ARCADIA — In an emotionally charged service, the remains of Sgt. James Harold Alley were returned to his family Saturday, 38 years after he was killed during the Vietnam War.
Alley was one of six men killed April 6, 1972, when their Jolly Green Giant helicopter was shot down during a massive search-and-rescue operation for two American aviators who had been shot down.
It wasn’t until February of this year that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command lab in Hawaii was able to scientifically confirm that Alley’s remains had been recovered.
At the conclusion of services at Oakridge Cemetery, Tim Alley, Sgt. Alley’s younger brother, stood and addressed his late father, grandfather and grandmother, all of whom are interred at Oakridge.
“I just want everyone to know that James is here,” Tim Alley said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Alley also thanked several hundred veterans who attended, many of them from the Vietnam era, and relayed a message from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
“This is what they ask me to tell everyone: ‘They are still looking,’” Alley said.
A full accounting of those missing in action from America’s wars is an article of faith among veterans.
More than 100 of the veterans who attended the farewell stood in the sun for an hour at Ponger-Grady Kays Funeral Home, holding American flags as a sign of respect for a fallen comrade.
Sgt, Alley’s family never got over his loss, and many of the veterans said the war stays with them, too.
For years after Sgt. Alley’s death, his family kept his room exactly as he left it, and the family still has his yellow 1967 Camaro.
Jim Dryer, of Bradenton, a Vietnam-era Air Force vet, said Alley’s funeral “means a lot to me. He’s one of our guys.”
Bob May, an Vietnam Army vet who wore a Bronze Star Medal and an Army Commendation Medal with “V” Device for valor, said it was an honor to be able to participate in the funeral.
“It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’re giving him the homecoming we never got,” said May, an Arcadia resident.
Along the procession route from the funeral home to the cemetery, pockets of residents stood respectfully and watched, some with their hands over their hearts, others rendering a hand salute.
Paige Clark, married to a Vietnam vet, said she wanted to come to watch the return of Sgt. Alley.
“It’s wonderful what they are doing,” Clark said.
The Rev. Rick Hill, of Mount Ephraim Baptist Church, delivered the eulogy and said Alley, 22 at the time, volunteered for the rescue mission even though he had only a few days left in his Vietnam tour of duty.
“From what I’ve heard about this young man, he was someone very special. He put the needs of others before his own,” Hills said.
To Sgt, Alley, Hill said, “We thank you for your service, for your devotion, for your loyalty to your country.”
And then Hill addressed the Vietnam vets.
“To all of you, welcome home ... welcome home,” he said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.