Home again: After 45 years, family greets return of fallen soldier

The remains of Bunyan Price Jr. were returned to Charlotte Thursday. Before the flag-covered casket was placed into a white hearse immediate family members - including Price's four siblings - placed their hands on the casket while a minister said a prayer.
The remains of Bunyan Price Jr. were returned to Charlotte Thursday. Before the flag-covered casket was placed into a white hearse immediate family members - including Price's four siblings - placed their hands on the casket while a minister said a prayer. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

In Wanda Hanley’s west Charlotte kitchen hangs a small wall calendar. For 40 days, Hanley has crossed out each box. On Thursday, April 9, she wrote a note to herself: “Coming Home, Jr.”

The last time she saw her brother Bunyan Price Jr., was in 1969. Price, raised in Monroe and Belmont, was 19 then and home on leave from the Army after basic training at Fort Bragg. He was scheduled to fly out of the country that night.

The Vietnam War was still dividing the country. Price never told his family he was being sent there.

“Junior told us not to worry – he said he’d be home in no time,” Hanley said.

Thursday, 45 years later, Bunyan Price Jr. came home.

His remains were found a year ago by investigators with the Hawaii-based Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command. They were with those of two other Americans in a grave next to a rice field just inside southwestern Cambodia from Vietnam.

There on May 2, 1970, the helicopter in which Price and seven others were flying with a load of supplies was trying to evade a heavy rainstorm when it was hit by enemy ground fire and landed burning in the field. Price was 20.

On Feb. 9, which would have been Junior’s 65th birthday, representatives from the Army’s Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch called to confirm that DNA taken from Hanley, sister Brenda Harris and brother Dennis Price years earlier was “a perfect match” with bones believed to be Junior’s, Hanley said.

For his siblings, it was a startling, yet sad, discovery.

“I didn’t want to accept it,” Hanley said. “I always figured he would come home – sooner or later.”

‘Wonder if Junior is busy’

Bunyan Sr. and Virginia Price raised their five children outside Monroe in a house surrounded by cotton fields, then moved the family to Belmont, where the father worked the carding machines in The Chronicle Mills.

His namesake, Bunyan Jr., was a well-mannered boy, skinny and tall, who played basketball and football with the neighborhood boys and often found mischief – like the time he tried to cast a fishing line and caught the hook on his father’s ear.

By the time Junior was 16, he had quit now-closed East Belmont High to go to work at Majestic Manufacturing, a cotton mill in town. At 17, he married.

A year later, the Army drafted him. His siblings say he was proud to serve. On furlough, he’d go to brother Dennis’ school and take him fishing when it let out.

The day he left for Vietnam in December 1969, Dennis Price, five years younger than Junior, said there wasn’t room for him in the car that took his older brother to the airport.

“I was crying and upset that I couldn’t go,” Dennis said. “He came back in the door three times to hug me. He told me not to cry – he’d be back soon.”

By spring 1970, Junior was 20, a specialist assigned to the Army’s Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Infantry Division.

He wrote home often. Hanley said she’d get two letters many weeks, usually about his thoughts and what he needed.

Then the letters stopped.

“I remember Daddy saying, ‘I wonder if Junior’s just busy,’” Hanley said.

‘Tell me he’s not dead’

On May 4, 1970, Bunyan Sr.’s birthday, 14-year-old Dennis was sitting in class when he was called to the office. He needed to get home; there was an emergency.

He walked the two blocks and when he saw the Army cars in the driveway, he took off running. “I came through the door and yelled, ‘Daddy, please don’t tell me he’s dead,’” Dennis said. “My daddy said, ‘He’s not dead, son. Calm down, he’s not dead.’”

The Army officers said Junior was in a helicopter that had been shot down in Cambodia. He was missing.

“Daddy had a really hard time with it,” Hanley said. “That’s when his health started going down.”

Bunyan Sr. died in 1979 of a heart attack.

As the years went on, Virginia Price showed signs of dementia, and sometimes called out her son’s name. When she died in 1992, she believed he was still alive.

“We had an uncle in (World War II) who was a POW in Germany,” Hanley said. “He was on a train and escaped and came home and knocked on my grandma’s door. They all thought he was dead.

“We had hope for Junior.”

Human remains found

For years, Junior Price was listed as MIA. Some reports said he was a POW – like his uncle. Brother Dennis has a document dated 1971 with Junior’s signature. The military told him it was a mistake.

Since the 1970s, teams from the POW/MIA accounting command searched the crash area 13 times and performed six excavations, reports show, after interviewing former Viet Cong troops and POW camp supervisors.

In April 2014, they uncovered a grave with human remains. Using DNA collected from Junior’s siblings, they confirmed some of his remains.

Dennis and Hanley still weren’t convinced until finally they heard what happened that day from the helicopter’s co-pilot, Dan Maslowski of Charleston.

Encounters rain squall

Here’s the story Maslowski told them weeks ago:

He had only been in Vietnam a month, when he, pilot Michael Varnado, a crew chief and door gunner began flying missions on May 2 from Tay Nihn in South Vietnam to resupply the 25th Infantry Division, sent into Cambodia to root out the Viet Cong.

They had finished their seventh mission that day about 4 p.m. and were waiting for another helicopter to arrive before flying home. That second helicopter was called and requested to make a resupply mission into the “Fish Hook” area of South Vietnam.

Since Maslowski’s crew had finished for the day, they decided they’d save time and run the mission themselves. Supply troops packed their helicopter “with a huge load.” Then Varnado was asked if he could get four soldiers to their unit, including Price.

Maslowski didn’t know the four passengers.

They lifted off about 4:15 p.m. and climbed to 2,500 feet to fly to an unfamiliar region. About 10 minutes later, they saw a huge rain squall approaching. Maslowski took over the controls and tried steering left to skirt the storm, taking them into Cambodia.

Another 10 minutes, he couldn’t see the end of the storm – or the ground. Suddenly, Maslowski looked to his right and saw “what looked like giant red basketballs coming right at the aircraft.”

“We’re getting shot at,” he remembers yelling.

“They were tracers,” he said, “and it looked like these red-hot basketballs were not only coming at the aircraft, but they were coming right at me.”

‘100 percent sure’

Varnado retook the controls and steered it into a steep dive to avoid the tracers. One hit the tail, likely setting the jet fuel afire.

The helicopter lost its hydraulics, and toxic fumes forced the six soldiers in the rear to the front trying to breathe good air. Maslowski sent distress calls, but got no response.

As the fire spread, Maslowski took the controls again. He knew he had to avoid the thick jungle and tried to find a road.

Suddenly, a rice field came up, and he slowly lowered the aircraft near the city of Memot, Cambodia. At 7 feet off the ground, the passengers began to jump.

Everyone on board survived. But the Viet Cong were waiting.

Varnado warned the group that the enemy was approaching and they all scattered. Of the eight, one escaped. Four, including Maslowski and Varnado, were captured – two later dying as POWs.

Maslowski didn’t know what happened to the other three, including Price, until recently. They were killed and buried in a single grave.

Yet he was able to provide Hanley and Dennis Price with the context to understand that day, bringing them peace.

“He explained everything and it relieved the pressure off my heart and my mind,” Dennis said. “I am 100 percent sure that this is my brother’s remains.”

‘We can lay him to rest’

As a Delta Air Lines jet arrived at gate A1 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Thursday, the four Price children – unhinged by their loss – drew closer on the tarmac with about 50 other relatives to greet their long-lost brother.

Junior’s siblings, each showing the passing years, touched the flag-covered casket that held his remains as it was slipped from the plane’s belly.

At 2 p.m., they were asked to lay their hands on the casket while a preacher said a prayer. Some brushed away tears. Nine color guard members lifted the casket and placed it into a white hearse and the family climbed into a matching white family car for the ride to Greene Funeral Home in Gastonia. They were escorted by state highway patrol officers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and about 200 Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycle.

On Saturday, his family will gather again to say goodbye with a memorial service and military burial next to Bunyan Sr. and Virginia Price.

“All this hurts, but I’m glad he’s home,” Hanley said. “Now it’s real. Now we can lay him to rest.”

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The return home

Friday: The family will receive visitors from 6 to 9 p.m. at First Assembly of God of Gastonia, 777 S. Myrtle School Road.

Saturday: A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. at First Assembly of God. A graveside service with military honors will follow at Greenwood Cemetery in Belmont. Price will be buried near his parents, Bunyan Sr. and Virginia Price. Later this year, some remains will be buried with those of two other Americans found in a grave in Cambodia at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.