DYING FOR FREEDOM ISN'T THE WORST
THAT COULD HAPPEN..
BEING FORGOTTEN IS !

Nov 12, 2:02 PM EST
By DON BABWIN
Associated Press Writer

Pilot Shot Down Over Laos to Be Buried

RIVER FOREST, Ill. (AP) -- Larry Hull knew exactly what he wanted. His dad was an Air Force master sergeant who worked on planes. And from the time Larry was a boy, he wanted to join the Air Force, like his dad.

But Hull wanted to fly.

"Flying and flying in the Air Force went together for him," said Tyra Manning, who married Hull in the spring of 1966, while the two were students at Texas Tech University.

As soon as he finished school in 1968, Hull enlisted in the Air Force and began flying. He'd come home and say, 'You should have seen the clouds today,'" Manning recalled.

Hull understood he'd wind up in Vietnam. In the summer of 1970, he went to war.

Again, facing the dangers of combat, he made clear what he wanted. He told his wife he wished to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

This Veterans Day weekend, that request will finally be granted, 35 years after he was shot down in Laos, where his body remained with the scorched wreckage of his plane until this year.

A memorial service at Arlington on Monday will mark the end of a long journey for Manning and daughter Laura Hull. Larry Hull's fellow soldiers will be there, too, finally able to say goodbye to their fallen comrade.

For one of those men, the service also is a chance to put away feelings that he somehow failed his friend when he couldn't bring his body home.

Manning knew her husband was flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and that the flights involved reconnaissance. What she didn't know was that he'd volunteered for the highly classified "Prairie Fire" unit, where he commanded the planes and helicopters that dropped Special Forces teams behind enemy lines and pulled fighters from the jungle to safety.

Unlike some other reconnaissance flights that typically flew no lower than 1,500 feet, these pilots flew as low as 50 feet, sometimes so low that tree limbs scraped the bellies of their planes.

"We had to find these guys in the jungle and we had to get right at the tree tops," said Tom Yarborough, a retired Air Force colonel who trained Hull and flew with him until the day he died.

On Feb. 19, 1971, Hull's unit was searching for the crew of an American helicopter that had been shot down. Yarborough had been flying above the soldiers who were on the ground fighting their way toward the wreckage, and in the afternoon it was Hull's turn.

"There was a heavy machine gun up on the slope; it had fired a couple of times," said Yarborough, who now works in Arlington, Va. "I told Larry about that gun, said, 'He's up there and he's firing.' That was the gun that shot him down."

The 25-year-old pilot died instantly, his body trapped behind the engine of his plane. A sergeant with him also died.

When a recovery team arrived at the scene, they were able to pull the body of the other man from the wreckage, Yarborough recalled. But with the enemy closing in and Hull's body pinned inside the cockpit, there was only time to grab one of Hull's dog tags and leave.

Flying over the site a few days later, Yarborough spotted enemy soldiers at the crash site. He could only imagine they were taking his friend's belongings.

Angered, he led another attempt to recover Hull's body. But when he shot a smoke rocket to mark the site for other members of the team, he accidentally struck the plane. It burst into flames.

With that, Yarborough had to do something unthinkable - leave his comrade's body behind.

"It's such an unwritten covenant among all of us that you would never go off and leave one of your buddies, either wounded or killed, if you could help it," Yarborough said.

Manning never knew the details of her husband's death.

In fact, because the unit was so secret and much of the information about it remained classified long after the war ended, she never talked to or even knew about any of its members. "I communicated solely with representatives of the military and I did that regularly," she said.

There wasn't time to dwell on it. She had to raise a daughter who was not yet 2, go on with her education and find a job.

"I was pretty focused," she said.

She moved from Texas to Kansas to finish school and begin her teaching career. There was a brief, second marriage. She later moved to Illinois, where she spent 12 years as superintendent of an elementary school district in the Chicago suburb of River Forest.

In 1993, the Air Force called her with news that farmers just inside Laos, along the Vietnam border, had found some human bones and Hull's other dog tag. Tests using a DNA sample given by Hull's mother confirmed the identification.

With the news, Manning contacted the man who had packed Hull's belongings and sent them to her 22 years earlier.

"He said, 'I have the name of someone you should really talk to,'" she recalled.

It was Yarborough.

Yarborough knew Hull had a wife and daughter, but never could bring himself to contact them.

"Because of the burning of that airplane, I had my own demons I was dealing with," he said.

But he had written a book, "Da Nang Diary," an account of his days with "Prairie Fire" that included the story of Hull's death. When he finally talked to Manning, he asked her to read the book before the two discussed her dead husband.

"He told me that I might not ever want to speak to him after I read the book," said Manning.

Manning, though, was comforted by the stories about how comrades teased her husband, named him Woodstock after the "Peanuts" comic strip character and put Woodstock decals on his helmet. And she was eager for the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with her daughter and Yarborough.

Meanwhile, Hull's remains stayed in Laos. After years of negotiations with the Laotian government, U.S. officials were allowed to go to the site in May and recover what they could.

On Monday, the journey ends.

"I'm not sure if I like the word 'closure.' Laura and I have gone on with our lives," Manning said. "But this is a kind of peace, of having the opportunity to have Larry's remains come home and to have it finished."

And Yarborough hopes he can put to rest his guilt.

"It ate at me, it still does," he said. "That's why I want to get him home and get him a hero's funeral, so that I can get rid of that myself."

1 Lt. James Larry Hull
KIA 19 Feb 1971

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