July 24, 2009 - 6:39 PM
The Sedalia Democrat
The surviving crew members of Ebony-02 reunited with the families of the two men who were killed in action at the dedication of a B-52 display Friday at Whiteman Air Force Base.
Hundreds of people came out to honor the crew that was shot down during the closing months of war in Vietnam. The crew manned a B-52 as part of Operation Linebacker II, which started in December 1972 and included the greatest concentration of B-52 aircraft in history.
The B-52 static display outside Whiteman’s Arnold Gate was dedicated to Capt. Robert Morris, Maj. Nutter Wimbrow, 1st Lt. Robert Hudson, (1st Lt. Duane Paul Vavroch), Capt. Michael LaBeau and Tech. Sgt. James Cook.
Wimbrow and Morris, a St. Louis native who piloted the aircraft, died when their plane was struck by North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles. The other four crew members were taken as prisoners of war after their plane was shot down on Dec. 26, 1972.
Col. William Stocker, mission leader in the first operation of Linebacker II, said the results of the operation represented the decisive moments of the war. Negotiations with the North Vietnamese resumed in January 1973, and “the sacrifice of many was finally at an end,” Stocker said.
Retired Maj. Alan Miller said 32 airmen lost their lives during Operation Linebacker II. However, the ensuing negotiations led to the release of 591 prisoners of war, who started coming home in February 1973.
Col. Rickey Rodgers, vice commander of the 509th Bomb Wing, later presented Sgt. Jerry Headrick with a Distinguished Flying Cross. Headrick, who was Cook’s roommate at U-Tapao Airbase in Thailand, was a gunner on a B-52 during Operation Linebacker II.
“His heroic acts were instrumental in the successful accomplishment of the mission,” Miller said.
Following the dedication of the display to the Ebony-02, the surviving crew members, families of those killed in action and many Vietnam War veterans caught up at a reception at the base.
LaBeau, who served as the radar navigator of the Ebony-02, said the dedication ceremony was wonderful. He was happy for the opportunity to reunite with his fellow crew members and reflect on the sacrifices those in the service have made for the country.
“We’ve all gone our separate ways for the most part, so it was nice that we all got together here today,” LaBeau said.
Robert Morris, son of Capt. Robert Morris, was only 2 years old when his father died. After meeting with surviving Ebony-02 crew members, Morris said he was struck to learn his father smiled and remained calm during his last living moments.
“For me, it’s been like an amazing catharsis,” Morris said. “This is the first time I really met his crew members.”
Nancy Morris-Ochs, Capt. Robert Morris’ widow, was happy to reunite with the Ebony-02 crew after losing contact with many of them for nearly 20 years. Morris-Ochs, who was raised in St. Charles and now lives in the state of California, said she was honored by the great turnout at the ceremony.
“It was great to see them after all these years. It meant a lot to me,” Morris-Ochs said.
“It’s very nice to be back with the crew,” Cook agreed.
Cook only met the other members of the Ebony-02 minutes before taking off when he stepped in for the original gunner, who had fallen ill.
Cook viewed the dedication ceremony Friday as a chance to reflect on some painful memories. He said he unconsciously fell to the ground when the plane was shot down after being knocked out by the explosion. When he awoke, he lay in water with shattered legs until he was captured and imprisoned.
“To me, it’s incredible that those of us who survived got out safely,” Cook said. “It just amazes me that we were alive after we ejected out when the plane exploded.”
Stocker, in a somber but grateful tone, said behind the pride of the military is the darkness of mourning hearts, but the valor, dignity and courage of the American soldier has permeated throughout the nation’s history.
“Throughout the history of our country, our nation has come to know grief and anguish in profound ways,” Stocker said. “Service members and their families live a life of commitment and service. The cost of freedom remains high, but we are willing to make the sacrifice.”
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