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CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — Nearly 49 years after his plane was shot down over Cambodia in October 1964, the family of Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods reported this week that the Clarksville native’s remains had been found.
Grandson Bobby Woods told The Leaf-Chronicle 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,” Woods said Tuesday. “Today is my daughter’s 5th birthday and we get this news that they found my grandfather. I just can’t believe it.”
Szymanski confirmed the news by phone.
“I still can’t process this,” she said. “It’s like, am I really hearing this after more than 48 years? They found my father?”
Staff Sgt. Woods was a soldier in 5th Special Forces Group. He was one of a crew of eight — five Air Force crew members and three soldiers from the Army — 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 between what was then South Vietnam and Cambodia.
The aircraft was hit by enemy fire and crashed near the resupply point as soldiers on the ground looked on. No parachutes were seen leaving the plane, which was destroyed by fire except for the tail section.
Subsequent searches located seven bodies, but Woods was not found. Details of how his remains ultimately were located were not immediately available.
'I thought I would die not knowing'
Family members were relieved to finally find out what happened to Woods, but they struggled to make sense of something they weren’t sure they would ever hear.
“I still can’t comprehend that this is really happening,” Szymanski said. “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.’”
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.”
His front yard on Circle Drive is dominated by 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.
Steve’s memories include a vivid recollection of the day in 1963 when his father left home for the last time.
“We were living out on Dover Road with my mom and two sisters,” he said. “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.”
He also remembers the notifications his mother received later.
“My mom got two telegrams. One in 1964 that said he was missing, and another one in 1965 that said he was (presumed) dead.”
'I never gave up'
The intervening years were difficult. His mother raised three children by herself. 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, but he never did. He bolstered his hope with prayer.
“I got down on my knees,” he said. “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.”
Family members have been told there could be a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in the springtime. Arlington is 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.
Coincidentally, his father’s unit, 5th Special Forces Group, has planned its reunion in nearby Oak Grove this weekend. Steve Woods plans to go, and he wonders if there might be some 5th Group veterans there who remember his dad and might be able to share a memory or two.
That would add one more layer of serendipity to a week that happens to coincide with National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday, 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.
Currently, nearly 1,650 Vietnam-era service members remain unaccounted for, including 27 from Tennessee. But those numbers have dwindled substantially in recent years as DNA evidence has made it easier to match the missing with family members longing for one final answer.