CLARKSVILLE, TENN. -- The family of a Vietnam-era 5th Special Forces Group soldier, Clarksville native Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods, reported on Tuesday that his remains had been found, nearly 49 years after his plane was shot down over Cambodia in Oct. 1964.
Grandson Bobby Woods told The Leaf-Chronicle late Tuesday afternoon that his aunt, Lisa Szymanski of Fort Myers, Fla., had been contacted by representatives of the Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch in Fort Knox, Ky., and informed of the find.
"It's overwhelming," said Bobby Woods. "Today is my daughter's 5th birthday and we get this news that they found my grandfather. I just can't believe it."
'All this time'
Szymanski confirmed the news by phone at approximately 7:15 p.m.
"I still can't process this," Szymanski said of the find. "It's like, am I really hearing this after more than 48 years? They found my father?
"I still can't comprehend that this is really happening. God, I really thought I would die not knowing.
"What really hurt me, when I hung up the phone after talking to the lady from the casualty morgue, was thinking, "Oh, my God, he's been in that plane all this time."
All but one
Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods was one of a crew of eight - five Air Force crewmembers and three Army personnel - aboard a Fairchild C-123 "Provider," which took off from Na Trang on Oct. 24, 1964 to conduct a resupply mission for ground forces operating near the border of then-South Vietnam and Cambodia.
The aircraft was hit by enemy fire and crashed near the resupply point, observed by soldiers on the ground. No parachutes were seen leaving the plane, which was completely destroyed by fire except for the tail section.
Subsequent searches located seven bodies, but Woods was not found.
In Clarksville, Steve Woods, who was 7 years old the last time he saw his father, called Tuesday, "the happiest day of my entire life.".
In his front yard on Circle Drive, there stands a memorial to his father with two flagpoles - one bearing the American flag and the other a black-and-white POW/MIA flag. It is a testament to the persistence of memory and the power of hope beyond hope.
We were living out on Dover Road with my mom and two sisters," said Steve, recounting his last memory of his father in 1963. "The thing that I remember was I was playing on the front porch.
"My dad came out of the house with his uniform on and his duffel bag and that's when he said he had to leave."
"My mom got two telegrams. One in 1964 that said he was missing, and another one in 1965 that said he was dead."
'I never gave up'
Steve Woods remembered the intervening years and the hard job his mother had in raising three children as the years slid by and no definitive word ever came, leaving the wound open and the questions unanswered.
"Mom passed away in 1994," Steve said as the tears came.
"I would give anything in the world if my mom could be part of this."
He gathered himself and said, "I know she is."
Others in the family gave up thinking that his father would ever be found, Steve said, insisting he didn't and telling how he begged Heaven for one thing.
"I got down on my knees," said Steve, a deeply religious man. "I said, 'Before I leave this old world, I want my dad's remains to be brought back so I can lay him to rest.'
"I never gave up on that. I held onto that. After all these years, I can close the chapter on the book of his life. The precious Lord gave me a miracle"
The word the family received is that there is supposed to be a funeral at Arlington Cemetery in the springtime. Arlington is currently backlogged by months, but Steve says he doesn't mind and considers it right that his father should be laid to rest with those he died with on that plane that went down so long ago, a half a world away.
Coincidentally, his father's unit, 5th Special Forces Group, is having its reunion in nearby Oak Grove this weekend. Steve Woods wonders if there might be some among the 5th Group veterans who remember his dad, and he hopes to be able to meet someone who might be able to share a memory or two.
It would indeed add another layer of serendipity to a week that just happens to coincide with National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday, the third Friday in September, set aside to honor those who have yet to make the journey home.
With this latest find, there remains only one Clarksville Vietnam-era MIA left to be brought back - Sgt. Donald Peter Gervais, who has been missing since May 1968.