Soldier's remains found after 48 years

Sunday, September 22, 2013
Donnie Woods of Shelbyville holds a photo of his grandfather, Army Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods, while standing at Shelbyville's veterans memorial Friday. (T-G Photo by David Melson)

Even as the county remembered those missing in action, one local man's family got closure through the identification of remains of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

Donnie Woods of Shelbyville is only 33, so he never knew his grandfather, Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods, whose plane was shot down Oct. 24, 1964, with eight crew members aboard. Seven bodies were found at the time -- but not that of Staff Sgt. Woods.

"I've been doing a lot of research," said Donnie Woods. He has copies of the telegram sent in October 1964 notifying the family that the sergeant was missing in action -- and then, a few months later, the telegram telling the family his status had been changed to deceased.

Some closure

But Donnie Woods' father, Staff Sgt. Woods' son, Steve Woods, received a telegram last week informing him that the soldier's remains had at last been officially identified, after 48 years.

Donnie Woods' aunt, Lisa Szymanski of Fort Myers, Fla., told reporters that officials with the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch at Fort Knox, Ky., notified her on Tuesday that remains found at a crash site were those of Staff Sgt. Woods.

"All of my family's been waiting a long time for it," said Donnie Woods, who works at JSP in Tullahoma.

Woods was a member of the 5th Special Forces Group based at Fort Campbell, Ky., when he shipped out to Vietnam in 1963.


"This is really happening, and they really did find him after all these years," Szymanski told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Fort Myers, Fla.

Bill Costello, a spokesman for the Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., which oversees the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, confirmed that officials contacted Szymanski. Officials are trying to work out a date to brief the family about the remains.

"Until that happens, Past Conflicts doesn't consider the case as positively identified," Costello said.

"This was a great day for me," said Steve Woods, Donnie's father and the sergeant's son, who also linked to a picture on his Facebook page of Staff Sgt. Woods' name on the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

'I gotta go'

Lawrence Woods, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, left his home in Clarksville in 1963. Steve Woods remembers playing on the front porch and seeing his father walking by in full uniform.

"He told me, 'I gotta go,'" Steve Woods said. "That was the last I had seen of him."

The deployment would be the last in a military career that started when Woods was 15 and lied about his age to join the Army in 1940. After being kicked out, Woods signed up again once he reached 18 and, except for a brief period, stayed with the military thereafter.

The family received letters from their father from Vietnam but didn't know exactly what he was doing or when he was coming home.

In the air

While in Vietnam, Lawrence Woods served as a cook and medic, sometimes flying resupply flights to troops. On Oct. 24, 1964, a Fairchild C-123 Provider took off from Nha Trang Air Base on the southwest coast of the country. The crew was set to resupply ground forces operating near the border of then-South Vietnam and Cambodia.

Enemy fire struck the plane near the resupply point at Bu Prang about 100 miles northeast of Saigon. The airplane exploded during the crash. Seven crew members from California, Colorado, Maine, New York and Texas were eventually found. Woods remained missing.

"They couldn't find my father's remains because he was in the back of the plane, and that's where the plane blew up," Szymanski said.

After receiving notice of the crash and presumed death, many family members hoped Lawrence Woods would one day come home, said Szymanski, who was 13 when her father deployed.

"We always felt that maybe he was a prisoner of war," Szymanski said.


Steve Woods collected all the photographs, letters, telegrams and memorabilia of his father's in the ensuing years and built a memorial featuring two flagpoles and small plaza on his front lawn for all the soldiers still missing from the Vietnam conflict.

"I built that for my dad, but I did not build it just for him," Steve Woods said.

When the news came that his remains had been identified, memories of the man they last saw five decades ago came flooding back for Szymanski and Woods -- tales of how hard he worked in construction, his devotion to the military and his demeanor.

"Oh God, his laugh," Szymanski said. "He laughed a lot."

A funeral for Lawrence Woods is set for the spring at Arlington National Cemetery. Steve Woods doesn't mind the delay and thinks it is appropriate his father be buried with the other crew from the plane. For now, Steve Woods and Szymanski are just glad to know how their father's story ended.

"The book of my dad's life will finally be closed," Steve Woods said.

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