SITTING IN THE DINING ROOM of his bungalow-style home in Brooksville, Fla. (pop. 7,800), Bobby Hall II pauses to savor the pleasures of freedom, as well as a hefty slice of pepperoni pizza. Less than a week earlier he had been a prisoner in North Korea, held for 13 days after his U.S. Army Kiowa helicopter was downed just a few miles north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Chief Warrant Officer Hall, 28, is both delighted and bewildered by the turn of events that brought him back safely to his family and friends. “It has really amazed me to see all the support,” says Hall. “Every time I turn around people are congratulating me.”
Hall is the first to acknowledge, though, that there is a shadow hanging over his homecoming. The downing claimed the life of his copilot and friend, CWO David Hilemon, 29. As Hall tells it, he and Hilemon were on a routine training mission in what they mistakenly believed to be South Korean airspace when an explosion—presumably the result of North Korean fire—blew in the Kiowa’s windshield. With the aircraft losing power and starting to go down, says Hall, “Dave turned to me, and the last thing I remember him saying was, ‘Bobby, I’ve been hit.’ ” Moments later on the ground, Hilemon died in Hall’s arms. Hall was haunted by that memory on the flight home after his release, which the Clinton Administration finally secured by expressing “sincere regret” for the incident. “I felt kind of guilty,” Hall says, “because I got to come home and walk across to freedom—and Dave didn’t.”
In some respects, the ordeal was less trying for Hall than for his family, especially his wife, Donna, 31, who had last seen her husband early in November. While Bobby was being held in relative comfort in a nondescript government room in the capital of Pyongyang, where he says he was well-fed and cared for, Donna spent much of her time anxiously watching television or on the telephone with Army officials, trying to glean whatever information she could. Initially, there were fears that the North Koreans might put Hall on trial and detain him for months or years. Donna says she immediately told the couple’s two sons, Buddy, 9, and Brandon, 6, that their father had been captured.
Donna, who had met Bobby in 1983 when both worked at a local Publix market, received plenty of support from her Brooksville neighbors. “They sent us food and cookies and basically made sure that we didn’t have to worry about feeding ourselves,” she says. “One time we had three hams sitting in the house.” Donna also had the help of Bobby’s parents, Diane and Bobby, who live just across the private dirt road known as Hall Drive.
It appears that the only injury Hall sustained in the crash was a slight compression fracture in his back, which is likely to require several months of rest and care. As for his plans, Hall says he is eager to return to his unit and fly. Which is not to say that he will ever approach his career—or life in general—in quite the same way. “These situations really remind you,” says Hall, “that you can never tell your family enough how much you love them, how much you miss them and how much they really mean to you.”
DON SIDER in Brooksville