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Honor thy Father
Search uncovers dad who died in Vietnam War
Posted: August 7th, 2005 @ 11:30pm
"I feel fortunate that I'm learning more and more every day through the eyes of those who did know him," Whitworth said.
For most, life doesn't take such jagged turns, or leave in its wake so many what-if questions.
Whitworth was 6 months old when Murphy, an officer with the 8th Calvary, an Army aviation unit, was sent to confront Communism in a strange and lush country worlds away. He would not see her again.
The news that he was officially missing in action came less than a year later, and about six weeks before he was scheduled to return to Fort Rucker, Ala., to teach would-be pilots.
Whitworth's mother, Elaine, later remarried. Her husband, Larry Harper, adopted her blond, bubbly 3-year-old.
Whitworth would learn some things about her biological father: That he went missing in war at age 25. That he was declared dead in 1972. That his family, which hers had little contact with, was from Dalton.
Yet, although curious, Whitworth said she seldom asked for more, not wanting to dredge up old hurts.
She had a photograph of Murphy. Some said they saw her father in her: the slightly upturned nose, the mischievous look, even the way she walked.
"But I always wondered, besides looks, were there any of his qualities that I had?" said Whitworth, now 34 and married.
A search for family
The catalyst to dig deeper came in a telephone call about two years ago.
An aunt, one of Murphy's four siblings, had called Harper and inquired about Whitworth.
Harper relayed the call. A Hall County resident who flew combat helicopter missions in the Vietnam War at almost the same time as Murphy, though he didn't know him, he said he encouraged hitworth "to know her roots, to seek them out and be proud of her dad."
The aunt, Susan Ward, had left a return number. Whitworth dialed it. The two talked for almost three hours.
The search had begun.
Whitworth's husband, Scott, drove her to Dalton to see her father's family. At first, her paternal grandfather, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, could only stare.
"I could tell by him looking at me he thought he was looking at his son, because I favor him so much," Whitworth said with a slight smile.
She began to gather more photographs of Murphy, particularly of when he was younger. Shots of him playing high school sports in Dalton. Class pictures of him in uniform at North Georgia College in Dahlonega. A snapshot of him holding her as a baby.
She also heard about the Web site of the BlueGhosts, the unit her father served with. She posted a query: Had anybody known Capt. Larron David Murphy?
Replies trickled in. Each would color in a history she had seen mostly in black and white photographs.
Jerry McLendon of Mobile, Ala., wrote that in 1968, Murphy, then a second lieutenant, had been his tactical officer at Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning.
"I was able to give her information about her dad, about his personality and characteristics. About what a great guy he was," said McLendon, 60, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent.
Ironically, McLendon had been trying for years to find out more about what happened to Murphy. He considered him a model officer and born leader. "He is," McLendon said Monday, "my hero."
The last flight
One critical response came from Bob Drury. He had been flying beside Murphy the night of April 23, 1970, when Whitworth crashed.
In a Feb. 7 e-mail, he gave her a firsthand account.
At 2 a.m., the base at Chu Lai had received an emergency call to remove a six-man patrol team pinned down by enemy fire about 10 miles southwest of An Hoa, in the Quang Nam Province.
It was a volunteer mission. Skies were stormy.
The setting underscores something Whitworth knows now: Not only did her dad love flying, "He would go out himself before he would send one of his men out there," she said.
Four helicopters lifted off, two AH1G Cobra gunships, a larger UH1H Huey carrying infantry and another empty one to pick up the squad. Each Cobra held two men.
Low clouds pushed the helicopters below 1,000 feet, wrote Drury, mission commander and pilot of the other Cobra.
As the team flew west, the clouds sucked in even closer to the mountainous terrain. The Hueys turned back. The Cobras continued.
"I called to your Dad to close in tight with my ship so that we wouldn't lose visual touch and had him follow me down the valley that led to where the (patrol team was) fighting," Drury wrote.
Minutes later, as the helicopters whipped across an inky jungle canopy toward the troops, Murphy radioed that he was in clouds.
Suddenly, so was Drury.
He told Murphy to make a climbing left turn, a move to keep them separated. In about 30 seconds he heard Murphy radio, "Ghost Two-Zero, I'm lost."
Drury answered his call sign. The two traded quick responses.
Then, "Two-Zero, this is Two-Eight, I'm upside down!" Murphy said. "I'm upside down and crashing!"
Drury kept calling. No one answered.
Drury rose above the clouds and found his way back to base. Follow-up search parties spotted nothing from the air. Members of the patrol, flown out the next day, said they saw a bright flash that night, likely the explosion of the crash.
Drury wrote that a recovery team did find some helicopter pieces in the mid-1990s and the dog tags of Warrant Officer Dennis Eads, who was flying with Murphy.
Drury told Whitworth the Cobras of the 1970s were considered dangerous at night and especially so in stormy weather.
In any case, helicopter airmen in combat rode the edge of risk in Vietnam.
"I'm sure your Dad never hesitated to go down that valley with me because there were American lives at stake," Drury wrote.
Stories, not memories
Even while relaying the story of that flight in the sunlit kitchen of her Sardis area home, Whitworth sometimes stops to gather her emotions, tears touching the edge of her olive-green eyes.
Photographs, e-mail printouts and other papers, including a brown 1971 clipping from The Times describing how her mom believed her husband would come home, are laying on the kitchen table in front of her.
The snatches of the past show a history she shares by association. But because she didn't know her biological father, discovering who she lost stirs a different kind of pain, she said.
One fellow officer sent a fold-out frame with three photographs of Murphy. In one, he's hunched down in what looks like a cockpit, laughing like a boy on a roller coaster. In another, he's smiles and confidence, black shades on, one hand on the control stick.
"When I opened it up, tears just started flowing," Whitworth said. "It was kind of tears of joy and sadness."
Instead of memories, she has stories of family before Murphy left for Vietnam in June 1969.
How he drove from a Texas military base to Gainesville on Christmas Eve 1968, to be there when she was born the next day. That he heard her say "Dada" on a long-distance telephone call.
One fellow airman told Whitworth that Murphy kept her photograph taped above his bunk in Vietnam.
"He would just lay there and look at my picture until he went to sleep," she said.
Whitworth's mother Elaine, who since has remarried and whose last name is now Peck, said finding out more about Murphy has been good for her daughter.
"It just brought in information and people after all these years that she didn't even know existed," said Peck, who works as a judge's legal secretary in Gainesville.
Harper, who supervises contractors for Georgia Power Co., said Whitworth is an "exceptional" daughter.
Between home and work at a local cleaners, she is keeping in touch with Murphy's family, BlueGhost veterans and others who knew her father. She and husband Scott have met McLendon.
Though she said most of her questions have been answered, she also admitted, "I still feel like there may be something else."
Someone else who knows something else about Capt. Larron David Murphy; who can help her better understand him.
Whitworth is certain of one thing. "I'm so glad that he did at least get to see me, and to hold me," she said.
Originally published Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Reproduced here with permission of Rick Lavender,