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Fifty years after he disappeared over Laos, remains of Fla. Air Force veteran return home

By HOWARD ALTMAN | The Tampa Bay Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 18, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In November 1969, at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, Air Force Capt. James White and his wife Sharon enjoyed their last night out together, dining on hotel room service with family friends Neil and Janet Armstrong.

It was four months after Armstrong took the first walk on the moon. On a whirlwind global tour, he was visiting the younger brother of Air Force Lt. Col. Ed White, a former neighbor and one of three astronauts who had died two years earlier when fire engulfed the Apollo 1 capsule at Cape Kennedy.

The next morning, near the peak of the Vietnam War, James White went back to work at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base, flying F-105D Thunderchief fighter jets. The 27-year-old pilot took off on another secret mission to attack the communist Pathet Lao forces.

He was never seen again. Investigators later said White crashed that day, Nov. 24, after pulling off the target into heavy cloud cover. They didn’t determine why.

Tuesday morning, after nearly five decades giving speeches, enlisting the help of world leaders and finally coming to grips with a painful reality, his wife, Sharon Freshwater White Cook of St. Petersburg, will attend the interment of White’s remains at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Investigators from the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified the remains last June after a painstaking search in the dense jungles of Laos. The seven-year effort turned up no more than a right crown molar and a bone fragment just 2 centimeters square.

They’ll be placed in an urn near the graves of White’s parents and brother Ed. His father and brother both graduated from West Point.

"It’s amazing what they can do," said Cook, 75. "I am grateful for this closure."

• • •
James White and Sharon Freshwater were the toast of St. Petersburg’s Northeast High School.

White, the youngest son of an Air Force officer who would rise to major general and the brother of an Air Force test pilot, was class president and captain of the football and basketball teams. Freshwater was homecoming queen and played the lead in a number of school plays.

They married June 9, 1964, at St. Petersburg’s First Presbyterian Church after White graduated from the Air Force Academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Ed White, the first astronaut to walk in space, was almost 12 years older than his brother, but the two remained close and visited often, Cook said.

"One time, Jim was having trouble with flying and Ed flew down to help him," Cook said, speaking from the living room of her home near Northeast High. "It was back in the early days of the space program. You just didn’t think you’d know people who would become astronauts."

At the end of November 1969, while her husband was on duty, Cook received a call from one of his friends, asking to swing by with another Air Force spouse for a visit.

Living alone at the time with 6-month-old daughter Katherine, Cook was excited to have some company. But the friend wasn’t paying a social call. The Air Force sent him to deliver the tragic news.

"He told me Jim was missing," Cook said.

In a state of shock, she peppered the two with questions.

Was there a signal from his emergency beeper? Did anyone see a parachute? Was he in combat? Where was he?

Each question brought the same answer.

We can’t tell you.

Cook felt lost and alone.

"I remember when the baby was asleep, just being afraid that I was going to lose it. I was in the living room of the apartment screaming the Lord’s Prayer. I was afraid to leave the apartment because I expected Jim to knock on the door."

Cook did what she could to protect her young daughter. She recalled that the two made a game of their walks to the mailbox, where she hoped she would find news about her husband.

"Her first words were ‘mail man.’ "

• • •
The sense of hopelessness Cook felt soon turned to action. She joined the National League of Families, a group created to advocate for loved ones of troops taken prisoner or missing.

She gave more than 300 speeches in an effort to pressure the North Vietnamese for answers. She attended the Paris Peace Talks twice. She met with Secretary of State William Rogers and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. She traveled to Hungary for a meeting of communist nations and risked capture by visiting a Pathet Lao general alone in his hotel room.

She gave him a packet of letters from families. The general later returned the letters she had written to her husband — a sign, she said, that he was most likely dead.

At one point, she learned White may have been spotted, but eventually all hope of a reunion faded. Cook remarried twice, the second time in 1986 to her current husband, Bruce Cook.

In 1998, a Laotian villager led a search team to a site where White may have crashed. Small pieces of wreckage were found, including part of a parachute like White would have used.

From 2010 to 2016, investigators from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conducted searches in the jungle, digging deep and moving boulders until the day they found a bone fragment that matched DNA collected from White’s sister.

Corresponding evidence enabled them to determine the remains were White. Last year, he became the 37th Floridian who disappeared during the Vietnam War to be identified. Another 54 from Florida, and nearly 1,600 nationwide, remain missing.

"It was a lot of relief to finally know," said Cook, an attorney and Stetson University law graduate who is retired from her job representing foster children through the 6th Judicial Circuit’s Guardian ad Litem program.

White was posthumously promoted to major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Cook will join family Tuesday during a full military ceremony at West Point, including a flyover by White’s old unit. The remains of another Tampa Bay-area pilot from the Vietnam War, Air Force Col. Peter J. Stewart, also were located recently and buried with military honors Monday in Winter Haven.

"When they say no man is forgotten in the military, this shows they really mean it, and that means a great deal," Cook said.

"I feel I’m able to say a proper goodbye, I tear up when I say that, but I feel I can finally honor him the way he should be honored."
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