The love I have for our country, and for the incredibly courageous men and women who have risked and sacrificed their lives defending it, is infinite. When we think of the freedoms and quality of life that we enjoy, we should all remember that these privileges come from selfless people who dedicated their lives to protecting us and our future in the knowledge and foresight that the future they were fighting for might not include them.
You can imagine, then, how stunned I was to learn about comments allegedly made by our President about the men and women who served our country (specifically, referring to them as “suckers” and “losers”). Tears ran down my face upon hearing this, as if a spigot had been turned on. How could he possibly refer to our brave men and women in that way? Perhaps as a businessman/dealmaker he’s somehow incapable of fathoming the concept of sacrificing one’s life for something larger than oneself without receiving anything tangible in exchange.
In my world, the individual entrusted with the title “Commander in Chief,” should always aspire to set an example for the entire country of dignity, respect, and decorum. If true, such comments demonstrate the utter opposite.
And so I was inspired to put my thoughts into writing; not only to express what I feel, but also to take the opportunity to shine the spotlight onto our valiant, deserving service men and women.
The following excerpts from my first book, “Where the Water Meets the Sand,” speak to the truth of what the members of our military have endured, and how greatly their losses are felt. This excerpt focuses on my husband, 1st Lt. James L. Hull, and his death during the Vietnam War. You will see in this chapter first-hand accounts of Larry’s bravery and how much he was beloved by his colleagues, as well as a glimpse into the lasting grief that we are left to grapple with after losing our loved ones. They are not losers or suckers, but rather selfless individuals who lost their lives while protecting ours.
Tom Yarborough Colonel, USAF (Ret) Author of Da Nang Diary and A Shau Valor
“Tyra, I know exactly what happened to Larry’s plane,” Colonel Yarborough said. “I’ve written a book called Da Nang Diary about our work there. If you want, I’ll send you a copy. But after you read it, you may never want to speak to me again.”
“Of course I’ll want to speak to you again!” I was adamant. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ll send you the book. You read it,” he instructed. “The chapter titled ‘February: Valley of the Shadow of Death’ tells in detail how Larry was killed.” He paused then said, “And how his plane was destroyed. Call me if you want to talk after you’ve read it.”
The colonel asked about Laura. Larry had bragged to him about our little girl. I’d be sure to tell Laura. Before Tom and I said good- bye, I insisted that no matter what the book said, I’d call back.
I didn’t have the patience to wait for Tom’s book to arrive. The next day, I went to Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park to purchase a copy, but they didn’t have one in stock. The clerk who ordered it for me said it would be in by the end of the week.
On Friday afternoon, I got the call. Tom’s book was waiting for me at the bookstore. I left the office immediately. Anxious to read it, I sat down and turned to the index. Larry’s name had several entries next to it. As I flipped through the book, his name jumped out at me from a number of pages. Tom described him as “boyish.” I imagined Larry the same way I always saw him: blond hair, blue eyes, and an ear-to-ear grin. Tom was correct—Larry was youthfully good looking. Some Special Forces soldiers had nicknamed him “Woodstock” after the Peanuts character and pasted a Wood- stock decal on his flight helmet. According to Tom, they’d idolized Larry, partly as warrior and partly as mascot. They’d even written a poem about his first close call, when he’d flown his plane too low, brushing the tops of trees with his right wing and ending up with some tree branches and limbs stuck in the midsection.
The Ballad of Woodstock
I love to fly the Oscar Deuce from Channel one-oh-three.
I fly that dog through rain and fog in the extreme western DMZ,
And no one knows we’re fighting there ‘cept Charlie, you, and me.
So mark my words and heed them well, or you could end up like me.
I flew down low and got too slow and hit a goddamn tree!
I smiled, touched and overwhelmed with gratitude, as I read about the razzing he received from some of the Special Forces guys. Larry was with men who cared about him, I consoled myself.
I scanned each page, anxiously looking for Larry’s name. I took time to savor each detail Tom wrote about him. I knew what was coming, and I lingered over everything I read about Larry and the men he’d worked beside.
Then there it was, in the chapter Tom had told me about: the description of how Larry had been killed on a special mission over Laos, flying a Forward Air Controller (FAC), a small Cessna that sometimes flew as low as just fifty feet above the treetops.
Several pages into the chapter, he was still in the air. I felt a thrill of relief, despite knowing how the chapter would inevitably end. I flipped through a few more pages. Then came Tom’s warning to Larry to watch out for a machine gun on the ridge, while he provided intense air cover for the Bright Light Team, a special forces team dedicated to recovering POWs or downed US pilots in Laos, Cambodia, or North Vietnam. My heart clutched. Larry, turn back! I screamed silently. Please go back! Remember the machine gun on the side of the hill. Remember what Tom told you!
Four lines further down the page, Tom got a call from the Mobile Launch Team. The Bright Light Team had relayed back to them: Larry’s O-2 had been seriously hit by machine gun fire from the ridge and spun out of control to the northwest. They were unable to verify any emergency beepers, indicating there were no survivors.
No, not just like that! I shrieked to myself silently. I flipped frantically back through the pages I’d just read, looking for what I had missed. How could Larry be dead so fast? How could I lose the love of my life in just four lines?
Tom flew over Larry’s crash site and confirmed its location in a meadow in the A Shau Valley. He stood by until helicopters arrived with a Bright Light Team of twelve men. They found the damage worse than it had first appeared from above. While they were able to remove Sergeant First Class William Fernandez, they couldn’t rescue Larry’s body from the Cessna wreckage.
I reread the last few pages several times. No matter how many times I read it, it was the same. Larry was dead and had been for twenty-two years.
As I lived Larry’s plane crash through Tom’s words, I found myself wondering why I was praying for something different to happen even though I already knew the outcome. How could I do that after twenty-two years? I had no answers, only tears. Larry was dead, but I couldn’t accept it. For me, it wasn’t over.
Larry’s body had been left sitting in the cockpit of his plane in the A Shau Valley. Four days later, on February 23, Tom flew to the crash site to say a final good-bye to Larry. As he circled the meadow, he watched in horror as North Vietnamese soldiers scurried beneath the aircraft’s wing. I thought of buzzards swooping down to pick the last bits of flesh from the carcasses of cattle, rabbits, or turtles onthe highway or in the barren fields of West Texas. Tom described his fury at the thought of what the enemy soldiers might be up to, and I grew furious as I read, too. He told the pilots about seeing the enemy at the site of Larry’s downed plane. He recounted his call requesting two Cobra gunships from Quang Tri to attack the NVA soldiers around the crash site. Reading this passage, I recognized my selfishness in assuming that the pilots would try to retrieve Larry’s body at all costs. Their purpose was to destroy the enemy.
Tom wrote that it was hazy and smoky because Laotian farmers were burning off their rice fields in an age-old practice. At times, it was almost impossible to see the downed Cessna O-2 below. Tom tried to verbally mark the target next to Larry’s plane for the Cobra pilots, but due to the haze and smoke it was impossible for them to locate their target. In frustration after three failed attempts, Tom fired a smoke rocket near Larry’s right wing to mark the spot for the Cobras. As he fired and dipped his wing to release the rocket, he inadvertently hit the center of Larry’s right wing. In seconds, Larry’s plane was engulfed in an orange ball of flame and black smoke, a funeral pyre with Larry still sitting at the controls. As the Cobras radioed their condolences, Tom described moving the control stick mechanically through an aileron roll over what he thought was Larry’s final resting place.
Tom’s error was catastrophic. I recalled the lore about the Vikings, who put fallen warriors out to sea in burning boats so the smoke from the funeral pyre could carry their souls to Valhalla, and I felt comforted somehow by what Tom had inadvertently done.
Tom had told me I might never want to speak to him again. My reaction was the opposite. I wanted to meet him, and I wanted Laura to meet him. I wanted Tom to tell her what kind of a man her father was, not just as a pilot. I wanted him to tell her about Larry’s kindness, sense of humor, compassion, and honor. I wanted to write Tom, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I decided on the truth: how I’d felt when I read that he’d inadvertently burned Larry’s plane.
I reread Tom’s pages over and over, weeping silently in the bookstore. Time seemed to halt, the way it does when you go somewhere in your mind. When I finally looked down at my watch, it was late. I had a big night ahead of me. I was hosting a party for my school board, the administrators, and their spouses.
In July 1997, I learned Larry’s was one of seventy-one cases scheduled for excavation in Laos. A letter explained that thirty excavations were scheduled for each year. A trilateral excavation team made up of Vietnamese, Laotian, and American members would go in once the Laotian government granted permission. Crash site investigations began in the northern part of Laos and would work down in a southerly direction. Larry’s crash site was believed to be in the Xekong Province in Laos, two provinces south of where excavations were going on at that time. It was unknown when his crash site would be investigated. In other words, I read the letter to mean, “Don’t get your hopes up, Tyra.”
We’ve been here before, I thought to myself. Someday, Larry, you’ll come home, I promised. I’m not giving up.
In 2001, authorities finally confirmed that the skeletal remains found by the Vietnamese turtle farmer in Laos in 1993 matched Larry’s mother’s DNA. Mrs. Hull was very ill, but she and his dad had both lived long enough to hear this wonderful news. I was elated. My hope that I could keep the promise I had made to bury Larry at Arlington National Cemetery grew stronger. But the remains would stay at the joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii until the Laotian crash site could be fully excavated and Larry’s case closed. Since there was no date set for excavating the crash site yet, I had to remind myself that it could be months or years until we had a full resolution.
© Tyra Manning 2020