Sunday, November 12, 2006

RIVER FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Larry Hull knew exactly what he wanted.

His father 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 father.

But the young man wanted to fly.

“Flying and flying in the Air Force went together for him,” said Tyra Manning, who married 1st Lt. Hull in the spring of 1966, while the two were students at Texas Tech University.

As soon as he finished school in 1968, Lt. Hull enlisted in the Air Force and began flying. He understood that he’d wind up in Vietnam. In the summer of 1970, he went to war.

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

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

A memorial service in Arlington today will mark the end of a long journey for Mrs. Manning and daughter Laura Hull. Lt. Hull’s fellow soldiers will be there, too, finally able to say goodbye to their fallen comrade.

Mrs. Manning knew that 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.

On Feb. 19, 1971, Lt. Hull’s unit was searching for the crew of an American helicopter that had been shot down. The 25-year-old pilot died instantly after his plane also was shot down, trapping him behind the engine. A sergeant with him also died.

Mrs. 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, continue her education and find a job.

“I was pretty focused,” she said.

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

With the news, Mrs. Manning contacted the man who had packed Mr. Hull’s belongings and sent them to her 22 years earlier. Meanwhile, Lt. 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.

Today, the journey ends.

“I’m not sure if I like the word ‘closure.’ Laura and I have gone on with our lives,” Mrs. 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.”

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