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Home at last, Capt. Fred Hall is now at rest

Listed as missing in action for more than 54 years, Capt. Fred Hall, a native of Waynesville, was laid to rest in historic Green Hill Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 10. Listed as missing in action for more than 54 years, Capt. Fred Hall, a native of Waynesville, was laid to rest in historic Green Hill Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 10. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The four of them lumbered along the logging road until finally reaching the old fox hunting cabin about a mile below the crest of Big Stomp Mountain, an unassuming woody knob sloping gently towards the heavens from the floor of Ratcliff Cove.

Adventurous young men no more than 15 years old, Bill, David, Donald and Fred would often camp out there for several days, doing all the things teenagers did in the late 1950s — wandering through the woods, playing poker by the warm glow of a kerosene lamp, cooking in the stone fireplace, drinking from the clean, cold spring that rose up through the mountain just behind the cabin.

One crisp fall night, they decided to hike to the top of Big Stomp to see what they could see. When they peered out, they saw a modest mountain valley sparkling with light.

“What do you think we're looking at?” David asked.

Pointing, Fred started with his family church, First Presbyterian, awash in the subtle radiance of the Winn-Dixie grocery store at the head of Walnut Street.

Navigating his way south on the Main Street they all knew so well, Fred called out the Town House restaurant and the gentle curve in the road where Hotel Lefaine stood. Down the way, the old Haywood courthouse. Further down, the famous arch over the roadway, proudly proclaiming Waynesville the symbolic gateway to the Smokies.

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The blinking light at Miller Street drew Fred’s finger further south, past the Park Theater and the traffic signal at the post office. Still further, there’s First Baptist on the right. Joe Scruggs’ Texaco is on the left. Passing the Oak Park Inn, Main Street flattens out near Clyde Ray’s flower shop before disappearing along a well-worn, moss-streaked cobblestone wall towards Hazelwood and Balsam.

“What's that big dark place up there?” asked Bill, pointing across the street.

“That's Green Hill Cemetery,” Fred laughed. “They don't need lights over there.”

He continued to trace his way through the streets they’d all plodded many times before, locating the drive-in, the cars at Charlie’s, even their own houses.

Fred looked at Bill and David and Donald, then looked down, then posed a question.

“Do you know what that’s called right there?”

“Waynesville,” one of them said.

“No, not just that. I mean, all of it,” said Fred. ”That's called home.”

 The four of them went their separate ways after high school.

Bill McInvaille was an English teacher for years in Florida before he passed away in 2003. David Morgan became a Presbyterian minister before his passing in 2018. Fred Hall graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and enlisted in the Air Force. Donald Davis went to Davidson College and Duke Divinity School, and became a minister and a renowned storyteller.

Davis delivered Hall’s eulogy, including the powerful camping anecdote, at Waynesville’s First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

“It should have been no surprise to us when about 10 years later, Fred came home from training to tell us he was being trained to be a navigator,” Davis said over chuckles from mourners gathered in the church. “We already knew that.”

Hall, along with his pilot Col. Ernest DeSoto, was killed in Vietnam when their F-4 Phantom failed to return from a mission on April 12, 1969. Both were declared missing in action until their remains were identified earlier this year.

On Sunday, Oct. 8, Hall was returned to Waynesville by motorcade, following his arrival at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

It was the first time his wife, Julia Hall Coffey, had been close to him in more than half a century, but it wasn’t the first time since then that she’d felt his presence; after their sad parting, Julia spent no small measure of energy reliving the all-to-brief period they shared at the Spartan Arms on North Alvernon Way in Tucson — the apartment complex where they’d first met, fallen in love and eventually settled.

When the service at First Presbyterian concluded, eight pallbearers cloaked in the droning tones of a kilted bagpiper hauled Hall’s flag-draped casket out the front door to a waiting caisson.

Pulled by two big black horses, it followed the same route Fred pointed out from Big Stomp all those years ago.

Hall 2

Using a riderless horse to commemorate a fallen soldier is a tradition hundreds of years old. Reversed boots in the stirrups signify the warrior will never ride again. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The old Winn-Dixie is now Badcock Furniture. The Town House, the gas station and the Hotel Lefaine are gone. The arch over the roadway was removed in 1972. The light at Miller Street is no more. The post office has become the Town of Waynesville’s administrative headquarters. Joe Scruggs’ Texaco is an Edward Jones financial services office. Clyde Ray’s flower shop is a parking lot.

One thing, however, remains largely the same as it was that dark night on Big Stomp.

Near the entrance to Green Hill Cemetery, hundreds of people had gathered beneath a huge American flag to welcome Hall home. Waving flags of their own, some saluted his casket. Some cried. Some held their hands to their heart. Some showed up two hours before the service even began.

“It's the least we could do to honor somebody that’s actually gave their life and been missing for over 50 years,” said Ed Shelton, a door gunner on an Army helicopter in Vietnam. “That’s the least we can do. Two hours ain’t much of nothin’.”

Hall’s procession, led by state, county and local law enforcement, crept towards the entrance to Green Hill Cemetery, snaking its way along the tranquil pathways up to the top of the hill and then down the back side.

A riderless horse with a saber fastened to the saddle and boots backwards in the stirrups — longstanding military tradition for the fallen — followed along as the procession was greeted by veterans groups, motorcyclists who’d accompanied Hall’s remains from the airport and the Air Force honor guard that had tended to him there.

They delivered Hall to his final resting place, removing the flag that had adorned his casket and folding it precisely into a taut triangle before giving it to Julia. She clutched it tightly to her chest, as though it were Fred himself.

Hall 3

Capt. Fred Hall’s widow, Julia Hall Coffey, clutches a flag given her during his graveside service by Air Force Technical Sgt. Erica Phillips, leader of an honor guard detachment from Shaw Air Force Base. Bob Scott photo

Per Julia’s wishes, Hall was buried near the resting place of his parents. When she’s called to join him, she’ll be there, too.

After the somber strains of “Taps” blown by a lone bugler, a pair of F-15 fighter jets roared through the sky from the north, screaming southbound, drawing the crowd’s gaze from down on Hall’s grave up towards the heavens — just where he would have wanted it to be.

“He'll be looking down watching today,” Davis had said earlier, at First Presbyterian. “And as they look out of the windows of heaven, if anyone in that great cloud of witnesses says, ‘What are we looking at?’ Fred will point once again, and simply say, ‘It's called home.’”

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