August 7th is Purple Heart Day, a day reserved for us all to pause and honor the men and women who were wounded or who died in combat. The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration and it is one of the honors given to my late husband, 1st Lt. Larry L. Hull, after his plane was shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Purple Heart Day, along with all military remembrance days, is an opportunity to reflect on memories and share stories about the loved ones we have lost. In a way, this keeps their spirits alive in our hearts and sustains their legacies forever.
I wanted to honor Larry, my most beloved Purple Heart recipient, by sharing an article that was published in the Chicago Tribune when Larry’s remains were finally returned to me. After 35 years of not knowing whether I would ever be able to bury my husband, I was finally able to honor him with the memorial and burial he deserved when his remains were discovered and brought to me. This was an incredibly significant moment of my life, and I am so grateful to have had it immortalized by the Chicago Tribune, and it is an honor for me to now share it with all of you.
I hope that you can all take some moments to remember your own loved ones for Purple Heart Day and write their stories to keep their memories alive for future generations.
Original article by Mary Schmich at the Chicago Tribune– November 5, 2006
At last, a shred of closure
By Mary Schmich
Larry Hull loved the sky, and he loved hazel-eyed Tyra Decker.
Tyra loved Larry too, and though, like most young people, they couldn’t really imagine getting old, they liked the idea of growing old together. So when Tyra was 18 and Larry was 20, they got married in her hometown of Seminole, Texas.
Tyra wanted to be a teacher, like her mother. Larry wanted to be a pilot and follow his father into the Air Force.
“You should have seen the sky today,” Larry would exult whenever he went flying, training for his wings. “You should have seen the sky.”
The last time Tyra saw Larry was a rainy summer day in Lubbock, Texas, in an airport parking lot. The sky was gray, but she remembers blue: the blue of Larry’s Air Force uniform, the blue of the car seats in the white Chevy Impala, the blue of the checked pants their 1-year-old daughter, Laura, wore as she sat between her parents on the ride.
“Don’t come in,” Larry said.
They stood in the drizzle next to the car and talked about paying the bills while he was away and about how long the mail would take from Vietnam, the kind of small, practical chatter that keeps the word goodbye from feeling like an explosion in a heart.
Then Larry walked off to war, and Tyra drove home with her baby.
On Wednesday of this week, Tyra Manning and her daughter, Laura, will fly from O’Hare to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu to collect the remains of 1st Lt. James Larry Hull, killed Feb. 19, 1971, when his small Skymaster was shot down over a jungle ridge in Laos a few hundred yards from the Vietnam border.
At the age of 59, Manning will bring back the bones of a 25-year-old man, laying him to rest in a casket she picked out on the day this summer that two military representatives came to her Highland Park home to confirm that Larry’s remains had finally been excavated from a mangled plane on a Laotian hillside.
“I always hoped,” she said last week, her voice still throaty in that particular Texas way. “But it was hard to always believe.”
Manning–her last name is from a second marriage that didn’t last–is a woman of some importance now. She directs the master of arts in teaching program at Dominican University in River Forest. Before that, she was superintendent of the River Forest elementary school district, which was where she was working in 1993, when she got the first specific clue to how Larry died.
She had come home from a night school-board meeting, punched on her answering machine and was hanging up her coat when a voice said: We have information about your husband. Please call.
A Vietnamese civilian, she soon learned, had stumbled on a crash site just across the border in Laos and brought back some bone and a dog tag. Larry’s name was on the tag.
Later, Larry’s mother donated DNA. The bone matched.
Reliving a goodbye
U.S. officials weren’t allowed to cross the border to find out more, though, so Manning began her own search for information. It led her to Tom Yarborough, a retired Air Force colonel who had written a book that included an account of Larry’s death.
She ordered the book from Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park and the day it arrived sat down in a bookstore chair and started to read.
She had known that Larry flew missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, surveying the movement of Vietnamese troop supplies.
What she didn’t know was that he had volunteered to be part of the secret “Prairie Fire” mission, assigned to scout the dense jungle for clearings where U.S. helicopters could land to deposit and pick up special-forces soldiers fighting in Laos, behind enemy lines.
Sitting there reading, Tyra saw Larry skimming over green treetops. Saw his plane shot down, watched it spiral out of the sky toward the A Shau Valley. Saw soldiers scramble to the wreckage and carry off the body of Larry’s partner, who had been flung out of the plane.
And she saw Larry’s body crushed inside. His buddies snared one of his dog tags but, in the heavy gunfire, were unable to take more.
Four days later, she learned as she kept reading, Yarborough flew over the valley and spotted Larry’s plane, sitting upright.
Through Yarborough’s eyes, Manning watched Vietnamese soldiers dipping under the grounded wings, pilfering the cabin.
Yarborough called for a recovery team then tried to mark the plane’s location with a flare. In the mist that day, it was hard to see. The flare hit the fuselage and set Larry’s plane on fire.
There in a suburban bookstore, half a lifetime later, Tyra told Larry goodbye again.
The years passed. Occasionally in those years, as in the ones before, Manning would open an olive-brown Samsonite suitcase.
She kept Larry’s medals there, along with 21 reel-to-reel tapes he’d made from the scratchy records of fellow soldiers. Three Dog Night. Simon & Garfunkel. The Righteous Brothers.
The suitcase also held the cassettes Larry sent as letters. No more Kool-Aid in the care packages, he pleaded. Oh, and the military was going to let the guys grow sideburns!
And he would say, Tyra, keep working on that teacher’s degree.
Larry’s voice kept Tyra going long after he was gone. That’s the romantic version of what drove her. There’s a practical version too. She was a young widow with a baby daughter. What choice did she have?
In May of this year, after negotiations with the Laotian government, U.S. officials were allowed into Laos to seek the remains of Larry Hull and several other soldiers. In July, Manning found out they had found him.
Old friends emerge
Word started to get around. Larry was coming home. He’d be buried Nov. 13 at Arlington National Cemetery. Full honors. His Vietnam buddies started to call Manning and her daughter, to e-mail. One sent a photo.
The photo told her something she’d always wondered about Larry. Had he grown sideburns? He had.
Wars don’t end when they end. They play on for generations afterward. We’re in a new war now, but this old one lives on in families and in friendships, in the search for meaning and understanding and closure that never quite closes.
Recently, Manning ran across a carousel of Larry’s photo slides. Slide after slide of clouds, cumulus clouds, cirrus clouds, thunderclouds, clouds at dawn and sunset.
Looking at those clouds, she thought about how much this young man loved what he did, and she thought about why he did it in a war: because he loved the sky, yes, but also because he believed in a country that believed in freedom. Freedom of the press. Freedom of protest.
That’s as political as she gets, except to say simply, “I am so grateful that today in our country, we’ve learned to separate the warrior from the war.”
© Tyra Manning 2020