More than 54 years after he went missing, a Haywood County hero is returning home to his final resting place.
Capt. Frederick Mervyn Hall, better known to his friends as Fred or Freddie, served in the Vietnam War as a member of the U.S. Air Force where he was a navigator on a Phantom II jet.
On April 12, 1969, Hall and Col. Ernest Leo De Soto, his pilot, were part of a two-plane strike mission. It would be the last flight for both.
“The two Phantoms turned around and headed back to their home base,” Hall’s lifelong friend Ernie Edwards said. “They flew through about a 10 second cloud bank and only one of the Phantoms came out of the clouds. The other disappeared off the face of the earth for the next 54 years.”
According to the military’s MIA/POW accounting agency, the crash site was first located in May 1995, but extraction was not possible due to harsh weather and a considerable amount of unexploded ordinances in the area. The site was finally excavated and Hall’s identity was confirmed on March 23, 2023.
“We’ll finally get him laid to rest and paid proper respect for his ultimate sacrifice of sitting there in that cockpit in the jungle for more than a half century,” Edwards said.
Hall’s widow, Julia Coffey, called Edwards on Christmas Eve of 2022 to tell him that the aircraft had been located and they believed Hall was inside the plane.
Edwards said Hall being found is something that he has been waiting on since the day the man was reported as missing in action.
“It’s probably the single most important event of my lifetime,” he said. “I had worn his MIA bracelet for 54 years, and I didn’t think I would live long enough to see him found, identified and then brought home.”
He said this moment will help finally close a chapter for some after more than half a century.
“Bringing Freddie home is bringing closure to a lot of open wounds,” Edwards said. “Now, we know what happened to him. We don’t know why, but at least we are closing this chapter of our lives.”
The Haywood County Vietnam Memorial is in front of the Haywood County Courthouse. It lists 21 men who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the war, with Hall being the only one listed as missing in action.
“All the rest of them have been properly acknowledged and sent home for their families to lay to rest,” Edwards said. “Freddie will be the last of that group of men who went to Vietnam.”
One man who never saw Hall come home, was his father, Robert, who wrote a letter to the editor in the Jan. 28, 1974, edition of the Asheville Citizen about only portions of prisoners of war being freed following the Vietnam War.
“Those of us who wait will be satisfied with nothing less than a complete and accurate accounting of all our men,” Hall said to close out the letter. “We will continue to hope and gain strength from our prayers and prayers of others.”
Hall’s early life
Hall was the only child of Irene Hall and Robert Hall, an Irish immigrant who worked for Champion Paper. Because of this, his parents had an especially tough time with his disappearance.
“He’s been in that tropical jungle for a half a century in the cockpit of that plane,” Edwards said. “People back home have waited that same length of time for some information about if he was found, if he was a prisoner of war, if he was still MIA. When they changed the status from missing in action to killed in action ten years later, it allowed some people to get on with the rest of their lives. But not all of us have forgotten the heartbreak his parents went through. Being an only child, he was the light of their life. They don’t have broken heart as a reason on a death certificate, but they both died of a broken heart not knowing the outcome of their son.”
Edwards said he was part of the group who had to go tell his parents what had happened.
“I went with the military escort to Bob and Irene’s house to tell them that Fred was missing in action,” he said. “They never forgot who was in that house and who was the bearer of the horrible news.”
Hall went to East Waynesville Elementary and graduated from Waynesville Township High School in 1961, alongside Edwards.
During his time in high school, Hall played the flute in the marching band and orchestra. He and his family were very active in their church, First Presbyterian Church in Waynesville.
Hall didn’t have a car in high school, so Edwards would often give him rides home after band practice or football games.
“He was the last person in the world you would think would become a warrior,” Edwards said.
He described Hall as humble, quiet, easy-going and a “good-looking chick magnet.”
“I don’t remember one particular girlfriend,” Edwards said. “A lot of the girls wanted to be his girlfriend, but he was focused on his studies, on his music.”
After his time at Waynesville Township, Hall went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He was also on the orientation committee and a freshman camp counselor while there.
Chip Killian was one year behind Hall in school and described him as a good guy.
“He was just a real kind, nice guy. You can look at his picture and tell what kind of guy he was,” he said. “He was well-known and well-liked.”
The funeral service is set to take place on Oct. 10 at First Presbyterian Church of Waynesville, followed by a procession down Main Street to Green Hill Cemetery.
“It should be an event that will bring the entire community together,” Edwards said. “For me, it’s a once in a lifetime event because I’ve put my heart and soul into planning this event.”
Edwards said that a few months after the initial phone call from Coffey and right around Hall’s birthday this year, Edwards and Coffey were speaking again. That’s when she told him that she had been given the protocol for a funeral at Arlington Cemetery.
He said that he and a couple of classmates were going to make plans to be there.
“Then, Julia, his wife, made the mistake of saying to me ‘What do you think?’ I learned a long time ago to keep my opinions to myself unless somebody asked for it,” Edwards said. “I basically shared my heartfelt conviction that if his parents still had the same options as she now had, they would want him brought home and buried next to them. That started my efforts to make all of the arrangements here. She went along with my thinking because she didn’t have any desire to be buried at Arlington.”
Edwards, along with Wells Greeley of Wells Funeral Home and other classmates and friends of Hall, went to work immediately.
“Wells Greeley has been on top of everything I’ve asked him for,” Edwards said.
They contacted the Presbyterian Church where Hall and his family had attended. That’s where the service will be held on Oct. 10.
Hall will be taken from the church to Green Hill Cemetery by caisson, a horse drawn wagon used for dignified funeral services.
“Somehow, a gentleman in Raleigh found out about this homecoming,” Edwards said. “He offered to bring us a military caisson pulled by a team of horses. He didn’t want any payment either. The reception to my requests have all been positive.”
Edwards said originally he had asked a local farmer to provide a wagon and team of horses to transport the casket. He said he and the other classmates were ready to pay the man.
“I asked the guy with the wagon what he would charge and he basically said nothing. He was proud to contribute to the effort,” he said.
Despite the plan changing to the caisson unit, the outpouring of support from the community has remained consistent.
Edwards, who is also a Vietnam veteran, said the toughest part of it all has been dealing with the memories this all brings back.
“When all the POWs were released and sent home, we thought it was all over,” he said. “We didn’t realize that it would never be over for some of us.”
He said that going through Freddie’s story every time he has to inform someone about the positive news remains a tough thing to do even after several months of practice.
Despite how tough it is, he said that he signed up for this, so he’s going to see it through and make sure Hall gets the service he deserves.
“It was a painful effort of contacting classmates and going on the same story time and time again, but I bit it off, so I was going to chew it and swallow it,” Edwards said.
During the service, Hall’s cousin and renowned storyteller, Donald Davis, will give the eulogy.
“I felt it would be fitting that someone who knew Fred like Donald Davis gave the eulogy,” Edwards said. “He told me every time he comes to Waynesville, he goes to the grave of Fred’s parents and says a prayer that someday he can be reunited with his mama and daddy.”
Edwards said that Davis was not going to miss the service for anything in the world, adding, “He said he would be here if he had to walk across the state barefoot.”
The service will also have many other veterans there to pay their respects to Hall.
Both the VFW and American Legion will be present with 100% participation for the funeral, Edwards said, and all the county wide veterans have thrown their support, too.
The walk from the church to Hall’s final resting place will be an emotional one. Residents are encouraged to line the street to pay their respects.
“It’s going to be an amazing service and parade down Main Street,” Killian said.
Many of Hall’s classmates will be walking in the procession.
“A lot of classmates have indicated they want to walk the distance to the graveyard,” Edwards said. “We have a group of classmates still able to get around — we’re all in our 80s now.”
Wells Funeral Home has been entrusted to provide the services for Hall.
“It is an honor for us to be able to provide the services for Cpt. Hall,” Greeley said.
One thing is for sure, the memory of Capt. Freddie Hall will be honored by a town showing their respect for his ultimate sacrifice.
“We’re going to do it up right for Fred Hall,” Edwards said.
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