By Justin Reedy
Clayton County residents who hear warplanes screaming overhead Thursday morning shouldn't worry about an invasion n that's just a final tribute to a fallen hero.
The planes will be passing overhead as part of the dedication ceremony of a memorial honoring Capt. Frank Eugene Fullerton, a Jonesboro native shot down over North Vietnam in 1968.
The Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association will put the memorial honoring Fullerton's sacrifice in place at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro. The association, which has about 250 members in metro Atlanta, has been placing memorials around the metro Atlanta area each year since 1987.
The idea for the memorials was developed more than 20 years ago when some local Vietnam veterans got together and decided to honor their fallen comrades, according to Mike Fleming, the memorial chairman for the AVVBA.
"The purpose of this is to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country," Fleming explained.
Fullerton is one of 403 Atlanta natives killed during the Vietnam War. During the conflict, he piloted an A-4 Skyhawk for the U.S. Navy, taking off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard.
On the night of July 27, 1968, Fullerton, then a 34-year-old lieutenant commander, took off from his carrier for a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. While on the mission the pilot and his wingman spotted an enemy supply convoy, and Fullerton moved in to attack while his partner observed.
After Fullerton dropped his payload of bombs, his wingman saw an explosion and then lost radio and radar contact with him. Planes from Fullerton's carrier group, led by Cmdr. Tom Schaaf, conducted numerous low-level searches for the downed pilot.
"They thought so highly of Frank Fullerton, they made several serious searches, but could not raise him on the radio," Fleming said. "They weren't allowed to fly below 3,000 feet because of surface-to-air missiles, but they did it anyway while they looked for him."
Fullerton was then declared missing in action by the U.S. military. He was later promoted to the rank of commander and then to captain, as well as being awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with five clusters, before being declared killed in action on Jan. 19, 1978.
Fullerton seemed a perfect fit for the AVVBA's yearly Vietnam veteran memorial, Fleming said n he was a natural leader at Jonesboro High School, and excelled as a pilot to earn a spot on an aircraft carrier. On top of that, Fullerton wouldn't have been able to be a pilot if he went into the Navy now n he had no college degree, and had a metal plate in his head from where he was kicked by a mule as a child on his parents' Clayton County farm.
Despite Fullerton's obvious credentials for being honored by such a memorial, his younger sister, 65-year-old Jenny Brown of Locust Grove, was surprised to hear that the AVVBA had selected him for this year's memorial.
"I couldn't believe it," Brown said. "I think it's wonderful."
Some of Fullerton's other family members, including his son, Frank Jr., who was 11 when his father was shot down, and his widow, Margie, will be traveling from Oregon and California, which will be the first time Brown has seem some of them in more than 20 years.
"It's like a family reunion for us," she said. "It's going to be beautiful."
Having a physical memorial for Fullerton, whose body was never recovered, will mean a lot to the downed pilot's family.
"They never got any remains, and they never had a burial," Fleming said. "This memorial is their chance for closure."
Thursday's ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m. in front of the Banke Justice Center, 9151 Tara Blvd., Jonesboro, will include flyovers by a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter from the 1st Aviation Group of the Georgia Army Guard, a C-130 transport plane from 94th Airlift Wing and an F/A-18 Hornet fighter/bomber from Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-203.
Radio personality Moby will sing the national anthem, and there will also be an invocation and a presentation of colors by a military unit. Schaaf, Fullerton's commanding officer in Vietnam, and Ret. Adm. David Rogers, Fullerton's former roommate, will both speak at the event.
Staff writer Ed Brock contributed to this article.