FORT LAUDERDALE — With only two weeks left in his Vietnam War combat mission, Air Force Sgt. James Harold Alley sent a letter to his family in Plantation, promising to see them soon.
"When you turn around, turn around slowly," wrote the 22-year-old Stranahan High School graduate. "I might be there."
More than 38 years later, the remains of Sgt. Alley — killed in April 1972 after he volunteered to help rescue a jet pilot shot down by the North Vietnamese — will finally come home.
The homecoming this week for his remains marks the end of a long odyssey for the Air Force photographer and for his family, which for decades maintained his bedroom — first in Plantation and later in Arcadia — and his yellow 1967 Chevrolet Camaro just he way he had left them.
"My parents never got over his loss," said Tim Alley, 36, who was adopted by Harold and Syble Alley a year after James was killed.
In 1978, Tim, an older sister, June, and their parents moved to Arcadia. In their new house, his parents replicated James' Plantation bedroom, setting out his track trophies and model cars, pinning the Stranahan High pennant to the wall, spreading the tropical-flowered comforter over the single bed.
The Camaro — with James' graduation tassel hanging from the rearview mirror — was covered with a tarp and stored in Harold Alley's transmission repair shop.
And everything stayed that way until the house was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004, Tim Alley said.
"In pictures of my dad after James died, you never saw him smile," said Tim Alley, a Desoto County firefighter and paramedic.
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The story begins in 1968, when Alley, a year out of high school, enlisted in the Air Force.
He was aboard a Sikorksy HH-53C helicopter on April 6, 1972, when it was hit and exploded in the air.
For more than two decades, the remains of the crew were unaccounted for. Then, in 1994, Vietnam returned the remains of about 240 U.S. casualties, including some remains of those aboard the helicopter.
Remains of the crew were interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997, and James' remains were thought to be among them.
But this year the Defense Department's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii announced a match between a DNA sample from James' mother and more recovered remains.
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Before he died in 2007, Harold Alley signed over the title of the yellow Camaro to Tim, asking his surviving son never to sell it.
This week, Tim Alley will fly to Honolulu and retrieve the remains of the brother he never met.
"I knew him only through family stories," he said. "He was an all-American kid. I'm told that anybody who ever met him liked him. He was a hero."
Burial is scheduled for Saturday in Oakridge Cemetery in Arcadia.