In May 1964, Army Staff Sergeant Lawrence Woods and his wife, Francis, stood on their porch in Clarksville, Tennessee, with their three children. Woods, with his duffel bag packed for deployment, was waiting for a friend to pick him up. He was shipping out for Vietnam.
It wasn’t the first time he had left for war. Woods had tried to enlist in 1940, but at the tender age of 15, the Army sent him home with the invitation to come back when was older. In 1944, he turned 18 and became a soldier. He also served in the Korean War, but this war would be different.
“That was the last time we saw him,” Lisa Szymanski said. She was 13 at the time. Her brother, Steven was 7. Their youngest sister, Deborah, was just 3.
“The best thing I can remember about Daddy was that he was a clown. We did a lot of laughing,” Szymanski said. “He loved to cook. He really was a homebody for us.”
The laughing stopped October 24, 1964.
Woods, 39, served with the 5th Special Forces Group and had volunteered for a resupply mission to a remote base camp near Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. The men living at that camp in Bu Prang were his Special Forces brothers.
The Air Force C-123 Provider aircraft Woods was traveling in was hit by enemy fire and crashed. The remains of everyone aboard the plane were recovered—except for Woods.
Nearly 50 years later, Szymanski remembered that before a police officer pulled her out of school and drove her home to find military cars in the driveway, her mother had received a telegram with the news of her father’s death.
“Back then, they didn’t even come to your door,” she said. “My momma got her first information that he was killed from a telegram.” Two days later, the Army officials came to the door.
“She was crying. I don’t know if it was the chaplain—I still to this day don’t know who it was—that told me that he was missing in action and they were doing their best to try and find him and his other crew (members).”
She slept with her father’s picture every night after that until she said it drove her mother crazy. “She finally just had to put it up so high I couldn’t reach it. It was hard.”
If it was hard for 13-year-old Szymanski, it was devastating for her 7-year-old brother. “My brother, he has all the telegrams that Momma got,” she said.
The shared grief brought brother and sister closer together—until last September.
“When I got the notice in September that they had found (his) remains, something happened to my brother,” Szymanski said. “He has gone into such a deep depression.
“I didn’t realize what an impact it [had] until we got the message. This has affected him really bad.”
Teams from the United States, Cambodia and Vietnam had conducted a series of coordinated searches between 1997 and 2010, eventually excavating the wreckage and recovering Woods’ remains. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Laboratory used forensic and circumstantial evidence to confirm the remains were, in fact, Woods. The process took three years.
“They needed DNA. They had to try and track me down because they couldn’t find any of his siblings,” Szymanski said. “Luckily, he had two sisters still alive—Aunt Jewel and Aunt Rosie. We found them. Actually, my husband’s sister found them.
“I called and told them who I was and they gave DNA.”
She said her mother hadn’t kept in touch with her father’s relatives, with one exception. “It was her and Evelyn, his sister. They were the best of friends,” she said. “I think [Evelyn] introduced her to Daddy.”
When the call came, Szymanski couldn’t believe her ears. She thought it was a joke. But Karen Johnson of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky, reassured her this was no joke.
“I was still in shock. I called my husband and said, ‘I need you to do me a favor. Call this number,’” she said. “I really thought it was a joke.”
She wasn’t the only one, she discovered. It seems the daughter of the man who co-piloted the aircraft had the same thoughts. But Johnson confirmed she was serious and made arrangements to meet with Szymanski to bring her a book containing information about her father’s service and tell her what to expect regarding the funeral—a group burial for all of the men who had been on the plane when it was shot down. The solemn event took place at Arlington National Cemetery on March 21, the day before Szymanski’s birthday.
“It was the best birthday you could have ever given me,” she said. “It finally gave closure for me and my family and I was there to see my father put to rest.
“I never gave up, but you know, year after year after year goes by. …”
But that wasn’t the only gift that weekend. She and her brother discovered something they didn’t even realize they were missing—family who had traveled to the Washington area for the funeral.
“I have cousins. I mean cousins and cousins!” she said. “It was unreal.”
For Szymanski’s daughter, Christina, 33, it was the gift of insight. Though she’s a soldier’s daughter, the experience of attending her grandfather’s funeral helped her see the Army in a new light.
“She talked to this one guy, Cal, my brother’s escort (for the funeral),” Szymanski said. “They stayed up until 1:30 in the morning just talking about … the Army. It opened her eyes to something totally different. ”
When Christina was 13, her father was stationed in Florida. “She was mad at us because we uprooted her. But now she sees how close the military families are, and how respectful.”
Christina is now considering enlisting in the Army, a decision her mother isn’t over the moon about, but supports 100 percent. “If it’s her calling, we would never stop her.”
For Steven, the trip was an end to a chapter in his life that began 50 years ago, and the beginning of a new one. “He would not have missed this. He said if he’d had to crawl, he would have crawled,” Szymanski said.
Desire doesn’t always make things easier, however. Receiving the flag during the burial service caused emotions to boil over for Staff Sergeant Lawrence Woods’ only son. Knowing how upset he was, his sister reached for his hand after the service, only to find him not there.
“Stevie had gone over there to Daddy’s casket,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a lot better now.
“The saddest thing is my poor mother. She died without knowing.
“I think for the rest of us, it’s going to be OK now. Now we don’t have to wonder anymore. Now we know for sure he’s at peace. But then I think … look at the other families. Some of them are still waiting to find their loved ones.”
Her advice for the families of the 1,642 Vietnam veterans still unaccounted for: “Don’t give up. Oh my God. Do not give up.”
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.