She Never Knew Him...
...But She Never Forgot Him
by George M. "Gunny" Fallon
published in Postal Life Magazine
Photo by Larry Ghiorsi
When Rex DeWispelaere's C-130A was shot down over Laos late in 1969, the dreams of the former casual letter carrier from Western New York vanished with him. No remains were recovered. The crew was declared Missing in Action and newspapers carried some word of the loss, but there was a war on. The stories quickly gave way to reports of other battles and accounts of social and political unrest around the country.
But Rex would not be forgotten.
Certainly not by his family. In 1971, despite the continuing hostilities, his parents traveled to Laos in hope of finding the lost airman living with a tribe of Montagnards in the remote highlands. The Laotians were kind to them but could offer no help.
Nor would his best friend forget. Ted Reynolds had been Rex's closest pal since childhood. Ted was also in the Air Force and they spent leave together before Rex left for Vietnam. For Ted, a day never passed without agonizing over Rex's unknown fate. He too, can not forget.
And Carol Welcomb will never forget Rex DeWispelaere.
She never knew him - neither as a neighbor nor as a classmate.
She was a decade younger and lived in another state.
She never heard his voice or saw him smile from across a room.
She never sent him a letter or postcard.
She didn't even know where he was from.
But she will never forget him.
Carol was a sophomore in high school when she received a POW/MIA bracelet with Rex's name on it. Many Americans wore similar bracelets but when the war ended the novelty wore off. Many of the bracelets found their way into old trunks or junk drawers.
She wore it faithfully for 25 years and thought often of the lost young airman she'd never met. She vowed to keep it until he returned.
Last October, she learned the remains of 14 servicemen missing in Southeast Asia had been recovered and returned for burial. One of the men was Chief Master Sergeant Rexford J. DeWispelaere of Penfield, NY. She could take her bracelet off now.
Her missing hero had come home.
Three weeks later, on Veteran's Day, Carol sent a letter to the Penfield Post Office.
"I was wondering..." she wrote, "...if his family is still in the Penfield area, because I surely would like to send them this bracelet I've treasured all these years."
She was in luck. A letter carrier in Penfield remembered Rex. His name was Ted Reynolds.
"Carol's letter stirred emotions I thought I'd put to rest years ago," recalls Reynolds, a congenial giant who devotes most of his free time to the local volunteer fire company. "Her loyalty revived my faith in human nature.
"I went to visit Rex's mom that weekend. She was touched by Carol's letter and said she wished Carol could have known her son."
Carol eventually met Rex's mom via the telephone. Then Ted introduced her to Rex.
He sent her a picture of Rex and in a warm, thoughtful letter, he told her about the wiry young athlete with the gentle nature and the mischievous grin. He told her of happier days spent boating and water-skiing on Keuka Lake where both families had vacation homes.
He told her about Pete, Rex's father who lived another 22 years believing his son was still alive, and about Florence, the mother who refused to cry because she knew he would return one day. He wrote of the sister and brothers Rex left behind and the nieces and nephews who will never know their uncle.
Rex's Dad passed away four years ago and today, Florence lives alone in a spotless cottage she affectionately refers to as: "My Doll House". She plays bridge with her friends and loves visitors.
On a table in her living room are pictures of her husband and of her son in uniform. She believes they are together now and that gives her a sense of comfort she was denied for a quarter century.
Beneath the pictures, a polished walnut case holds a folded American flag, Rex's flight crew wings and his battle ribbons. Resting atop the flag is the bracelet Carol Welcomb wore for 25 years.
Florence recently visited Carol at her home in Michigan where she raises her family and works for an On-line service. She has three children and "a full zoo of pets".
Ted Reynolds still lives and works in Penfield where he and Rex grew up and went to school. He visits Rex's Mom regularly. He still has the letters Rex sent him from Vietnam and keeps them in a safe place with a letter he received from Carol last December.
In it she writes: "On Friday, I kissed the bracelet good-bye, wrapped it up and sent it to Rex's Mom...I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, Ted. Thank you so much and God bless you. Sincerely, Carol".
And God bless you too, Carol.