Dallas Morning News: After 47 years, the daughter of a pilot killed in action waits for answers
It is not easy to write a letter about your dead father to the president.
But when it’s been almost 47 years since Larry Whitford died in a plane crash over Laos and the agency charged with getting him home says there’s too much red tape in the way to get to his remains right now, you have to talk to the boss.
So for the past few weeks, Nancy Eger has relived that cold, rainy November day in Fort Smith, Ark., when two men in dress blues came to the house and told her mother that her 40-year-old husband was missing in action.
She’s recalled the days when her mother wouldn’t come out of her room, paralyzed as she sank into depression.
And she’s remembered the years in Dallas when her mother traded private grief for public advocacy: the weekends with grandparents while her mother was in Washington, the turns in front of local news cameras and the sweltering afternoons spent in booths at the State Fair of Texas.
But after weeks of crafting her plea and several rounds of proofreading by other Vietnam War pilots, all Nancy can do now is hope President Barack Obama reads it.
Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the administration “regularly raises the issue of full accounting for all service members with the Government of Laos.”
Nancy believes that if the president knows about the sacrifice her father made when his F-100 Super Sabre crashed Nov. 2, 1969, then he’ll be thinking about him when he becomes the first sitting president to visit Laos in September.
Maybe then he’ll make a point of asking the Lao to let more recovery specialists into the country. Maybe then they’ll make it easier to dig up remains of the hundreds more waiting to come home.
Maybe then Nancy can make good on her promise to her mother eight years ago that she’d finish the work they started and bring her father back.
“I want to go to Arlington National Cemetery and do it right, have the full military funeral,” she said. “I want it like it should’ve been.”
On Nov. 7, 1953, Patrice Joan Lee married Larry Whitford in the Rockwall County Courthouse.
The girl from nearby Greenville was 23 years old and beautiful, with dark brown curls and a smile that lit up her eyes when he made her laugh. The clean-cut 24-year-old from Iowa also knew how to dance without stomping on her feet, which was nice.
They didn’t stay in Texas long. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, which meant they would call many places home over the next 16 years as he bounced from base to base.
Winter greeted them at Kincheloe Air Force Base on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nancy and her brother, Larry Jr., were born in Madison, Wis. They grew up making new friends in places like Homestead, Fla., and Bunker Hill, Ind., and got their first passport stamps when they left for Wethersfield, England.
Larry usually got up around 5 a.m. to kick off a 12-hour day. Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks training at the next base over.
But the couple found time for each other. They loved to throw parties and invite other families on the base. The adults would puff cigars and everyone chowed down on shrimp and oysters.
Larry knew how to make romantic gestures count, too. Once after getting back from a month in Turkey, he put on Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love” and asked for Jo’s hand.
“I came out of my room to come greet my dad and found them dancing,” Nancy said. “And I thought, ‘That’s really cool. I’m not interrupting. In a world where people are fighting over stupid stuff, here are two people who love each other.’”
The Vietnam War had no problem interrupting their time together, though. By the time Larry made it over in February 1969, it had already claimed the lives of more than 30,000 men and the presidency of the man who sent many of them there.
He never complained. When he got the orders, the family was back stateside in Fort Smith, within a day’s drive from Jo’s parents in Muldrow, Okla. If anything happened, they’d at least be close to family.
“I’ll be back by Christmas,” he told Nancy and her brother. “Write me.”
They did, twice a week, about the goings-on in second and third grade.
Larry wrote back with encouragement to get through math tests and instructions to their mother on how to fix the leaking fridge.
He never mentioned the danger he faced daily over Laos, flying fast and low with eyes peeled for targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Nancy had no idea he led the elite “Misty” unit charged with disrupting enemy supply lines. The unit recorded a 28 percent casualty rate.
But he didn’t have to tell his wife about the hell he was going through when she came to see him during a rest and recuperation period.
She came back home and told Nancy he looked like he’d aged 20 years.
It took a moment for 11-year-old Nancy to absorb what the Air Force messengers were telling their mother about their father’s crash.
If he was on the ground, he was coming home, right?
But when Nancy saw the younger airman at the door straining to keep his composure as her mother’s face flooded with tears, she understood.
“That evening was so lonely because she just went in her room and barricaded herself,” Nancy said. “She called my grandparents to watch us and we just sat together in shock.”
Jo wasn’t the same for a while.
She still got Nancy and Larry Jr. off to school in the mornings and cooked them dinner in the evenings, but she spent most of her day locked in the bedroom.
Nancy’s grandparents did the best they could to help her heal, but a black poodle puppy named Suzy could never replace Larry.
Jo tried drowning the pain in alcohol and nicotine, but then Nancy buried her bottles and cigarettes in the backyard.
“She came into the kitchen saying, ‘Where’s my stuff?’” Nancy said. “And I told her it was in the backyard because I didn’t want to lose her, too.”
After about a year, the old Jo, aggrieved but unbowed, re-emerged.
She got a secretarial job with Richardson ISD and a house in Far North Dallas.
She found other women like her, widows in limbo, with Dallas Cares, and together they began calling for a full accounting of the men missing over there.
She found purpose in organizing fundraisers and passing out nickel bracelets. When the North Vietnamese listed the POWs still alive and their husbands weren’t mentioned, she found solace in her newfound sisters.
“I miss those women,” said Sallie Stratton, one of the group’s co-founders. “We were each other’s lifelines.
“I think Jo was one of the optimistic ones, like me, too. She had faith.”
But Larry Whitford’s training had never touched on living through a plane crash at 400 miles per hour.
No one knows why Whitford and his co-pilot, Capt. Patrick Carroll, went down on the morning of Nov. 2, 1969. Sorties scrambled when they didn’t report back but found no signs of life.
There were no bodies near pieces of wreckage found a week later.
Nancy remembers her mother clinging to hope for years that Larry was alive in a POW camp and that the North Vietnamese were just trying to gain leverage in peace talks when they didn’t put him on their lists.
Another Misty pilot dismissed the possibility.
“We were told that if we got captured, we’d be tortured and killed,” Alan Robinson said recently. “There was no way they were going to haul us all the way to Hanoi.”
When the war ended in 1975 and he didn’t come home, Jo’s fiction began to unravel.
She continued the trips to Washington and the interviews with local media, but the stubborn lack of answers from the government started to eat away at her optimism.
She still considered the Dallas Cares women friends, but their bonds centered on work that only brought them frustration.
In 1979, the military sent her a request to declare Larry killed in action so she could receive survivor’s benefits. It forced her to consider whether she could accept that he was never coming home.
She called Nancy, by then 21 and a student at what was then North Texas State University, to break the news.
“She said, ‘I think I’m going to do it,’ Nancy said. “And I could just hear it in her voice like ‘I can’t do this anymore; how long can we possibly stand before we move on?’”
Jo never fully recovered.
She had lost the person she loved most and that pain came through in her parenting.
As a teenager, Nancy would endure lectures about responsibility after breaking curfew for a date or a night out with friends, but she knew why her mother was upset.
“After my dad went missing, she realized how fragile everything was,” Nancy said. “She had a real fear of losing one of her kids, too. When she tried to rein me in, it was always based in fear.”
In 2003, those fears were confirmed. Larry Jr. died of coronary artery disease at 47, just seven years older than his father was.
After another rough year, Jo revealed a side of herself not seen in decades. She began calling her daughter, by then an artist in suburban Atlanta, almost every day to tell her how she was feeling and discuss the latest misadventures of her Far North Dallas neighbors.
Most of the conversations stuck to local politics or the storm of acorns pattering her roof, thanks to her next-door neighbor’s new oak tree. But occasionally she’d meander into a confession.
“She told me, totally unprompted, that in that first year after my dad went missing, she used to get us off to school and then go cry in her closet until we got home,” Nancy said. “It was just such a departure from the ‘We’re not talking about this’ way she’d always been about it.”
The revelations awakened Nancy’s curiosity. Her mother had cut off contact with all of the advocacy groups when Larry went KIA, but the National League of POW/MIA Families still sent her an invitation each year to its annual meeting in Washington.
When the letter came in 2008, Nancy asked her mother if she wanted to go. Jo wasn’t interested — she’d already been to so many — but she told Nancy to go without her.
“It was just time,” Nancy said. “Every year before then I’d say, ‘No, not now.’ But I had to know if anything had changed in 30 years.”
She got a bombshell. After a couple of days of speeches and sightseeing, she and her husband went to her appointment with a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency caseworker.
They introduced themselves, and then he turned his laptop screen around and revealed a photo of Larry’s crash site taken in 1995. She had never seen it.
There wasn’t much left, just engine parts surrounded by yellow caution tape. But his remains had to be nearby.
“It was so sad and weird and bittersweet at the same time,” Nancy said. “We’d found him.”
Recovery teams have been back to southern Laos searching for Larry Whitford four times since 1995.
In 2005, a man identified in military documents as Mr. Thot told a team he recalled seeing a plane crash near his village around November 1970. One pilot who ejected was captured and taken to a nearby hospital, he said, while another found dead at the crash site was buried close by.
But detailed surveys of where Mr. Thot pointed the recovery workers found nothing. In 2007 and 2009, teams searched the vicinity and reached the same conclusion.
In 2012, a team found and photographed a penlight and a .38-caliber cartridge matching the sidearm that airmen in Southeast Asia carried during the Vietnam War.
But there are no certain leads, and when Nancy met with her caseworker again in late June, he said there were no plans to return this year. Teams were busy at other sites to the north.
That didn’t stop her work. She wrote to Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a Vietnam POW himself, about getting the president’s attention. He enlisted support from other advocates, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Whether or not her letter reaches the Oval Office, she hopes the president’s trip to Laos on Sept. 6 will bring renewed attention to the POWs left behind.
But only 23 recovery teams are tasked with retrieving about 30,000 American service members from battlefields across the globe.
World War II gravesites under threat from resort construction in Saipan come before remains safely buried in Laos villages. Cases like Larry Whitford’s, with no definite target and extensive use of helicopters — a practice the Lao restrict to a certain number of “blade hours” per year — are harder to authorize when there are other sites nearby that teams can reach by truck.
And that’s alright. Even if Nancy got everything she could ever want — the body intact, the full military funeral in Arlington National Cemetery, the 21-gun salute with jets flying overhead — her mother wouldn’t get back those lost years of grief.
The day she saw the photo of her father’s crash site, Nancy made a promise to her mother that she’d see things through.
“She told me, ‘Burying him here is your responsibility now,’” Nancy said. “And it’s hard. It’s a heavy burden. But I can carry it.”
Jo Whitford died in 2010, a beloved mother and devoted Richardson ISD employee for more than 20 years.
She never replaced the love she found in the Rockwall County Courthouse all those years ago. Like her son before her, she died from coronary artery disease — a broken heart.