Charles Ervin Shelton
Colonel, United States Air Force
by the Pentagon to be the "last remaining POW/MIA" from the Vietnam War.
He was a pilot who was shot down while on a mission over North Vietnam.
It was long believed that he was a captive, but he was never returned and
his remains were never located. His family took an active role on organizations
involving the familes of POW/MIA service members.
U.S. Veteran Dispatch Staff Report
September/October, 1994 Issue
The United States' last official "live" prisoner of war is now presumed killed in action. His children said a formal goodbye, October 4, 1994, to a man whose disappearance nearly 30 years ago virtually consumed their lives. His name, date of birth and date of death were chiseled on his wife's Arlington Cemetery headstone.
Although there was no evidence of his death and his body was never found, a military panel acting, upon his family's request, declared him dead and arranged for memorial services to be held for Air Force Colonel Charles E. Shelton.
San Diego attorney Tom Reeve Jr. said Shelton's grown children requested the missing pilot's status be changed. He said the emotional drain brought about by the family's 29-year long hunt for their father's fate had become too much and they wanted to put a close to their involvement.
"The family is not making a political statement," Reeve said, "It's a personal act."
The memorial date requested by Shelton's children
marked the fourth anniversary of their mother's suicide by gunshot in her
San Diego garden. Marian Shelton has become a standard bearer among families
fighting to determine the whereabouts of
Shelton's son, the Rev. Charles E. Shelton Jr., told the Press Enterprise, "The kids came together within a year after Mother's death" to ask that their father's case again be reviewed.
"We no longer had the emotional resources to pursue the POW-MIA issue because of the stress," he said. "This issue kills people. That has been our experience. Our family has sacrificed enough. And not everybody is playing fair."
Dolores Alfond, national chairperson of the
Seattle, WA based National Alliance of Families for the return of America's
missing servicemen, said, "The decision of the Shelton Family will upset
some. We offer our support and understanding, without
Alfond expressed fear that U.S. government
officials will use Shelton's memorial service as further reason to declare
the POW/MIA issue closed. She pointed to prior "empty casket" burials where
U.S. government officials declared other MIA's
There are over 2,200 still missing from the Vietnam War, many of whom, like Shelton, were known to be alive in the hands of the communists but were not released at the end of the war nor have their remains been returned.
For nearly a decade, Col. Shelton's case has held singular status among the U.S. servicemen and civilians still listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration announced 10 years ago, on Sept. 18, that the pilot would remain the nation's official representative of its missing servicemen in Southeast Asia as long as their fates remained unresolved.
Stories surrounding Shelton's exploits as a prisoner are epic. Scores of CIA and State Department records chronicle his early years in captivity.
At 11 a.m. on April 29, 1965, Capt. Charles E. Shelton began his 33rd birthday by lifting off from Udorn Air Base in Thailand in an RF101C photo-reconnaissance plane en route to a mission over northern Laos.
Capt. Richard Bilheimer, flying an F-105, was Shelton's wing man and armed escort.
Shelton, a tough, square-jawed native of Owensboro, Ky., and father of five, was on his second tour of duty in Southeast Asia. Based in Okinawa, he was rotating in and out of Udorn every 30 days.
After Shelton and his wing man were prevented from photographing their primary target because of bad weather, they went to their secondary target, the Pathet Lao headquarters in the village of Sam Neua in far northeastern Laos. As Shelton was lining up for his photo run he descended to 3,000 feet, where his aircraft was hit by ground fire. Shelton asked his wing man if he had been hit.
"Roger. You are on fire," came the reply.
Shelton quickly jettisoned the canopy of his plane and ejected. Bilheimer watched the ejection and deployment of the chute. The chute was good and Shelton reached the ground uninjured.
Several hours later two rescue aircraft arrived overhead, spotted Shelton on the ground and conversed with him by radio. Shelton indicated he was in good condition and would use his radio to direct a rescue helicopter due in about 30 minutes.
On Okinawa, Shelton's wing commander visited Shelton's wife, Marian, and told her that her husband had been shot down but was not injured. He reported that
Shelton was evading capture and should be rescued by midnight. Weather conditions began to deteriorate as darkness approached and the rescue effort had to be called off. Shelton pulled his parachute out of a tree, buried it and made contact with rescue crews, telling them he was in good shape and continuing to avoid Pathet Lao forces searching for him.
Bad weather continued to hinder rescue efforts for the next two days. When the weather finally broke on May 2, a large-scale effort was launched in an effort to rescue Shelton. U.S. military aircraft flew 360 hours on 148 missions in the search. Air America, the CIA's proprietary airline in Laos, also joined in the search, but the missions they flew are not recorded because of the secrecy in which the war in Laos was shrouded.
The searchers failed to make radio contact with Shelton or find any trace of him.
There also are indications that a ground search team, led by Bilheimer, was inserted near the spot where Shelton went down. There are no official records of the mission, and Bilheimer's participation in such a ground rescue would have been unprecedented. But there was still no sign of Shelton.
On May 5, 1965, the search for Shelton was called off and he was declared "Missing in Action."
Although Shelton was not the first American to go missing in Southeast Asia (that had happened in 1961), his case became a symbol for all that was wrong with the way the U.S. government handled the issue of its missing men.
At home, the government refused to be truthful with the American people or members of the families of the missing men, citing "national security." Abroad, the missing men became pawns in the lengthy government-to-government negotiations to end the war.
Shelton's case also became a symbol to veterans
of the war in Southeast Asia, for it demonstrated the courage of one man
fighting against hopeless odds. It was the same sort of courage demonstrated
by his wife, Marian, who would fight for decades
In the weeks following Shelton's shoot down, information began filtering out of the Sam Neua area that he had been captured by the Pathet Lao after three days on the run and was being held in caves in an area east of Sam Neua in the vicinity of Ban Nakay Teu and Ban Nakay Neua. His status was changed to prisoner of war.
This area of northeastern Laos is rugged and isolated. Huge sentinels of limestone rock, pocked with caves, rise out of the fertile ground throughout the region. The Pathet Lao leadership eventually was chased out of Sam Neua by the bombing of American aircraft and into the caves that surround a village now known as Vieng Xai. Classrooms, kitchens, homes and air defense sites were hacked out of the rock around Vieng Xai.
For more than three years Shelton was believed held in these caves, often with Capt. David Hrdlicka, shot down May 18, 1965.
But Shelton was anything but a model prisoner, according to intelligence that continued to come out of the region. He developed a reputation as an incorrigible prisoner, a man who could not be broken, a man who would not submit to his captors, no matter what the tortures.
Villagers, informants, defecting Pathet Lao soldiers and refugees told the story of the tough American who twice escaped from Sam Neua city jail, only to be recaptured.
They told of his occasional passive resistance, refusing to walk from place to place, forcing the Pathet Lao guards to carry him.
They told of how he refused to give in even under the most relentless questioning, at one point beating three interrogators to death with a metal chair.
And they told how, finally, when his captors had had enough of him, they moved him to a new cave complex along a river and put him in a tiger pit with bars on top and a guard on top of it.
In captivity, Shelton became the quintessential
military man, defying his captors at every turn. But none of this information
was passed on to Marian Shelton or given to the American public. Laos was
still denied territory and to admit Shelton was a
Only years after the war, when Marian Shelton used the Freedom of Information Act, was she able to pry information out of reluctant government agencies about how heroic her husband had been in captivity.
State Department and CIA records show that at least four teams were inserted into the Sam Neua area to try to rescue Shelton. All failed. Another, authorized by Richard Secord, the retired Air Force general disgraced during the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages investigation, was vetoed by the CIA.
Ernie Meis, a retired photo reconnaissance pilot, said he took aerial photos of a prison cave in August 1968 for a mission to rescue Shelton. He said he was told Shelton was being held in a shallow pit with bars on top in the cave. He took the photos, but never learned whether the rescue was attempted.
Another effort, code-named "Duck Soup," apparently was more successful. According to a variety of sources, including former CIA operatives, Laotian refugees and American military personnel, "Duck Soup" was a mission to rescue Shelton and Hrdlicka involving native Hmong tribesmen, CIA agents and Army Special Forces personnel.
There is confusion as to the time frame of the mission, but indications are it was successful in rescuing Shelton and Hrdlicka. They reportedly were held for about 10 days before being returned to their Pathet Lao/Vietnamese captors.
Four possible reasons for this rescue and return have been suggested:
(1) To gather more intelligence about the Pathet Lao headquarters near the end of the war.
(2) To protect the cover of the rescuers.
(3) The rescue team was attacked and Shelton and Hrdlicka recaptured.
(4) The rescuers, posing as communists, showed off their prisoners as they were leading them to safety until they ran into a North Vietnamese Army unit and were forced to relinquish control of the captives.
One of the last documents released by the CIA about Shelton was a two-page report indicating he and Hrdlicka had been sent to Hanoi because they were considered "incorrigible." This report seems to confirm reports that Shelton had beaten three NVA to death with a chair.
The official record on Shelton ends with his transfer to Hanoi. But for Marian Shelton, the search for the truth about what happened to her husband and the father of her five children continued.
The Pathet Lao claimed Shelton and Hrdlicka had died in captivity in 1968 and had been buried in a grave that was later obliterated by U.S. air strikes. One Laotian official later told her her husband had been "eaten by a tiger."
But, through the years, reports that Charles Shelton was still alive and fighting continued to be received. One report had him in a prison camp near Tchepone, Laos. Another had him on an island in he middle of a man-made reservoir near Hanoi. Yet another had him teaching at a high-security military prison near Haiphong.
Shelton was never declared dead despite repeated efforts by the Air Force to dispose of his case as it was doing to all other cases of missing men by arbitrarily declaring them dead.
But the U.S. government decided to continue
to carry one man out of the thousands of missing as a "prisoner of war."
Charles Shelton, promoted to colonel during his captivity and resistance,
is that man. Today he remains America's lone POW from
Reports about Shelton continued through 1985 and then ceased. A 1980 status review board had voted 2-1 to recommend that he be declared dead.
This spring, Laos agreed to let American searchers look for Shelton's aircraft or remains, Shelton Jr. said. They found nothing. Reeve, the family's attorney, said the Air Force convened another status review board in June. Three generals agreed Shelton should be presumed killed in action.
Alfond said that because "Vietnam, Laos, and
Cambodia, failed to account for men photographed in captivity, men who
made radio broadcast, men tracked by signal intelligence, men reported
as POWs, by returned POWs and men they admit died in
As the nation's last Vietnam POW is declared dead, fresh details emerge on an failed effort to save captured servicemen
Colonel Charles Shelton was the last official Vietnam War POW: the one missing American still designated as being alive by the Pentagon. Shot down during a reconnaissance mission over northern Laos on April 29, 1965, the 33-year-old pilot managed to parachute safely from his RF-101C jet and make radio contact with his home base after he hit the ground. But he was grabbed by Pathet Lao fighters and vanished. Unable to verify his fate, the Air Force listed Shelton as "known captured alive" for 29 years.
On Sept. 20, the Air Force, at the request of Shelton's children, finally put the question to rest and changed his status to "killed in action." Last week, as a bugler played taps, the Pentagon held a memorial for Shelton at Arlington National Cemetery. His name will be carved on the back of the headstone marking the grave of his widow who, deeply frustrated by so many dashed hopes, killed herself four years ago.
Even decades later, many families of Americans who might have been left behind in Southeast Asia when the war ended have never felt satisfied that the U.S. did everything it could to find them. As the last POW was symbolically buried, TIME was piecing together the tale of the one attempt the U.S. made after the war to rescue American prisoners. The bare outlines of that 1981 plan have appeared in occasional press stories over the years. The CIA still refuses to discuss the case. Pentagon officials today say the Defense Department never had reliable intelligence on whether Americans were still alive. But here is a full report of that abortive effort, as uncovered in government documents and more than 20 interviews with military, intelligence and Reagan Administration officials involved in the rescue planning:
"W/1" was one of the most sensitive sources the CIA ever developed in Laos: an elderly woman with close ties to the communist leadership in the capital of Vientiane. Only a handful of senior officials in Washington were privy to her information. According to CIA documents, on Nov. 14, 1980, W/1 gave her CIA handlers a startling report: about 30 U.S. pilots were working on a road gang near the central Laotian town of Nhommarath. Those same summaries reported that a spy-satellite photo confirmed that a prison camp had recently been built near the town.
Military officials on the Pentagon's Joint staff in Washington thought that some pilots shot down over Laos were being held captive and could be at the camp. Two months after receiving W/1's report, the Pentagon began preparing Operation Pocket Change, a top-secret plan to retrieve the airmen. It was the only postwar rescue the U.S. government ever considered in Southeast Asia. The leads that Americans might be at the camp "were the best we ever got," says retired Vice Admiral Jerry Tuttle, the man in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency's hunt for POWS in 1980.
After the war ended in 1975, reports kept trickling into the CIA's Bangkok station that Americans had been seen among the prisoners working on Laotian road and irrigation projects. In 1979 a Laotian informant for the DIA named Phimmachack claimed that 18 Americans had been moved to a cave north of Nhommarath. He identified one of them as Lieut. Colonel Paul W. Mercland, but no Mercland was listed as missing. There was, however, a Lieut. Colonel Paul W. Bannon who had been shot down over Laos in 1969. Pentagon intelligence analysts suspected Mercland was a garbled version of the word American, erroneously assumed to be the officer's last name. Phimmachack passed a polygraph test, and satellite photos analyzed in the Pentagon confirmed the cave's location.
That information, coupled with W/1's November report, convinced some Pentagon intelligence experts that Americans might be at the camp. On Dec. 30, according to a CIA cable from Bangkok, a Thai signal unit called Team-213 alerted the Bangkok station that it had intercepted a radio message from a top Laotian military leader ordering American POWS to be flown from the southern province of Attopu to central Laos. In the same cable, the CIA dismissed the report as fabricated, on the grounds that Team-213 was poorly trained and had not made a tape of the intercept.
But Pentagon officers who had worked with the Thai unit considered the report an important bit of evidence. DIA documents say the National Security Agency confirmed that a plane had left Attopu on the day reported. Another CIA cable from Bangkok said the agency's source in Vientiane, W/1, had delivered a similar report: "starving" prisoners were being moved out of the province because the Laotians were worried that "foreigners" might detect them.
These reports convinced the DIA's Tuttle, who had served as a naval aviator in Vietnam, that American POWS were still alive in Laos. He was also persuaded by a Dec. 30, 1980, satellite photo of the camp that showed a large "52" carved on the ground near the compound's perimeter. He thought it might mean B-52 for a bomber crew. Photo interpreters also pointed to what they believed was a "K," a standard distress signal pilots on the ground used, next to the 52. Other analysts who have seen the photo subsequently argue that the 52 was simply an accidental image, caused by shadow or vegetation. But a Feb. 23, 1981, DIA memo said satellites photographed the camp for a month, and the 52 was always visible in the same place.
Burned by the failure of the Desert One attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran the year before, senior military officers were in no mood to try again in Laos. But never before had photographic, electronic and human intelligence all pointed to one site where POWS might be alive. National Security Adviser Richard Allen was convinced and relayed the evidence to President Ronald Reagan. The camp was in a remote jungle, and any rescue attempt would be risky, Allen warned. But, he says, Reagan was eager to try.
The CIA was ordered to provide the necessary intelligence. Spy satellites watched the camp 24 hours a day. At one point, according to a CIA source, the agency considered kidnapping a Nhommarath guard to sweat him for information but rejected the idea as too dangerous.
In January 1981, the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees counterterrorist units like the Delta Force, to devise a rescue operation. Tuttle says the DIA built a tabletop-size model of the Laotian camp based on satellite photos and took it to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to help the JSOC with its planning. Members of the Delta Force say the commandos then planned to construct a full-scale mock-up in the Philippines to practice its raid; as cover, it would pretend to be a Hollywood company shooting a commando movie. The JSOC sent intelligence officers to scout a remote airstrip in Thailand, where cargo planes carrying MH-6 helicopters would land to stage the airborne assault. Officers then in the unit say the plan was to have about 40 Delta commandos swoop down on the camp, armed with machine guns, breaching charges and chain saws to cut through doors.
But before the JSOC's Brigadier General Dick Scholtes would risk the lives of his troops, he insisted that Delta conduct its own reconnaissance to confirm that American POW's were really at Nhommarath. According to former CIA officials, the agency argued that it should carry out any ground reconnaissance since Americans would stand out in the Laotian jungle, and Washington needed to retain plausible deniability. CIA officials demanded that Laotians on their payroll carry out the mission. National Security Adviser Allen sided with the CIA after the officials assured him there would be at least one American accompanying the team to view the target.
Allen now says he regrets that decision because the CIA's reconnaissance team performed poorly. No Americans were included. The team was led by a former Royal Laotian Air Force pilot with no commando experience; his main qualifications for the job seemed to be that the CIA trusted him and he was familiar with the Nhommarath area. The team's radios were antiquated. CIA and Delta Force officials say agency staff members who went to a Chicago mountaineering shop to outfit the team with climbing equipment purchased white rope; JSOC officers sent them olive-green rope that would not be spotted in the jungle.
Operation Pocket Change was supposed to be one of the Pentagon's most secret missions. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not want to repeat the mistake made in the Desert One fiasco when senior Pentagon officials kept too many key officers in the dark. Tuttle says he was ordered by the Chiefs to expand the circle of officers informed about this operation. On March 18, members of the congressional POW task force were briefed on the Nhommarath sightings. The result was a flood of leaks to the press. Colonel Ronald Duchin, then head of the Pentagon's news division, says he had to persuade half a dozen news organizations to hold their stories until the operation was over.
On March 29, the 13-man CIA reconnaissance team crossed the Mekong River into Laos and almost immediately ran into trouble. According to CIA officials monitoring the team at the time, Laotian army patrols pinned it down for more than a week. One member accidentally shot himself. Another fell ill and had to be evacuated. Though Nhommarath was just 40 miles from the Thai border the team took more than a month to reach the suspect camp and finally returned safely to Thailand on May 13. A week later, say CIA documents, the agency reported to the Pentagon that the team had spent two days at the camp observing about 160 prisoners, but none were Caucasians.
By then Duchin had learned the Washington Post was planning to print its story about the proposed rescue raid. He says he conferred with senior Pentagon officials on May 20 to see if they had any objection, and they did not. Duchin told Post editors that they could go ahead.
The story, which reported that a CIA team had visited a Laotian camp but turned up nothing, appeared on May 21. Duchin sensed that senior civilian officials in the Pentagon were almost relieved that the story was out, and the CIA reconnaissance had proved nothing. "Nobody was eager to launch this operation," he recalls. The Pentagon reacted to the Post story by closing the entire operation down.
But inside the military special-operations community, the debate continued over whether the brass had been scared off too soon. Congressional staff members looking into the aborted mission two years ago learned that the CIA team had spent only two hours actually observing the camp, not two days as the agency first reported. The team leaders quickly snapped photographs from positions at least 500 yds. from the camp's perimeter, and most turned out to be blurry; they saw none of the prisoners believed to be housed in an inner compound before they were frightened away by barking guard dogs. The entire operation, Allen now concludes "was a flat-out failure. We missed the best chance we ever had to find POWS still alive."
Last February Laos finally let a Pentagon team
into the country to inspect the Nhommarath prison. Americans in the party
say nervous Laotian officials rushed them through their tour of the camp
and gave them little time to read the prisoner logs. No photographs were
allowed. Investigators were permitted to interview only two elderly villagers
from Nhommarath who claimed they never saw POWS. The team had to report
back that there was "no evidence" Americans had been held there.