Fifty-six years after he was shot out of the sky over Laos, Minnesota still remembers David Hrdlicka.

The boys he knew in high school get together when they can, on the first Wednesday of the month, to talk about the handsome kid from Stewartville with the buzz cut and a kind word for everyone.

We left him behind, when the Vietnam War ended and America moved on. But his family and friends still hold onto the stubborn hope of finding him someday, or at least finding real answers for his wife and children, for the grandchildren he never met, for his first great-grandchild.

Dearly missed, Hrdlicka was 33 years old when he was shot down on a bombing run over northern Laos on May 18, 1965. His 90th birthday is coming up on Dec. 30.

Discovering what has happened in the long years since has been the work of a lifetime.

His wingman saw Hrdlicka's parachute deploy and watched people from a nearby village surround him, gather up the parachute and lead him away.

Carol Hrdlicka would eventually spend decades banging on doors at the Pentagon, testifying before Congress and scouring through patchy, redacted government files for clues about her husband's fate.

But in the beginning, she was a young military wife with three small children who believed with her whole heart that the military was a family — and that family would never leave one of their own behind.

"I believed everything the government told me," she said.

What the government told her kept changing. David was alive, they said. David was dead, they said. He had been executed by firing squad. He had died of malnutrition.

When the war ended in 1973 and 566 American prisoners of war came home, she wasn't told that none of those POWs had been released from Laos.

No one told her — though two decades later, the generals would tell Congress — that they believed dozens of American pilots had been left behind, alive and imprisoned in Laos. Prisoners in a war that wasn't supposed to be happening, in a country where we weren't supposed to be.

In 1977, they officially declared David Hrdlicka dead, and Carol accepted it. She remarried the next year and she moved on with her life.

"I just trusted them wholeheartedly," she said.

Until 1990, when she was mistakenly sent a copy of a government report saying David Hrdlicka had been seen alive, in Laos, that year.

"The hair on the back of my neck stood up," she said. "I was mad, I was so mad. I wanted to murder somebody."

She annulled her second marriage and started her search. The more she learned, the angrier she got.

The Air Force had told her David died in 1968. But in 1969, he was interviewed by a Russian journalist and his photo ran in Pravda. There were reported sightings for decades, most recently in 2009. All were dismissed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Carol Hrdlicka remembers testifying before Congress, facing off against a row of uniformed officers who insisted her husband was dead without offering any proof.

"I said, 'See all these men? That's what I'm up against,' " she said. " 'See this little pile of documents? That's what I've been able to find out.' "

In 2002, the St. John's Prep Class of 1952 joined the search. David Hrdlicka had been a popular member of the graduating class of 1950 at St. John's Prep, in Collegeville, Minn. When the class of '52 met for their 50th reunion, talk turned to the upperclassman they had admired — and the agony of uncertainty his family must be going through.

The class launched the Hrdlicka Project and spent the next 13 years working to keep David's name and story in the news. They raised thousands of dollars for a full-page ad in the New York Times. They flew a POW flag with his picture over the campus where he had been a star quarterback. They told his story, and the story of his wife's tireless search, to anyone who would listen.

"We did what we could with what we had," said Jerry Streeter of Edina, one of the founding members of the Hrdlicka Project, who's still sharing the story even though the project has wrapped up its work.

The members of the Hrdlicka Project are well into their 80s now. Only five of them made it to the gathering last month. They keep going, in honor of the boy they knew at school — the friend who loved flying, who played the beebop sax, who sang baritone in barbershop quartet.

David was always smiling, Streeter said, he always had a good word for everyone. They would do what they could to bring him home.

Carol Hrdlicka maintains a website, crammed with decades of research. Her book, "Finding David: An American Wife Betrayed by her Government," is available on Amazon. Her search goes on.

"I shouldn't have to prove David was alive," she said. "They should have to prove he died."