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Two local Vietnam soldiers are left forever connected due to a split-second decision. One survived, the other didn’t.

Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 12:41 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - It has been nearly 50 years since William “Larry” Jackson was shot down by Viet Cong forces, but sometimes it feels like only yesterday.

“Some nights I still have nightmares about Vietnam, and I’ve been home 49 years,” Jackson said.

The Tifton, Georgia native and longtime Albany resident was in Tallahassee on Thursday to pay tribute to his fallen comrade and platoon leader, Captain Joseph Harris.

“He says, ‘You want to volunteer to go look for tanks?’ I say, ‘Sure,’” Jackson recalls to WCTV’s Katie Kaplan.

It was a split-second decision decades ago that would lead him to a spot in Oakland Cemetery every year on April 8.

”The same thing that I was taught, you never leave a fallen comrade behind,” Jackson explained. “When you do have a fallen comrade that you can pay your respects to, you do.”

Each visit owed, in part, to a twist of fate.

“Her son’s picture was prominent behind her all the time,” said Thomas Myers, a retired FBI agent who was a student at Florida State and a member of the ROTC in the late 80s when he got to know a campus secretary who happened to be the fallen soldier’s widowed mother, left childless after he fell in combat.

“Mary never knew what happened and that’s what sort of predicated the whole avenue, investigation,” Myers continued.

In 2002, Myers decided to put his special agent skills to work, researching the incident and connecting with members of the platoon and rescue mission.

It was an effort that eventually led to Jackson in 2002.

“I called him and he says, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe it. I’ve been waiting 20... 30 years for this phone call,’” Myers remembers.

Specialist Jackson was the gunner on Capt. Harris’ helicopter and the only other person on board when it went down.

“I remember looking out the door and seeing the tail bloom falling off into the trees,” Jackson recalled, during a graveside ceremony at Tallahassee’s Oakland Cemetery.

Coincidentally, Jackson lived roughly 80 miles away from Harris’ final resting spot for years before ever realizing it.

“I didn’t even know he was from Tallahassee until probably 15 years ago,” he said.

Jackson was able to finally answer some of the questions, Harris’ family had wondered about for so many years: Their two-man helicopter, on their way to provide cover for a Chinook that was shot down, ended up coming under fire themselves, crash landing in a field.

“I couldn’t get him out,” Jackson said. “He was trapped in the wreckage.”

Harris suffered head trauma and died almost immediately, but Jackson would not leave him behind.

“They dropped the basket and I refused to leave,” Jackson continued. “I told them, ‘No, I’m not leaving ‘til they get Capt. Harris out.’”

“Larry got a hold of the M16 machine gun that was on board and refused to leave the aircraft and was awarded the Silver Star,” Myers added.

Jackson was awarded the third-highest military honor for combat valor. Harris was brought back home to Tallahassee.

“It never truly leaves you,” Jackson said. “I mean, it’s always on your mind. You’re always thinking about it.”

Harris’s mother passed away in 2010. A scholarship established in his memory is still given out to students every year at FSU.

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