WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Alice Willard had a story to tell, and she wanted to share it.
She had newspaper clippings, family photos, a 50-year-old letter and a worn, silver POW/MIA bracelet engraved with the name of a warrior whose plane was shot down during the Vietnam War spread out across her dining-room table to help her tell it.
That airman, Col. Edgar Felton Davis, was her brother-in-law. He had only recently been laid to rest after having been officially listed as missing in action for nearly a half-century, and Willard felt he was due some recognition. Especially when his long-standing ties to the area were considered.
But before she could start, Willard made a small — and wholly unnecessary — advance apology for the tears that filled her eyes and a story that she feared might not come out exactly the way she intended.
“Sometimes my short-term memory may not be so good,” she said. “But that day in 1968 is as clear as a bell.”
A military family
The first clippings showed Davis’ obituary, a few paragraphs of just-the-facts information in tiny print, and a larger story from his hometown paper that provided the details of his homecoming earlier this month when his remains were flown to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Hundreds turned out to watch the procession from the airport to Goldsboro, where Davis was born and raised. Firefighters saluted from overpasses as an Air Force honor guard accompanied his flag-draped coffin to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
“Seeing all those children standing there at attention when the (procession) went by … that got to me,” she said.
Willard first met Davis when he was a student at N.C. State University, not long after he’d starting dating her sister Sue. (Their maiden name is Hightshoe. “Not too many of those around,” Willard said.)
The short version of the story is that Sue and Davis fell in love and married. Davis accepted a commission from the Air Force, became a navigator and they became a military family with all the sacrifice that entails.
Davis was stationed in Maine in 1968 when he received his orders for Vietnam, Willard said.
“He must have known something because he moved Sue and the kids back to Winston-Salem, where she had roots,” Willard said.
They bought a house in the Konnoak neighborhood, and Davis was able to help settle his family before shipping out in July. Willard — Al to family — drove them to the airport in Greensboro. “It was July. Maybe even July 4. He said, ‘Al, thank you for bringing me. You can come get me when I come back.”
That return trip wasn’t to be. A few short months later, on Sept. 17, 1968, the RF-4C Phantom fighter-bomber that the 32-year-old Davis was onboard was shot down by ground anti-aircraft artillery over Laos during a reconnaissance mission.
Air Force officers came to the family’s house in to break the news in person, Willard said. As soon as she heard, Sue called Alice at work and asked her if she could come over. Willard sat with her baby sister into the evening and tried her best to be a source of comfort.
“She cooked two pies and supper, just as stoic as she could be,” Willard said. “She was as military as he was.”
After the initial shock of learning that Davis’ plane had been shot down, information became scarce.
Sue Davis, still the stoic, mostly kept to herself and tried to remain strong for her three children. (Their two sons grew up to become Air Force officers just like their father.)
She also became close with other families with loved ones who were missing or who had been taken prisoners of war, in particular the wife of Norman Gaddis, a Winston-Salem man who was held captive by the North Vietnamese for nearly six years after his plane was shot down May 12, 1967 over Hanoi.
Because it was wartime — and she was dealing with the military — Davis learned little about her husband’s fate. The Air Force, Willard said, wouldn’t even tell her sister what had happened to the pilot of the Phantom or where he was.
‘They found my dad’
As it turned out, the pilot, Leighton Paul, was trying to locate Davis and her family. He’d even taken out a classified ad in “The Air Force Times” newspaper trying to find them. A few years after the plane went down, Paul succeeded in contacting the family here in town.
“He sat with Sue, the kids, my husband and I and told us everything he knew,” Willard said.
Paul said that after the plane was hit, he gave the order for Davis to eject. He knew that Davis had gotten out of the plane but nothing more.
“When he heard that (Davis) had, he ejected, too,” Willard said. “Paul hung from a tree for two days before a U.S. helicopter found him. He was hurt bad.”
Ten years after Davis was reported missing in action, he was declared dead. His family held a small, private memorial service.
Sue Davis moved to Kernersville, where she lived until her children were grown and established in their careers. She moved to Morehead City in retirement and lived at the beach until she died in 2001.
All the while, the military had not given up on locating any of the estimated 1,600 American servicemen unaccounted for due to the Vietnam War.
According to the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, American and Laotian investigators visited a crash site thought to be Davis’ plane six times between 2001 and 2015 but didn’t locate Davis’ body.
Later in 2015, Laotian authorities relayed a tip from a man who said his father had buried in 1968 the remains of an American airman he had found near his home.
The man turned over bone fragments, and the military began a long process of identification using DNA.
In December, just before Christmas, the family finally heard the news that a positive identification had been made. “They called Martha (Morton), Felton’s oldest, to tell her,” Willard said. “She didn’t believe what they were saying at first. She thought it might be a scam.”
When Morton was finally convinced, she began calling the rest of the family. Willard learned from Alan Davis, one of her nephews.
“Aunt Al, they found my dad,” Willard said, recalling the conversation.
The military announced Jan. 18 that Col. Edgar Felton Davis had been found and would be returning home. He is the 27th serviceman whose remains were identified through DNA and repatriated since 1974.
A proper funeral and memorial, long overdue, was planned for earlier this month in Goldsboro after Col. Davis finally was flown home.
“Alan called me and asked how I felt about bringing Mom’s remains back from New Bern to be buried with Dad,” Willard said about her sister. “I just said, ‘Of course. That’s where she should be.’”
When Willard drew near the end of her story, she offered a fitting aside.
“I’ll be 90 next month, and sometimes I wonder ‘Why am I still here?’” she said. “Maybe to see this closure is why.”