HAMPTON, S.C. -- Air Force Staff Sgt. Larry Holden finally has finally returned from his last search-and-rescue mission, 35 years after his helicopter was shot down over the jungles of Southeast Asia.
The Oklahoma native's remains, recovered earlier this year from a crash site inside Laos in the treacherous Ho Chi Minh Trail, were buried Saturday next to the grave of an infant granddaughter and a short distance from the homes of his widow and two daughters.
"This is where he would have wanted to be near his family," said Holden's daughter Tina Joyner, 37. "And now, after all of these years, we can have him close to us."
Holden, who was 24 and a seven-year Air Force veteran, died June 6, 1968, just days before he was to take a break from the Vietnam War and fly to Hawaii to celebrate his wife's 21st birthday.
"I had our bags packed and everything arranged," said Holden's widow, Judy Holden Freeman. "And then the news came."
Holden was the flight mechanic on a HH3E helicopter, nicknamed "Jolly Green 23," that was struck by ground fire.
The copter exploded in a fireball and disintegrated.
Attempts to recover the wreckage and the crew's bodies were thwarted by heavy enemy resistance.
Another aircraft flew over the wreckage, but its crew saw no survivors and heard no emergency beeper signals.
The Defense Department listed the crew as "Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered."
Over the years, joint U.S. namese teams made several unsuccessful attempts to find the crew.
The breakthrough came in May 2002 when a recovery team discovered a crash site near the village of Ban Kaboui, Laos, nine miles from where Jolly Green 23 was thought to have gone down.
A U.S. Army team excavated the site earlier this year and recovered human remains.
Holden was identified through dental records, Freeman said.
The U.S. military also identified the remains of the three other crewmen.
Freeman remarried a couple of years after Holden's death.
In 1970, she and her new husband, along with her two daughters, moved to the Lowcountry community of Hampton.
"We had to move on with our lives," Freeman said. "Larry would not have wanted us to be dormant all of these years and not be productive."
Freeman kept Holden's memory alive by sharing stories about him with her daughters.
And she kept the family photo album handy for her daughters and grandchildren to look over.
Most of the pictures are of all of the family together, Freeman said.
"He wanted to be with his family all the time. We'd take the girls to the store. We'd take them bowling," Freeman said. "It was a happy life and it was very exciting."
Freeman last saw Holden alive Sept. 29, 1967.
She can still picture the blond airman with a crew cut and "vivid blue eyes" boarding a plane at Will Rogers International Airport in Oklahoma City. He was headed to Vietnam for a one-year tour of duty.
"We didn't say goodbye because I knew he was coming back," Freeman said. "We just never thought about him not coming home. That was his job he was going to."
They wrote letters almost daily and there were "two or three" phone calls, the last coming on Christmas Eve 1967, she said.
"Communications were so bad back then and it was so hard to reach him because he was always out on missions. We wrote to each other and we corresponded by using tape recorders so we could hear each other's voice."
On Saturday during a graveside service, Staff Sgt. Holden was buried with full military honors.
It was a fitting tribute, said Terrell Harvey, pastor at the Primitive Baptist Church in North Charleston.
"We are here to honor a veteran. A hero. A man who gave his own life for others," Harvey told about 100 mourners, most of them huddled under umbrellas as a light rain fell.
The ceremony ended as an HH-60 search helicopter from Grabeski Air National Guard Station at Westhampton Beach, N.Y., flew over the cemetery, trailing a stream of green smoke.
The flyover is an Air Force tradition, said Chief Master Sgt. Dennis Richardson, who served with Holden in Vietnam.
The green-colored smoke represents the helicopter's nickname, "Jolly Green Giant," he said.
"Larry's back from a SAR (search-and-rescue mission) and he's home," said Richardson, a member of the New York Air National Guard.
Three other men who served with Holden at Da Nang also were at the service. One was Jack Watkins of Orlando, Fla. Coming up to South Carolina was "just something I felt I had to do," said Watkins, who also was a flight engineer.
Now that Holden and his fellow crewmates are home, just one other search and rescue team who died in the war remains missing, Watkins said.
For the family, Saturday's service came as "a relief, just a huge relief," said Stephanie DeLoach, 39, who was only 4 when her father died.
"The mystery is over," added her sister, Tina Joyner. "Now we know what happened. We know he wasn't captured. We know he wasn't tortured. "He has been our angel for all of these years."