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  • Maggie Wallem Rowe

After 54 Years, Julie’s Husband Came Home

We heard them before we saw them.

On a clear blue Tuesday morning in mid-October, the pair of F-15s came blasting out of the mountains from the north, flying low over the valley cradling our western North Carolina hometown.

Peace Ridge stands at 3300 feet, and Mike and I rushed to the windows, wondering. The last time we’d seen F-15s was on a beautiful Tuesday morning 22 years earlier when fighter jets from Otis AFB scrambled into the autumn sky above our home on Cape Cod, heading for the columns of smoke rising above New York City.

“It must be a training exercise,” I said to Mike.

“Must be.”

But it wasn’t. These F-15s were deployed not to defend our country, but in honor of one who gave his life in her defense. His name was Fred.

Captain Fredrick M. Hall.

A native of Waynesville, Fred was a doer and a joiner even as a kid. Swimming, golf, basketball, skiing, horseback riding, and tennis —he excelled at them all. Extra-curricular activities at school. Red Cross instructor. First chair flute and piccolo for his high school band and orchestra. Choir and youth group at Waynesville Presbyterian.

This kid was going places.

And he did. Following graduation from UNC at Chapel Hill, Fred Hall enlisted in the United States Air Force. During flight school in Tucson, Arizona, he met the love of his life, the beautiful Julie Keith, a former model. In 1968, Fred and Julie married.

And then came Vietnam.

April 12, 1969. A search and rescue mission.

US pilots were trapped in Quang Nam Province in South Vietnam. Sent to bring them home, Captain Fred Hall navigated as Colonel Ernest Desoto piloted their F-4D phantom jet flying wing to wing as part of the 390th Tactical Fighters Squadron.

Their plane entered a cloud bank —the last their squadron saw of them. Fred Hall and Ernest Desoto were officially listed as MIA.

But what of Fred’s beautiful red-haired Julie? Was she now wife or widow?

Whenever a husband goes missing – however a marriage is lost – the spouse suffers. Whether a marital union is dissolved by a judge in a courtroom, ends at a hospital bedside, or is lost in a cloud bank, the two are no longer one. One remains, but no longer two. Division, subtraction: sorrowful math.

“When I spoke my wedding vows,” my widowed friend Dorina writes, “I never dreamed those words – “in sickness and health, until death do us part” – would mean burying my husband eleven years later.

"I imagined having babies, doing ministry as a team, and chasing careers. We dreamed of traveling to distant shores and fulfilling dreams together. I never imagined the word cancer would one day separate us before we were old and gray.” - Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young, Breathing Through Grief: A Devotional Journal for Seasons of Loss

But as every widow, every bereaved or divorced or left-in-limbo wife will tell you, hope eventually rises. Nothing and no one fills the void left by the missing spouse, but life flows in with all its resiliency and complexity to fill the heart again with purpose.

The morning those F-15s roared past our ridge-top home, I knew of no personal connection to their flight. Mike commented that roads had been blocked, and his normal ten-minute drive home from the Rec Center had taken nearly thirty.

“Something must be going on in town.”

That something was a homecoming. Fifty-four years after its disappearance, a USAF plane had been located in Laos, identified by its tail numbers, the remains sent off for DNA testing.

It was Fred's plane. Fifty-four years after he disappeared from his young wife’s life, Fredric Hall came home.

Waynesville gave Fred a hero’s welcome, remembering with gratitude how he served his country. Service marked by the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor, Presidential Unit Citation, Purple Heart. Too many medals to count.

Listed as missing in action for more than 54 years, Capt. Fred Hall, a native of Waynesville, was laid to rest in historic Green Hill Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 10. (Cory Vaillancourt photo Smoky Mountain News)

Medals that would never be pinned on the chest of the man who earned them.

And Fred’s beautiful young bride, Julie? Now a woman of 77, still lovely, Julie flew to her husband’s funeral in North Carolina from Texas, where the members of First Baptist of Houston had become her family decades ago. They loved her, cared for her, taught her to love the One who would never leave her.

Then…one week later. A fall festival for families hosted by our church. Several hundred guests, and one of them was Julia Keith Hall.

I was helping with a children’s game when my friend Bess called me over to meet Julie. Julie shared a memory or two; I expressed my deep sympathy at her loss. Bess spoke up, wishing that Julie had a copy of my book about our shared lives, our journeys with God and each other.

Remembering that I had a single copy in my car, I retrieved it. Hastily signed it. Left it in Julie’s lap. Returned to my duties.

Then Bess again, running to me.

“Maggie, you need to come back! Julie is crying… something about her teacher’s name on the front of your book?”

Puzzled, I hurried back to see Julie clutching the book, eyes streaming.

“The woman who endorsed your book?” Julie fumbled for a tissue. “Beth Moore? She was my aerobics instructor and later my Sunday school teacher for many years! Her teaching in our Daybreak class got me through such difficult times.

“I remember having lunch with Beth at the Steak and Ale,” she smiled. “She's such a tiny thing, but she could eat the rest of us under the table. She’d always ask for my sour cream!”

That next Tuesday before she returned to Houston, Julie came to our Bible study at church. Cried a bit and laughed and hugged new friends she’d just met, like me.

With Julie Keith Hall, October 24, 2023

As for those F-15s we saw in the sky over Peace Ridge?

After Julie’s husband was laid to rest, a lone bugler sounded Taps, the mournful notes resounding over Green Hill Cemetery.

The Smoky Mountain News reported what happened next:

“A pair of F-15 fighter jets roared through the sky from the north, screaming southbound, drawing the crowd’s gaze from down on Hall’s grave up toward the heavens – just where he would have wanted it to be.”

After 54 years, Julie's husband was Home.

- Maggie Wallem Rowe, 2023

Maggie Wallem Rowe is a speaker and dramatist who writes from Peace Ridge, her home in the Great Smoky Mountains. The author of This Life We Share and Life is Sweet, Y'all, Maggie is grateful for new friends she can make old friends out of.


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