PERRYVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ It was more than 21 years ago, but it seems like yesterday to Lillian Tolley that the telephone rang at 3 a.m. with news that Harold George Bennett was dead.

The caller was an Army representative, notifying her husband, Grover Tolley, that the 24-year-old sergeant had died on Dec. 29, 1964, while in captivity of the Viet Cong.

Mrs. Tolley's late husband was sheriff of Perry County, a rural area where folks knew most everyone else. Bennett's mother didn't have a phone at the time, so the Defense Department notified the sheriff that a hometown boy had died in the service.

''I heard Grover say, 'Oh, no,''' Mrs. Tolley recalled recently, her eyes misting. ''When he told me what happened, neither one of us went back to bed. Somebody that close ... it was tragic.''

In June 1965, a memorial was placed on the lawn of the Perry County Courthouse. Its plaque says Bennett was the first American prisoner of war executed in Vietnam.

The Pentagon will not confirm the grim statistic, and Army spokesman Lt. Col. Keith Schneider said no one may ever know the circumstances of Bennett's death, or of the deaths of 36 other U.S. personnel listed by the Vietnamese in 1973 as having died in captivity.

Bennett's body was never returned to Perry County. His case, said Schneider, is an example of a ''discrepancy case,'' in which circumstances indicate the Viet Cong should have more information than the United States has been given.

''Our response is, if these people were under your control when they died, you should be able to help us find their remains and return them to their families and loved ones,'' Schneider said.

Bennett's sister, Laura Vaught, said their mother never acknowledged her son's death.

''When you can't say goodbye, it's hard. There were times she'd slip and say things where I knew that she knew he was gone,'' Mrs. Vaught said. ''(But) She could not put up a monument for him. To her, that would be conceding there was no hope.''

''The hardest part of it all is not getting the body back. There's something final there,'' she said.

The courthouse memorial was erected by community and veterans' groups.

''It had an impact on all of us,'' Mrs. Tolley said, ''that the first one had to be one of ours.''

Bennett's brothers and sisters put up a headstone after their mother died in 1980.

''We wanted to recognize George. But we didn't want to upset mother,'' she said. ''We wanted his body. But we have his memory.''

Mrs. Vaught said her family has no plans for a formal observance in memory of Bennett on Memorial Day. Instead, she plans to go to Little Rock for a service on the site of a proposed Vietnam veterans' memorial on the state Capitol grounds.

Twenty years ago, while demonstrators marched against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Mrs. Tolley said Perryville, which then had about 700 residents and now has 1,058, was calm and supportive of policies related to the war.

Bennett did not always want to be a soldier, said Mrs. Vaught, but he enlisted because of frustrations with school.

By age 19, he had made sergeant. ''He pointed to his stripes and said, 'There's not many 19-year-old sergeants,''' she said. ''He had found something he could do well. He found his niche.''

Mrs. Vaught says her father's death in 1947 infused her brother, then 6, with a feeling of responsibility for the nine children.

''We didn't have that father image, so he sort of became our little daddy,'' she said.

When he went to war the family was proud, she said, and apprehensive.

The family supported the war - before and after Bennett's death.

''We supported the boys. And of course I don't think we really understood all the political implications of the war,'' she said. Mrs. Vaught doesn't believe her brother died in vain.

''He believed in what he was doing. He loved those Vietnamese children. And he wanted their freedom for them,'' she said. ''We were told we were going over there to give those people their freedom, that if we didn't get to them, the communists would. He believed it. He cared.''