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Honoring local fallen hero

By Justin Reedy

When the men in white Navy dress uniforms came to her door, Margie Fullerton thought she knew what to expect.

But she was only half right.

The Naval officers hadn't come to her house to say her husband, Frank, had been killed in Vietnam. Instead, they reported that Frank's plane had been lost in combat and he was missing in action.

"When the commanding officer of the base drives up with the chaplain, you know what's happening," Margie recalled. "You think the worst. I said, ?Is he?' They said no, that he was just MIA."

Fullerton's wife was too distraught to tell their three children, 11-year-old Frank Jr., 8-year-old Linda and 7-year-old Gail, until later, so the kids wound up spending the night at a friend's house.

"We knew something was up, but we didn't know what," said Frank Jr., who is now 46 and lives in Salem, Ore. "I had some nightmares that night."

Thirty-five years after that fateful knock, on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, a memorial to Fullerton was unveiled Thursday at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro. Family, Navy men who served with him, and dignitaries gathered to reflect on his loss and to honor him.

Down in the weeds

Fullerton, a Jonesboro native, was a bomber pilot on the USS Bon Homme Richard, which had deployed in January 1968 to the South China Sea as part of the Vietnam War. After several months of combat actions, including ground support for the Marines entrenched at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive, Fullerton's squadron shifted to a new mission: interdicting enemy truck convoys carrying supplies from North to South Vietnam.

On the night of July 27, 1968, Fullerton and his wingman in their A-4F Skyhawks took off from the carrier's deck into the muggy night air and headed for North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hunting supply convoys was a dangerous mission, since aircraft in that era had to rely on the pilot's skill for bombing accuracy rather than computer guidance, and because of that had to fly low to the ground and expose themselves to enemy fire.

"You had to go down into the weeds," explained Cmdr. Tom Schaaf, Fullerton's commanding officer in VA-93, one of the carrier's bombing squadrons. "You're exposed when you do that. It was more dangerous flying at night, but it was essential to the mission of supply interdiction."

Fullerton's wingman stayed above and behind the pilot as he made his bombing run. After seeing Fullerton's bombs drop and explode, his wingman saw a secondary explosion moments later, and afterwards wasn't able to raise the pilot on the radio.

?I knew he was a goner'

Back on board the Bon Homme Richard, Fullerton's bunkmate, then-Cmdr. David Rogers heard the news and assumed the worst.

"When I heard, I felt sorrow, and remorse," said Rogers, who retired as a rear admiral many years later. "And I also felt urgency, because I knew I had a mission to go on that day and I had to go and do it."

Rogers and the rest of Fullerton's fellow aviators had to stay optimistic and believe that the downed pilot would be found. Pilots searched the area for days, hoping to catch a glimpse of his aircraft's wreckage or hear a radio signal from the man, but never saw any sign of him. They even dropped low enough to the ground to expose themselves to anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles to look for their friend and comrade.

After a while it began to sink in that Fullerton wouldn't be found, but it didn't take Rogers that long to realize the harsh reality of the situation.

"I think I knew right away," Fullerton's friend recalled. "There was too short a time between the bombs dropping and that second explosion. It just seemed very improbable that he would have been able to eject in that short amount of time. When I heard what had happened, I knew he was a goner."

That left Rogers in charge of the grisly task of rounding up Fullerton's personal effects and organizing them for shipment back home. Despite having to face that disturbing duty, Rogers didn't really have enough time to dwell on Fullerton's disappearance. He and the rest of VA-93 were flying three combat missions each day n a 15-hour marathon session with only coffee and food breaks in between.

"Between the noise and the heat and the psych of preparing for the next mission, the loss of a squadron mate was profound, but you couldn't dwell on it," Rogers said. "It really wasn't until after, when we came off the line for repairs and maintenance for a few days, that I had a chance to reflect."

Missing in action

It was tough losing a friend like Fullerton, his comrades say, since he was a great pilot and a wonderful person.

"He was very calm, solid, not excitable," Schaaf said. "This is what you wanted in a pilot."

Fullerton's dry sense of humor made him fun to be around, Rogers said, and though he had been given extra duties as the squadron's administrative officer he didn't let it get to his head.

"Frank was one of the really good guys who didn't have a bad bone in his body," the aviator remembered. "He was a family man and a very good friend. He was the kind of person you'd want as a forever friend."

Rogers believed that Fullerton had been hit during the 30-degree dive of his bombing run and just continued into the ground, killing the pilot on impact. But Fullerton's family was left with the uncertainty of their patriarch being labeled as missing in action.

"From our perspective, there wasn't a lot of closure because he was MIA," Frank Jr. remarked. "A lot of families were lobbying to get their loved ones designated as killed in action so they could start collecting social security benefits."

Even though the family feared the worst n that Fullerton had died when his plane went down or a short time later n Margie was still hopeful that her husband would one day return.

"She used to write to the North Vietnamese prisons to try to get in touch with him, in case he was a prisoner of war," Frank Jr. recalled. "The whole time, we had these ups and downs, wondering if he was a prisoner, and then he wouldn't be in a group of prisoners that was released. Basically, it was a realization that occurred over time."

Fullerton, a lieutenant commander when his plane disappeared, was later honored by the Navy with a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with five clusters. He was also promoted to commander, and later to captain.

Remembering a hero

Nearly a decade after his plane was lost over North Vietnam, Fullerton was declared killed in action by the U.S. military. He was eventually honored with a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery and had his name inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

But Fullerton's family got a pleasant surprise earlier this year when they found out that the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association wanted to honor the fallen veteran with a memorial in his hometown of Jonesboro. Since the news came out of the blue 35 years after Fullerton had been lost, the family was a bit skeptical.

"When I first heard about it, I thought for a minute it might be a scam," said Frank Jr.

But a check of the AVVBA's background showed that they had created similar memorials all across the metro area for local Vietnam veterans killed in combat. As the organization unveiled the memorial Thursday, Frank Jr. and the rest of the Fullerton family were overwhelmed by the gesture. The AVVBA, a totally volunteer organization, raised the money for the memorial and the dedication ceremony on its own.

"There was a memorial service (for Fullerton) held on the base where we lived, but that's what the military has to do," the pilot's son said. "That's what made this special for us. They didn't have to do any of this."

Though much of Fullerton's family still lives in California or is now in Oregon, some of his descendants live in the Atlanta area, including his younger sister, 65-year-old Jenny Brown of Locust Grove. Having a memorial to visit will mean a lot to Fullerton's relatives near and far.

"They never got any remains, and they never had a burial," said Mike Fleming, the memorial chairman of the AVVBA. "This memorial is their chance for closure."

The plaque bears Capt. Fullerton's name, and a brief explanation of how he gave his life in service to the country. Below that, on the granite base holding the plaque, is etched one final tribute to the man described by his friends and family as a warrior, a patriot and a great friend.

"To those who fight for it," the inscription reads, "life has a flavor the protected never know."