VANCOUVER, Wash. — Forty years ago, U.S. Navy pilots Harley Hall and Ernie Christensen met briefly on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise. They reflected on what would be their final combat mission of the Vietnam War.
"I happen to be the last guy to talk to Harley on the deck, when we launched on the last day," Christensen said a few days ago.
They were among the cream of America's fighter pilots; Hall had commanded the Blue Angels flight team for two years. But they had never tested their skills against Soviet-built MiG jets.
Christensen reminded his friend that Hall's only kill was a "Buffalo Hunter," an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.
"We never got our MiGs, did we?" Christensen said in their brief conversation. "Harley said, 'No, we never did.'"
A cease-fire had already been announced, making Jan. 27, 1973, the last day of combat operations.
"I said it's hard to believe that this is it," Christensen told Hall. "He looked at me and he was really mellow. He said, 'Yeah, we're done after today.' He was really quiet."
That was the last day Christensen, now a retired rear admiral, saw Harley Hall alive.
Hall, a 1955 Evergreen High graduate and a 1957 Clark College grad, was shot down in an airstrike against an enemy supply center. For 40 years, his family and friends have wondered about Hall's fate.
His sister, Gwen Hall Davis, says that the U.S. government has never provided a convincing account of what happened to Harley Hall.
"There has never been anything to prove that Harley died in Vietnam," she said. "I think he was taken to Russia."
After Hall bailed out of his damaged F-4J Phantom, another pilot reported seeing Hall unbuckle his parachute and take off running.
"We knew he was alive on the ground, because his wingman saw him," Davis, 70, said.
Hall is the last American to be designated as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In February 1980, federal officials declared that Hall was "presumed killed in action."
In 1993, the Vietnamese government returned three teeth and a few bone fragments to the United States. Jim Maslowski, a former member of the Blue Angels, accompanied Mary Lou Hall when she picked up her husband's remains.
"Mary Lou was having some difficulty recovering them," said Maslowski, now a retired admiral. "I was still on active duty. We said we were there to collect his remains, we got them, and we got out."
Dental records confirmed the teeth were Hall's. But they didn't prove he was dead, Mary Lou Hall contended. They could have fallen out or been extracted. And there were indications of dental disease that could have only happened while Hall was alive, she said.
Gwen Hall Davis discussed the family's frustrations a few days ago near a display case in Hazel Dell that's a tribute to her older brother. It's in the Harley H. Hall Building, 10000 N.E. Seventh Ave., named in honor of the pilot by fellow Clark College alum Larry Pruitt.
Some of the official information is contradictory, Davis said. At three different times, the family was told that Hall's body was buried in three different places.
Some records they've been able to access indicate that Hall was moved through a series of POW camps, she said, and that he'd been interrogated by a Soviet officer.
If Hall is still alive, Davis said, he will turn 76 in December.
Christensen, who was part of that final mission, is not optimistic.
"It was a killing field that day," said Christensen. On the previous day, he explained, "I was working that same area and we caught two boats going across a river. We killed 12 to 14 of them, and they probably were really pissed with U.S. air."
Philip "Al" Kientzler, Hall's co-pilot, was taken prisoner after bailing out. After he returned home and recounted his time in captivity, "Al said this guy came into his hootch and said that his buddy killed (Kientzler's) friend," Christensen said.
Kientzler, who died in 2005, refused to talk to the family, Davis said.
"I think it's anybody's speculation," said Maslowski, who was stationed on the USS Ranger that day. "Some say he was killed in his 'chute. There are a lot of conflicting stories."
Maslowski noted the indications of dental disease in the teeth that were returned.
"Before we deployed, everybody's ivories were checked to make sure they were in good shape. If you go by that, he survived for some period of time."
However, "I'm sure he isn't alive today," Maslowski said. "It's common knowledge, from the POWs who came home, that it was a brutal experience for all of them."
But that's not the appropriate tone for observing the day, Hall's friends say.
"Here's the deal: Harley is one of the great human beings of all time," Christensen said.
Christensen wound up as commander of the USS Ranger before retiring as a rear admiral. Maslowski retired as an admiral. And they both say that Hall was the superior pilot and better leader.
"He was going to be one of the top military leaders in the Navy, if not the armed forces," Christensen said. "Harley was always one of my heroes. He will always be one of my heroes."
Maslowski recapped the thoughts he'd offered for "Left Alive to Die," a book about Hall:
"He was a quintessential aviator and an inspirational leader, motivator, counselor, shipmate and friend to all who had the unique pleasure and privilege to walk in his shadow," Maslowski said.
Jim Rice spoke from an enlisted man's point of view, but he made the same observations. Rice was the Blue Angels' leading petty officer, who oversaw all the crew chiefs, and had to work to Hall's high standards.
"When you first got there, you wondered 'What have I got myself into?' After the first day or two, you knew where you stood," Rice said. "You put out 120 percent — 100 percent was not good enough — and you enjoyed doing it.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he would have been Chief of Naval Operations," Rice said.