Sheldon John Burnett
Colonel, United States Army
States Department of Defense
IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 13, 2005
Vietnam War Missing in Action Servicemen Identified
The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of two U.S. Army officers, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and returned to their families for burial with full military honors.
They are Colonel Sheldon J. Burnett of Pelham, New Hampshire, and Warrant Officer Randolph J. Ard of West Pensacola, Florida. Burnett is to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday. Ard was buried last month in Alabama.
On March 7, 1971, Ard flew his OH-58A “Kiowa” helicopter from South Vietnam to transport three passengers, including Burnett, to an area on the Vietnam-Laos border. As the helicopter approached a landing zone, it was hit by enemy antiaircraft fire and crashed in Savannakhet Province, Laos. Two of the passengers survived the crash and evaded capture as enemy forces attacked. When they reached friendly lines, the two reported that Burnett and Ard were still alive but badly injured.
After 11 days of heavy resistance, South Vietnamese ground forces reached the crash site but found no trace of the missing men or any graves.
Between 1989 and 1996, joint U.S.-Lao teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) conducted five separate field investigations which met with negative results. Then in 2002, U.S. specialists interviewed four former North Vietnamese soldiers, three of which had seen the bodies of the two unaccounted-for U.S. officers. The fourth soldier had drawn a sketch of the area shortly after the incident and all volunteered to assist U.S. investigators in Laos.
In 2003, the four Vietnamese witnesses and local Lao villagers guided the team to the crash site in Laos where they found some aircraft wreckage but no human remains. Then in August-September 2004, JPAC and Lao specialists excavated the crash site and two nearby graves where they found human remains, U.S. military clothing and personal effects, including Ard’s identification tag.
After extensive analysis of the remains and teeth recovered during the excavation, JPAC scientists identified both Ard and Burnett.
Of the 88,000 Americans missing in action from all conflicts, 1,836 are from the Vietnam War, with 375 of those within the country of Laos. Another 747 Americans have been accounted for since the end of the Vietnam War.
Full Name: SHELDON JOHN BURNETT
Date of Birth: 6/9/1931
Date of Casualty: 3/7/1971
Home of Record: PELHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Branch of Service: ARMY
Casualty Country: LAOS
Casualty Province: LZ
Coming home at last
More than 30 years after chopper shot down,
local Vietnam soldier's remains returning to U.S.
By EVAN LEHMANN
Courtesy of the Lowell Sun
Thirty-four years after he was buried in a shallow grave in a foreign country, Lieutenant Colonel Sheldon Burnett will be moved to America's revered resting place: Arlington National Cemetery.
A Pelham resident at the time of his death, Burnett's helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971 during his second tour in the Vietnam War.
His family, not knowing if he lived or died, embarked on a decades-long campaign that ended last September, when a military excavation crew unearthed Burnett's teeth and four deteriorating leg bones.
On Wednesday, Burnett's remains will be given a full military burial in the Virginia cemetery, across the Potomac River from the nation's capital.
To attend, his three children and five grandchildren will return to Washington, where they've been coming for years to press the government for answers.
“It's just a chance for us to say goodbye,” said Trish Burnett of Derry, New Hampshire, who was 6 when her father disappeared.
Burnett will be buried a Colonel, a rank he earned posthumously. His helmet and flak jacket, found in the grave near the crash site, will be given to his family.
“It finally hit home that he didn't live past that day,” said his son, Michael “Irish” Burnett. “I think we always had hope he'd lived.”
Trish Burnett will place photos of her children in the casket. Irish Burnett, a Marine for 12 years, is considering putting his medals and ribbons inside.
And two strangers will remove bracelets inscribed with the colonel's name, which they received randomly from a POW/MIA family support group in the 1970s, to place them in the casket.
The unidentified strangers, both of whom sought out the family, were among a group of people to whom more than 11 million bracelets were distributed as a way to pressure the government to find the remains.
“I have no idea how many (bracelets) have Colonel Burnett's name,” said Ann Mills Griffiths, who worked with Voices in Vital America, the group that distributed them in the 1970s.
Griffiths is now the executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families, the primary organization working with the U.S. and foreign governments to bring home the 1,840 Americans still missing from the war in Southeast Asia.
“It's a success story,” she said of Sheldon Burnett's discovery. “It ends the uncertainty for the family. I wish we could do it more.”
Burnett is the 747th missing American to be
found and brought home since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, she said.
For 33 years, Michael "Irish" Burnett has had the same dream about his father. The phone rings and it's an Army officer, telling him that Colonel Sheldon Burnett has finally been found in Southeast Asia and he's coming home.
Burnett gathers the family, puts on his Marine Corps uniform and hurries to the airport to meet his father's plane. Burnett watches as Colonel Burnett steps down, weathered and in uniform, the whole scene cast in black and white, like the news reports of returning war prisoners Burnett had watched when he was young.
Since his father went missing on March 7, 1971, Burnett has known he was probably dead. The helicopter he was riding in had been shot down in Laos, and the last Army officers to see him said he was badly wounded.
But Burnett, like his two sisters, did not let go of that last thread of hope until February, when a military report detailing the excavation of Colonel Burnett's remains arrived. Col. Burnett and the 19-year-old helicopter pilot had been shot to death by Vietcong soldiers within minutes of the crash. They had been buried in shallow graves near the crash site.
For Michael Burnett and his sisters, Trish and Leigh, the report brought an end to their uncertainty and an opportunity to grieve. But the evidence of his death also silenced a small hope that has survived for decades: that they might speak with their father again.
Colonel Burnett's remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 13, but the effect of the decades he was missing can still be seen in his children, whose lives changed so dramatically while he was gone.
Colonel Sheldon Burnett was born in Milwaukee in 1931 and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1954. He was ambitious and orderly, and he expected the same of his children, his son said. Burnett remembers his father castigating him for B grades on his report card. Colonel Burnett would tell him that it took only a nickel more worth of effort to be the best.
The family was living in Maryland in the fall of 1970 when Colonel Burnett was called to his second tour of duty in Vietnam. Although Colonel Burnett was replacing a man who had been killed, Burnett said his father was not afraid to go back. Colonel Burnett believed the situation in Vietnam was calming down, and he figured a second tour in Vietnam would help him get promoted to general sooner.
Colonel Burnett's wife, Margaret, wanted the family to move to New England so she could live nearer to relatives in Massachusetts. They bought a house in Pelham, and Burnett and his father began working on the house that September, a month before the rest of the family moved in. They slept in sleeping bags on the floor, moving from room to room as they finished painting the walls and fixing the wood trim.
The colonel's military work often kept him away from his family, and Burnett said the month he spent alone with his father was the closest he'd ever felt to him.
"It's almost like he was assigned to me for 30 days," said Burnett, who was 15 at the time. Before Colonel Burnett left in October, Burnett said he began to understand that his father was hard on him because he wanted him to be ready to take responsibility for the family if he didn't return from Vietnam.
'He's not coming home'
When two Army officers came to the door in March 1971, Burnett feared the worst. He immediately took his sisters and younger brother, Steven, into the lower level of the house. As his mother spoke with the officers, he tried to keep the others entertained by playing pingpong with them.
When his mother finally called them up, Burnett was sure his father was dead. But after she explained that their father was missing and not far from the rest of his unit, they all felt sure he'd be found soon.
"We pretty much thought my dad was invincible," Burnett said.
Eleven days later, military officials said they had located the crash site just over the Vietnamese border in Laos but had not found Colonel Burnett. They believed the men accidentally flew into Laos after misreading a smoke signal, and the helicopter was shot down. Two officers, Captain Philip Bodenhorn and Second Lieutenant Saturnio Castillo Jr., escaped the crash and reported that Col. Burnett was wounded and pinned in the wreckage. They pulled the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Randolph Ald, from the helicopter, but both his legs were broken. Bodenhorn and Castillo said Ald and Colonel Burnett told them to leave them behind. Both Ald and Colonel Burnett achieved their final rank promotion after their deaths.
For the next four years, the Burnett family received no new information. When the war wound down in 1975, Trish Burnett, who was only 6 when her father disappeared, would watch the news and search for his face in the groups of soldiers coming home.
"I thought he'd come home with the rest of the POWs," she said. "My mother kept telling me, 'He's not coming off that plane. He's not coming home.'"
When Colonel Burnett was declared missing in action, the Army assigned a casualty officer to the family.
Major Moses Jones was expected to help them with paperwork and other practical matters. But a tragic accident drew Jones closer to the family.
In August 1973, 11-year-old Steven Burnett was killed when he and two friends were playing with gasoline and matches. They had been pouring gas on plastic army men and lighting them on fire. Fumes building up inside the gas can exploded when a match was brought too close. Steven died late that night at Shriners Burn Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"My mom picked up the phone and called Moses Jones," Burnett said.
Jones, now 73 and living in Miami, choked up when he talked about Steven last week. "It hurt a lot, it really did," he said. "He was a likeable boy, mannerly and all of that."He added, "Mrs. Burnett took it very hard, and a lot of my job then was to comfort her as much as possible."
He arranged to have Steven buried at the West Point Cemetery, typically reserved for military only, a task that went beyond his duty to the family as their casualty officer, Trish and Mike Burnett said.
"I felt responsible for them,"Jones said. "As children may need a father, counseling or whatever, I jumped in."
Jones later told Burnett that he was a little nervous about assuming a more paternal role with the family because he is black. But the family embraced him.
Jones attended their graduations and weddings, and the children often called him for advice.
As more of their father's files were declassified, the family found conflicting reports. Soon after the war ended, Margaret Burnett hired an attorney and pushed the government for more information. The military released a report that said Colonel Burnett had been seen walking down a street, but the location was classified. Another said Colonel Burnett's records were found at a hospital near the crash site where American soldiers were buried in mass graves.
None of the pieces fit together, and most of the report was blacked out. "I didn't find anything I wanted to," Burnett said. "Why they were looking for him, who saw him, why Laos."
Without proof of his death, the family could not begin a new life without him.
"To everyone else, the war was over," said Leigh Burnett, who was 14 when her father disappeared. "For us, it went on and on and on."
Their mother never remarried. "She wouldn't because to her, he wasn't dead," Trish Burnett said. After Steven died, she often drank by herself at night, Mike Burnett said. Margaret Burnett died of complications from cirrhosis in 1998. She was 68 years old.
After her mother died, Trish Burnett took over going to yearly meetings held by the National League of POW/MIA Families. Each year, she attended the June meeting in Washington, D.C., and dug into her father's files, trying to understand a man she hardly remembers.
Mike Burnett joined the Marine Corps rather than the Army after graduating from Pelham High School in 1973 because he didn't trust the Army to bring his body home if he died in combat. When he was stationed in Beirut in 1983 with the Second Marine Tank Battalion, he took risks in battle, figuring he'd rather come home dead than be taken prisoner.
"There was no way I'd become MIA," he said. "I'm not going to let it happen to me."
At the 2001 POW/MIA families meeting, Trish Burnett spoke with an Army officer and managed to have her father's case reclassified as a higher priority. That, along with improving relations between the United States, Laos and Vietnam, helped speed up the investigation.
In 2002, Mike Burnett received a package from the U.S. Army that included interviews with the Vietcong soldiers who had shot down his father's helicopter.
Since then, the family has received more information about every six months, Trish Burnett said.
The soldiers who shot down the helicopter showed American officials where they had buried Ard and Col. Burnett, and the Army told the Burnett family that the site would be excavated in September. In October, the Army asked for DNA samples. In November, an Army officer called Trish: They had found and positively identified Sheldon Burnett's teeth.
"Mike called right away," Jones said. "We both cried. I felt hurt because I'm the type of person, I was still holding out hope that he'd still be alive."
When the full report arrived in February, Mike Burnett could finally put to rest the many theories he'd developed about his dad's fate.
"All these years, he's been dead," he said. "He died that day."
For Trish Burnett, the report brought her relief, but it also ended hope she had held onto for so long.
"If they wouldn't have found him, I never would have to believe that he was dead," she said.
"For his sake, he's were he should be," she said. "He's not lying in a shallow grave anymore. I'll have a place to go."
Sheldon Burnett will be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on April 13. His date of death with be etched into a head stone made for him years ago at the West Point Cemetery, where his son and wife are buried.
With Colonel Burnett's case closed, only five troops from New Hampshire remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Nationwide, that number is 1,840. Trish Burnett said she will continue to attend league meetings to support families that are still searching.
"Just because my dad's back doesn't mean I
should walk away from everyone else," she said.
He was the commander of the 1st Squadron of the 23rd Infantry Division's 1st Calvary Battalion.
According to U.S. Army reports, on March 7, 1971, the Kiowa Scout helicopter Burnett and three others were aboard mistakenly strayed into Laos and was ambushed at a fake landing site by a North Vietnamese Army unit.
Two soldiers -- Captain Phil Bodenhorn and Specialist 4 Mike Castillo -- eluded capture and linked up with a South Vietnamese Army unit returning from a raid inside Laos.
Bodenhorn and Castillo told investigators they fled at the urging of the Kiowa's pilot, Warrant Officer One Randolph Ard, who was immobilized by two broken legs.
They said Burnett was pinned within the wreckage. He was injured, incoherent and also incapable of escaping.
Bodenhorn and Castillo have always maintained Burnett and Ard were alive when they last saw them.
It took 18 years for the Army to acknowledge this -- an awkward admission after declaring Burnett and Ard "officially dead" in 1979.
The story about the downed Kiowa was released to reporters at Khe Sanh on March 10, 1971.
Army spokesmen maintained Burnett and Ard appeared dead to the two who escaped. Bodenhorn's and Castillo's names were not released.
In 1989's declassified version, however, Bodenhorn and Castillo stated Burnett and Ard were alive when they last saw them and had demanded a rescue mission.
But no attempt was launched.
"Burnett had no mission nor units in Laos," General Jock Sutherland told reporters at Khe Sanh. "He had no reason or authority to take his helicopter over the Laotian border."
A search of the wreckage 11 days later found no sign of Burnett, Ard or their belongings -- nor anything to indicate they were buried in the area.
The Homecoming II Project and the POW Network concluded their 1990 report by stating: "There can be no question that Randy Ard and Sheldon Burnett were abandoned by the country they served."
Burnett and Ard remain among nearly 400 U.S. soldiers and airmen still listed as MIA in Laos.
The only clues to Burnett's past, the only links to his family, are notes on an index card and three names chiseled on a tombstone in West Point Cemetery.
Two of the names are his son, Steven J., buried there in August 1973, and his wife, Margaret, interred in October 1998.
"He's entitled to a plot by virtue of being a graduate," West Point Cemetery Administrator Dan Landot said.
The third name is Colonel Sheldon John Burnett. But he's not buried there.
"He was never officially interred; he's buried by name only," Landot said. "There are no remains. He's missing."
There's a fourth name on a 1998 index card in Landot's office -- Burnett's daughter, Ms. Patricia Burnett of Windham, New Hampshire.
Burnett is now more than a name to Arden --
he's a husband and a father who, like her first husband, lives on in the
memories of a daughter.
Most of the first part of the operation, begun 30 January 1971, was called Operation DEWEY CANYON II, and was conducted by U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. The ARVN met their halfway point on 11 February and moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border.
On 8 February, ARVN began pushing along Route 9 into Laos. The NVA reacted fiercely, committing some 36,000 troops to the area. The ARVN held its positions supported by U.S. airstrikes and resupply runs by Army helicopters.
President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered a helicopter assault on Tchepone, and the abandoned village was seized on 6 March. Two weeks of hard combat were necessary for the ARVN task force to fight its way back to Vietnam.
Randy Ard had been in Vietnam only a few weeks when an emergency call came in for him to fly the squadron commander to a platoon command post to work his way down to his Third Platoon, which was in ambush in the northwest segment of South Vietnam. He flew his OH-58A "Kiowa" Scout chopper from the 5th Mech and picked up Lt Col. Sheldon Burnett, the squadron commander; Capt. Phil Bodenhorn, Alpha Company commander; and SP4 Mike Castro, Third Platoon RTO.
Ard mistakenly flew past the command post and west into Laos. Seeing yellow marking smoke, he took the chopper down lower. It was too late to pull up when they heard the sound of an RPD machine gun and AK-47's. They had been tricked into a North Vietnamese ambush.
The helicopter went down fast, and smashed into the brush, coming down on its side (or upside down, depending on the version of the account). Ard and Burnett were trapped in the wreckage, but alive. Ard got on the radio and began mayday calls. Bodenhorn and Castillo, who had been in the rear seat, got out of the aircraft. Bodenhorn managed to free Ard, but he had two broken legs and possibly a broken hip. Burnett was completely pinned within the wreckage and injured, but alive. Bodenhorn and Castillo positioned themselves on opposite sides of the aircraft for security and expended all the colored smoke grenades they had, marking their position for rescue.
[Note: Mike Castro's name appears in one account of this incident, but his fate is not given. He does not appear in a second account from the US Army Casualty Board.]
Bodenhorn and Castillo soon heard North Vietnamese approaching, and killed these Vietnamese. The two listened for nearly an hour as others advanced towards their position from two directions, and 155 artillery rounds impacted very near them. They couldn't understand why they were not being rescued, unless it was because the enemy was so close to them. A helicopter flew over, but took heavy fire and left. They decided to leave Ard and Burnett and escape themselves. They told Ard, who nodded wordlessly. Burnett was drifting in and out of consciousness. Both men were alive.
Bodenhorn and Castillo worked their way to 80 yards away when a UH1C came in on a single run, firing flechette rockets which seemed to explode right on the downed chopper. Later, they watched an F4 roll in for a one-bomb strike over the crash site. Ard and Burnett were surely dead.
Bodenhorn and Castillo were rescued by ARVN troops an hour later. Ard and Burnett were classified Missing In Action. The story was released to reporters at Khe Sanh three days later. The army spokesman accurately described the ambush, but told the press that Burnett had been in radio contact with the ambushed platoon, and that he and Ard had appeared dead to the two escaping officers. The names of the survivors were not released.
General Sutherland stated, ".. the decision was not made to employ the Air Cavalry and the Hoc Bao to attempt to retrieve either LtCol. Burnett alive or his body. ..Burnett had no mission nor units in Laos. He had no reason or authority to take his helicopter over the Laotian border."
After 11 days of heavy resistance, the 11th ARVN Airborne Battalion fought their way into the area where the helicopter had crashed. They searched the wreckage and the surrounding area for several days, but found no sign of the two missing men or any of their belongings or anything to indicate that either man was buried in the area. North Vietnamese prisoners later interviewed in South Vietnam reported sightings of U.S. POWs being escorted north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail but none could be correlated to the two missing officers. Neither officer was ever reported alive in the North Vietnamese prison system.
Both individuals were reported missing and in May 1979 were declared "Dead/Body Not Recovered".
In 1989, a large part of this loss incident
was still classified.
CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE — A soldier from New Hampshire listed as missing in Vietnam for three decades is being buried on April 13, 2005, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Colonel Sheldon Burnett’s helicopter was shot down in 1971, but it wasn’t until last fall that his remains were found and identified.
Burnett’s son, Michael Burnett, lives in Henniker. With Burnett’s case closed, five other troops from New Hampshire remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Posted: 8 April 2005 Updated: 9 April 2005 Updated: 13 April 2005 Updated: 17 Setpember 2005