My father was Lt. Albert R. Hamilton, Jr. I was 16 months old when he was killed in the C-124 crash in June of 1953. I never knew him and my mother rarely spoke of him. I have gaping holes in my heart where his memory should be.
~ Terry Mathews, Winnsboro, Texas
I put the above post on the Korean War Educator website (www.koreanwar-educator.org) years ago.
Little did I know the impact those few sentences would carry through cyberspace.
My father was a Sabre jet fighter pilot assigned to the Air Force’s 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron at K-13 air base near Suwon, Korea. He is buried in paradise, at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Four years after he was killed, my mother remarried, and built a new life in Winnsboro with her new husband, John Earl McCrary. Together they had a son, Mark, and were owners of The Bandbox of fashions for 30 years.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 8. I lost my paternal grandfather, along with most of the Hamilton family ties, my senior year of high school.
My mother didn’t talk about my dad. “It was too painful,” she recently told me.
I grew up knowing the basic facts of his life, but didn’t have any contact with the men who served with him until several years ago when I started Googling his name on the Internet.
My Internet searches yielded names and websites dedicated to the 36th squadron and its pilots, along with e-mail addresses of those who were there at K-13. I found photos of him I’d never seen, taken by other squadron members.
I also made contact with relatives of pilots who were lost or who have since died. One of the relatives shared copies of the flight surgeon’s report from the crash.
Knowing that I had read the graphic details horrified my mother, but it gave me a sense of closure.
I had even talked to pilot “Wild Bill” Sternhagen, now an attorney in Montana, who said, “Your father had the right stuff. He would have been a general.”
Finding these links on the Internet helped me piece together my dad’s military life.
However, nothing prepared me for the phone call I received on the evening of March 20, 2009.
“Is this Terry Mathews?” a male voice on the other end of the line asked. “Terry Hamilton Mathews?”
Once the caller realized he had reached the right person, he said, “You don’t know me, but my name is Kirby Prickett and I was there the day your father died.”
Kirby had seen my post on the Korean War Educator website and decided to find me.
Over the course of the next 40 minutes, Kirby and I swapped stories. We laughed and we cried – a lot.
“I don’t sleep well at night,” he explained. “I have nightmares about Tachikawa. After reading your post, I kept thinking about the little girl who was missing her daddy.”
Kirby was a policeman in the Air Force, stationed in Tokyo. He had just dropped someone off at the Tachikawa air base as the C-124 carrying my dad headed back toward the field.
“I was leaving the air base when an ambulance motioned for me to turn around and follow,” he explained. “We thought this would be a rescue mission. When we realized it was only going to be a recovery, we all hit our knees.”
The crash happened about 4:30 in the afternoon. When he returned to his barracks later that evening, Kirby said he burned his clothes.
For almost 56 years, Kirby kept the horrors of the crash and its aftermath to himself.
“I didn’t even tell my wife, Sue, until two days ago,” he said. “And we’ve been married 53 years.”
Kirby and Sue have two sons, Dan and Dennis, and one daughter, Linda.
“I kept thinking about Linda and my relationship with her,” Kirby said. “It’s what made me search for you on the Internet. It’s what made me pick up the phone and call you.”
Kirby said he always felt helpless because he couldn’t do anything for the men on the plane that day.
“There’s was nothing we could do to have saved them,” he said. “We were there and we were willing, but there was nothing to be done.”
Kirby left the military in 1956. He worked for Honeywell International in Denver until he retired in 1991.
He and Sue then settled in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1993. During his free time and with some computer skills learned from Sue, Kirby began surfing the Internet, looking for information about the crash.
“I found a list of all the men on the plane that day,” he said. “I printed it out and said a prayer for every one of them.”
Using Google and other Internet search engines, Kirby was able to find my phone number, but didn’t act on it right away.
“Every now and then, I would look at what you wrote,” he said. “But then, I’d put it away. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Through the years, Kirby said one of his greatest fears was a chance meeting with someone who had lost a friend or loved one in the crash.
“Sue and I travel a lot,” he said. “We work with Habitat for Humanity. We meet new people all the time and I was always afraid of someone saying, ‘I had a relative on that Globemaster crash during the Korean War.’”
As we talked, Kirby also said he was a little worried about my reaction.
“I didn’t know what you would say,” he explained. “Maybe you might not want to talk to me. I just didn’t know.”
Before we hung up, Kirby said, “I’m glad I made the call. It was very hard for me to do, but I’m glad I did.”
I immediately fired off an e-mail to my mother telling her what had happened and giving her Kirby’s e-mail address because I was in no shape to have another conversation. She and Kirby e-mailed several times and eventually talked on the phone.
After his initial call, I received an e-mail from Kirby saying that he had told his story to his son Dennis, and had plans to tell Dan and Linda soon.
Then, he mentioned that he and Sue were going to be in Texas this summer to visit Linda and her family in Burnet.
“Could you meet me and my mom for lunch somewhere?” was my immediate response.
On Monday, July 6, 2009, Kirby, Sue, Linda, Linda’s husband Doug and their son Christopher, drove from Burnet to The Stagecoach Inn in Salado to meet my mom, my husband and me for lunch.
Rainbows have always been special to me. They remind me of Hawaii, where my father is buried. One appeared outside our hotel room the afternoon before my mom, Mr. Mathews and I were to meet with Kirby and his family. It was an omen from heaven that everything would go well – and it did.
In getting ready for the visit, my mom went through a box of my dad’s letters – some 200 of them – spanning from their courtship until the night before he died.
She shared a few with me on the trip, and began to give me more details about her life with my father.
“It was just too painful [when you were young],” she said. “I just shut down.”
When we finally met face to face, Kirby and I hugged.
“I don’t have any words,” he repeated.
Over the next three hours, however, we all found our voices.
We shared photos and family stories. A bond that began with horror ended 56 years later with gratitude and warmed hearts.
While he may have been unable to save the men on that plane June 18, 1953, Kirby Prickett reached beyond his fears, picked up a phone and found a way to make things easier for my mom and me.
For that, I will always be grateful.
Note: This story originally ran in The Sulphur Springs News-Telegram in 2009.
Through the years, friends and relatives have taken time from their island vacations to visit my father’s grave site. He’s buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific, located in a dormant volcanic crater high in the hills above Honolulu. We are forever grateful to them for their kindness.
Mother and I have been several times. It truly is paradise on earth.
One thought on “Bittersweet phone call gives closure to witness, orphan and widow 56 years after tragedy”
Terry……your writing is always very good and I enjoy reading your blog posts. This one is so very moving, my eyes are leaking. I am so happy that you and your mother were able to have some answers and some form of closure.