to pause then for a moment of silence.
“To be able to honor Capt. Dickson at the Coca Cola 600 is remarkable,” Wallace said. “It’s truly an honor to hear his story and how he was a pioneer, a warrior and an all-around great American hero. It’s our job and duty to go out and perform to the best levels we know how to represent him and his family and make them proud for everything he has done. We will showcase just how big he was to this country at the Coca Cola 600. I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. Pilots, navigators, maintainers, bombardiers, instructors and support staff all trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties during World War II in Europe and North Africa.
Dickson, who was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, flew 68 missions during WWII. On December 23, 1944, he was returning from a reconnaissance mission when his Mustang P-51 experienced engine failure. His plane crashed along the Italy-Austria border, according to the Pentagon. Searches of the crash site were unsuccessful, and in 1949, the military declared his remains non-recoverable.
But Dickson’s story didn’t end there. In 2012, an American recovery team found the crash site in Austria after receiving information from an Austrian researcher. The team found wreckage matching Dickson’s type of fighter. Excavations conducted over four weeks in the summer of 2017 by the University of New Orleans and Austria’s University of Innsbruck resulted in the recovery of human remains. On July 27, 2018, Dickson’s remains were identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“I did a lot of searching for a Tuskegee Airman to honor as our fallen hero for the Coca-Cola 600,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Emmerling, AFRS marketing/events non commissioned officer. “It was important to have a Tuskegee Airman; because like them, Bubba is leading the charge for diversity being the only African American driver in NASCAR. I read a lot of articles that honored fallen Tuskegee Airmen, and it was pretty difficult to choose who to honor because I wanted to honor them all. Capt. Dickson’s story was one that stood out because of the length of time it took to get him home, and how much his family was involved to finally have some sense of peace.”
Dickson’s daughter, Marla Andrews, who is now 77, was given a precious gift – a 14-karat art deco ring – that was found during the dig. During excavation, the ring’s aqua-colored stone, which had broken from the ring, was found separately. The ring was inscribed with the initials, L.E.D and P.D., with a heart and arrow going through it. P.D honored her mother Phyllis Dickson.
“I went through a lot of different stories on fallen Tuskegee Airman, and his story stuck out to me in a big way. I almost felt like it was a love story,” Emmerling said. “From how his body was identified with his wedding ring, and having his family still searching for answers after such a long time, I truly wanted to show them how much it touched me and our office. I felt like the love his family has shown in his story, and after personal conversations with his daughter, Marla, I was convinced we needed to honor him.”
For Andrews and her family, the long wait to find her father was difficult, but she now has some closure and is honored his legacy will be honored at the Coca Cola 600 this weekend.
“I appreciate the Air Force, NASCAR and Bubba Wallace for honoring my father,” she said. “I am so grateful my father’s name and his story will be recognized. He was an American hero. My love goes out to all the guys who are giving my dad a chance to say hello again.”
Andrews said that although her father’s name is on the car, this honor goes to all Tuskegee Airmen and their families.
“We strive to reach a diverse population for the future of our Air Force,” Emmerling said. “I really felt that this was a tribute to what Capt. Dickson and his fellow Tuskegee Airman started so many years ago, and what Bubba is currently doing for the sport of NASCAR as well.”