March 2, 2019

“Laid to rest” is perhaps never more appropriately uttered than when referencing the burial of a sailor who for decades was Missing in Action. On Saturday, March 2, 2019—51 years and a day since contact was lost over Vietnam—Lt. Richard Clive “Tito” Lannom finally returned home to Union City, Tennessee and his final resting place.

Activities of the day included a morning unveiling of the updated monument on the grounds of Discovery Park of America that changed Lannom’s status from MIA to KIA. After the unveiling was a time of visitation with Lannom’s widow Charlotte Shaw, nephews John and Ted Lannom and other family members. Following was a memorial service that reflected the naval commander’s love of country and great faith, concluding with a time at the graveside with full military honors and a two-aircraft flyover.

Throughout the day, the reminder came that while the focus was on Lannom, there is a need to continue to hope for those servicemen and servicewomen who served and remain missing.

Since March 1, 1968, only 2 ½ years after her marriage to the man she knew as “Tito,” she had lived with the unknown. That was the day Lannom’s heroic act of volunteering for a dangerous mission—off an aircraft carrier, in the dark of night, over mountains and with no communications—resulted in what is now known to be his tragic end.

“He looked fear and death in the face,” she said of his willingness to step up when others had declined, “and honor won out.”

In late 2017, a Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) team excavated a crash site on the remote island of Tra Ban. Shaw, in remarks during the memorial service, spoke of the harrowing nature of the 2 ½ hour journey each day up steep limestone cliffs in poor weather conditions that the search team endured to ensure that Lannom was found. In Hawaii, DNA and evidence discovered at the crash site were used to officially identify his remains on September 25, 2018. She expressed gratitude for the “lengths they are going to” to ensure more servicemen and servicewomen are being recovered.

“Today is bigger than one hero’s homecoming,” she reminded the standing room only audience that filled Discovery Park’s great hall and extended to fill each subsequent floor. “We are also here to remember those whose remains have not yet been found.”

The news of Lannom’s identification did not reach Shaw immediately. She had married Jackie Shaw and for 40 years their blended family had claimed Tito as an extended member. In remarks at the unveiling, Charlotte’s son Jason Brownlee said it was an August visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. last year and an etching he posted on social media that finally allowed for the connections to be made and Shaw to ultimately receive official word that Lannom’s status had changed to Killed in Action.

Jim Phelps, a member of Rolling Thunder, one of several veteran support organizations present and one that specifically advocates for Prisoners of War and MIAs, noted that since World War II, 82,000 service members have not returned home. Great strides have been made in recent history, he agreed, with annual totals of those returned growing from 8 to 10 per year to now over 200, but the sheer magnitude is still overwhelming.

“Realistically, half of those may never be found,” he acknowledged, prior to the service, pointing to the difficulty of many locations like Lannom’s and those lost at sea. “But for those who can be found, we won’t give up.”

His group along with representatives of American Legion Riders, the Patriot Guard, Combat Veterans and the 1st Battalion Mechanized Company A formed a caravan of more than 100 motorcycles and law enforcement vehicles to escort Lannom and family to the East View Cemetery where the graveside service with full military honors was completed. Hundreds of other mourners lined the streets of the route.

Lannom’s change in status was acknowledged at the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial in DPA’s Military Garden, which was donated in 2017 by Magnolia Place Assisted Living and White Ranson Funeral Home. David Johnson of Magnolia Place coordinated and led the brief service held during the visitation that was enhanced by bagpipes.

Referencing back to the initial dedication Johnson remembered being astonished at the sheer number of MIAs reported at that time. “We must remember each number is a human being,” he said. “Those numbers matter. They will always matter.”

During the unveiling, Scott Williams, president of Discovery Park, noted that the mission of DPA is to inspire children and adults to see beyond. “And what an incredible example of that concept was the life, career and ultimate sacrifice of Tito Lannom,” he added.

The newly updated monument now includes a bronze rosette similar to what is installed when statuses change on the national monument in D.C.

The memorial service, held in DPA’s Discovery Center, included presentations of proclamations by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and the House and Senate of the Tennessee General Assembly. They were presented by Commissioner Courtney Rogers of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services and Rep. Andy Holt.

Lannom’s faith was often referenced in the remarks from friends and Dr. Danny Sinquefield, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett, issued an invitation for those present to find the hope reflected in Hebrews 6:19 that serves as “an anchor to the soul, firm and secure.”

In a meeting with the press, Shaw also spoke of that hope and of having time with Lannom on Friday evening and reflecting on what he would say regarding the events of the day.

“I think he would say, ‘I’m so glad to be home. Thank you to everyone who brought me home. I’m at peace now, but also joyful to see what this day is unfolding to be. Let’s use this day to keep praying and don’t give up searches, don’t give up hope.”

In her final comments during the memorial service, Shaw shared the words Lannom spoke to her at the close of each day – “I love you” and “Say your prayers.” She said, “Those became the gifts that Tito left me to pursue. And those are the gifts for you today – love well and look to God.”