Story By Ann Cipperly / Photos Contributed
Col. Eugene David Hamilton loved his country, flying and education. He grew up in Opelika and graduated from Clift High School before moving on to Auburn University to study engineering.
Hamilton met his wife, Carolyn Wynell Cranford, in Opelika. They were married when she was only 15 years old.
A life in the military is often uncertain. Hamilton joined the Air Force and was forced to move several times in 10 years, but he wanted some stability for his family. So the soldier moved his family back to Opelika before leaving for Vietnam.
He could have retired from the Air Force but did not want to leave his men during the war.
Karyn Lynnette Powers was only six years old when her father’s plane was shot down. Hamilton’s F-105D Thunderchief was hit by enemy ground fire over Ha Tinh province on Jan. 31, 1966. The native Opelikian was listed as missing-inaction.
Karyn is the youngest of the three children. Her sister, Lorinda, was nine years old, and her brother, Lamont, was seven.
Karyn remembers coming home and seeing her mother and sister in the bedroom crying.
“I was very young and didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “When the family told me my father was missing, I couldn’t grasp that he might be dead, only that he was missing.
“The impact of losing a father is immense. We look to our mothers for nurturing, but we look to our fathers for protection. When you lose your father you feel unprotected.”
Carolyn, Hamilton’s wife, was also from Opelika with family in the area and they continued to live in town for several years. However , when Karyn was 16 years old, the family moved to Birmingham.
Over the years the family wondered what happened to the beloved husband and father. They did not know if he was killed or taken as a prisoner-of-war. The family had been told that he radioed several times after he had been hit. He reported there was smoke in the cockpit and that there was a fire.
“The trauma of not knowing whether he was alive was difficult for the family,” Karyn said. “We felt as though he could still walk through the door. It was a sadness that was always there. He was alive in our minds all those years.”
She said the family existed on hope, believing he could have been lost, had amnesia or been in a prison camp. The Department of Defense declared Hamilton legally dead in 1977.
Thirty-two-year-old Hamilton’s mission, flying an armed reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, was part of a larger operation, Operation Rolling Thunder, according to the POW Network.
The mission included aircraft attacking air defense systems and the flow of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“Airborne searches for his crash site that day were unsuccessful,” the network said. “A radio broadcast from Hanoi reported an F-105 had been shot down but did not provide any details. Between July 1993 and November 2000, joint U.S.-Vietnam teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), conducted four investigations and one excavation searching for the pilot and his plane.”
One area was ruled out after a team learned from a villager in Vietnam that an excavated area in 1997 was not Hamilton’s crash site, the network said.
“A second location was then excavated in August and September 2000, which did yield aircraft wreckage, personal effects and human remains,” the network said. “In 2004, three Vietnamese citizens turned over to a JPAC team remains they had found at the same crash site a year earlier .”
The remains included life support equipment and what was termed “possible human remains.” The team identified a leather name tag that read “HAMILTON” as well.
“JPAC scientists and Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory specialists used mitochondrial DNA as one of the forensic tools to help identify the remains,” the network said. “Laboratory analysis of dental remains also confirmed his identity.”
Karyn said it took her a while to fully comprehend what happened after the family was notified of the recovery.
“All this time it had been sitting inside of me,” she said. “The impact of a life spent wondering about my father that I’ve never been able to connect to is numbing. Just the reality of putting a body with a memory is so powerful, and it’s such a miracle. I think it’s the greatest gift to have my father back home.”
Karyn’s brother, Lamont, flew to Hawaii to accompany their father’s remains to Virginia for the burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
“My father was back safe on American soil,” Karyn said. “He has a resting place and full honors for laying down his life for his country. It brings a lot of healing to us.”
Hamilton was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with a full military ceremony on June 28, 2007: his wife’s birthday.
Karyn, who is an ordained minister, presided over his funeral. Her message was, ‘Col. Eugene David Hamilton exchanged one set of wings for another.’
“Welcome home, Dad,” Karyn said at his service. “It’s been a long time. We missed you, and we are proud of you. You will not be a forgotten soldier. You are our hero.”