VENTNOR – Carol Speirs has kept an American pilot she never met in her heart for more than 45 years. On Saturday, Nov. 2 after 45 years of keeping her vow, they had a separation of sorts.
That was the day that a memorial service was held for U.S. Air Force Maj. Neal Clinton Ward Jr. whose plane was shot down at the height of the Vietnam War.
She was only 11 years old when she purchased the metal bracelet bearing Ward’s name. She paid $2.50 for the POW/MIA bracelet that men and women, young and old, purchased to honor those soldiers missing in action or being held as prisoners of war.
Along with wearing the bracelet came a promise to wear it until the soldier was found.
Although they started selling the bracelets on Veterans Day 1970, and were worn by so many to remember the sufferings of war, few of the family, friends and college students who bought them were ever able to remove them from their wrists knowing their soldier was found, whether alive or dead. Nearly 5 million bracelets were sold with proceeds used to create awareness about the POW/MIA issue and to support local veteran’s organizations.
Today, Speirs, who lives in Galloway Township and operates Animations Salon on the corner of Fredericksburg and Ventnor avenues, is 57 years old, has three adult children and a grandson, and a long-held allegiance to members of the military. Her own son, Taylor is a Marine Corps recruiter.
“I grew up in Huntington Valley, Pa., and church members who were parents of a POW were selling them to honor their son, who was found in 1985,” she said explaining the day she put on the bracelet.
She has only removed it twice in all these years, once to have an MRI and more recently for minor eye surgery. In both instances, she was reluctant to remove it on doctors’ orders.
“I would feel naked without it. It is a part of me,” she said revealing the permanent tan line beneath the metal band on her right wrist.
Maj. Ward was a member of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron, Special Operations Wing, based in Phathang Village in Laos during the war. Several years after his plane went down in 1969, the military declared him killed in action although is body was never found. Years later, joint military searches of the area revealed a skull fragment and through DNA analysis, it was matched to Ward.
Ward was born in Texas and raised in Pasadena, California with his two sisters. His remains were returned to his sister, Cassie Ferrell in Reno, Nevada.
When she first heard her brother’s remains had been found, she thought it was a cruel joke, but after hearing directly from the Air Force, she knew it was true.
“I cried. It was 50 years in June,” she said. “Miracles do happen.”
Ferrell said she learned that a genealogy company identified his remains.
Funeral services with full military honors were held on Nov. 2 in Reno. That’s the day Speirs finally removed the bracelet from her arm. Although she is glad to know that his family has closure, she is sad to know his fate.
Maj. Ward’s remains were first sent to the official headquarters for POW/MIA cases in Hawaii and the Air Force covered all expenses returning him to Ferrell in Reno.
“Two days before the funeral an Air Force major flew him here with Neal’s remains in his lap and delivered him to the funeral home. The service was perfect. He had a 20-man honor guard and three-gun volley before playing Taps. It was a beautiful ceremony. About 20-30 of his military friends and college classmates attended,” Ferrell said.
His remains were interred in the family’s burial spot at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, she said.
Speirs said she found out about Ward’s discovery in an email from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund stating a notice was posted on the site’s “Wall of Faces,” a message board she had been following for years.
Ward’s name is inscribed on panel 29 of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and on the “Tablet of the Missing” Honolulu Memorial in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Oahu, Hawaii.
“Words can’t even express the feeling in my heart right now,” Speirs posted on the wall. “I have worn my bracelet for 45 years! My Heart goes out to Neal’s family. I had to take my bracelet off a week ago for a minor surgery and I cried. Now a week later, I learned that his remains are coming home and I will remove my bracelet forever.”
Others who wore Ward’s bracelet have also posted their thoughts and prayers for his family over the years, including Neal Ward Carpenter, whose father also purchased a bracelet.
“When I came along, my parents hadn’t thought of a boy name since they were hoping for a girl. My dad was wearing the bracelet at the time and thought it would be a fitting name. I stood the bracelet when I was 12 and have worn it every day for the last 27 years. I can’t imagine it not being on my wrist,” he wrote on the wall in June 2015.
Ferrell said she was delighted that Neal Ward Carpenter traveled from his home in Southern California to attend the memorial service.
“He said he wanted to know more about his namesake,” Ferrell said. “My brother has touched so many lives.”
Speirs said she would have liked to have attended the memorial service if she could, but she works two jobs. But, she has been in touch with Ferrell via email.
“She said there was such an outpouring of love from his school mates and fellow service members that she’s overwhelmed,” an emotional Speirs said.
She also learned that he has a nephew, Clinton Matthew Behrens of Albany, Georgia, who was also named in his honor.
“I will reach out to them to see if they want the bracelet,” she said.
“Because I will feel naked without it and it was such a part of me for so long, he is permanently in my soul,” Speirs said.
To continue honoring him and other POW/MIAs not yet discovered, Speirs said she is considering getting a tattoo of his name to cover her permanent tan line.