By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 20, 2011 1:46 PM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
A small group of people meets under a tree near the intersection of Spruce and Center streets Monday to remember an airman who went missing over Vietnam in 1972. The participants gathered for a rededication of "The Freedom Tree," which, 38 years ago, was planted to commemorate fallen Capt. Peter Cleary, whose remains were later recovered and buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 12, 2002.
Capt. Peter Cleary, an airman who learned to fly at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, was promoted to major after his fighter jet went down over Vietnam Oct. 10, 1972.
The last time Midge Linnevers and Tommy Gibson met near the intersection of Center Street and Spruce, they left a willow oak half their size on a nearby green.
"It was just a seedling," said Gibson, who, back in 1973, was Goldsboro's mayor.
So when the two, again, came together at the site they walked away from all those years ago, neither could quite believe that they were meeting in shade provided by that same tree's branches -- that what was once only a few feet tall had, since, exploded to life.
"It was just a twig," Mrs. Linnevers said. "It must have been the good Lord that kept it standing."
"To my knowledge, nothing was ever done to it. It was planted and it grew," he said. "It must have had some special help from something -- or someone."
Perhaps, those who gathered for a ceremony under that willow oak Monday hope, that someone is the man for whom the tree was planted for back in 1973 -- an airman, hero and fierce friend cut down far too soon.
To them, Peter Cleary was more than just another fighter pilot lost over Vietnam.
He was the husband of Mrs. Linnevers' best friend, Barbara, and a comrade to her greatest love, Charles.
And he was godfather to the couple's children.
So Mrs. Linnevers can still remember the day she got the news that Cleary's F-4 Phantom had gone missing.
"The phone rings and I'm fully expecting it to be, you know, 'This is so and so. We have Capt. Linnevers on the other end. Over,' but it was a direct phone call," she said. "I didn't catch on for like five seconds as to why he was calling direct and he says, 'I've got something to tell you.'"
And she can still see horses leading his caisson to a burial plot at Arlington National Cemetery.
But standing under that tree Monday, she chose to remember the man more than those memories.
"He will forever be 28 years old in my eyes," Mrs. Linnevers said. "That's how it is. It's like he's in a time capsule."
Years after he completed his training at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Cleary was attached to the 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn Airfield, Thailand.
His charge: to fly Fast Forward Air Control missions over North Vietnam.
During his tour, the captain's courage and precision was recognized time and time again -- Cleary was awarded, among other decorations, three Distinguished Flying Crosses.
But just before he was set to leave combat, something went wrong.
It was Oct. 10, 1972.
Cleary and his navigator, Capt. Leonardo Leonor, had just directed an airstrike over Vietnam's Quang Binh Province when they were cleared to return to their base.
Their F-4, however, was never seen again.
At the time, Mrs. Linnevers' husband was assigned to another base in theater.
And shortly after he went in for a briefing on what action had unfolded the night before, he called his wife.
"He's talking to me in code, and at first, I think it's a neighbor (who has died)," Mrs. Linnevers said. "But then he says, 'No. Godfather.' I knew immediately it was Pete. He had been shot down in the last section of his last mission."
A few months after Cleary was declared Missing in Action, Mrs. Linnevers decided to honor him.
So with the help of Barbara -- and Gibson -- a ceremony was held on a green near the intersection of Center Street and Spruce.
And Monday, years after Cleary's remains were identified and buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the tree they planted that day nearly four decades ago stood tall -- as a reminder, Mrs. Linnevers said, of the sacrifices necessary to maintain freedom.
"This will be here forever," she said, staring up at that familiar willow oak. "Goldsboro and our dear Lord have done a fine job keeping this tree at the center of downtown."
Al King smiled.
"They always will," the mayor of the town that houses it said. "Nobody is ever gonna bother this tree."