United States Army Aircrew – Lost In Laos, 5 March 1971


Name: David Lindford Nelson
Rank/Branch: Captain/US Army
Unit: Company C, 158th Aviation Battalion,
101st Airborne Brigade
Khe Sanh, South Vietnam
Date of Birth: 10 November 1943
Home of Record: Kirkland, Washington
Date of Loss: 5 March 1971
Country of Loss: Laos
Status in 1973: Killed/Body Not Recovered
Airrcraft/Vehicle/Ground: UH1H “Iroquois”

Other Personnel In Incident: Joel C. Hatley (missing); Ralph A. Moreira and Michael E. King (remains returned)


By early 1967, the Bell UH1 Iroquois was already the standard Army assault helicopter, and was used in nearly every “in-country” mission. Better known by its nickname “Huey,” troop carriers were referred to as “slicks” and gunships were called “hogs.” It proved itself to be a sturdy, versatile aircraft which was called on to carry out a wide variety of missions including search and rescue, close air support, insertion and extraction, fire support, and resupply to name a few. It usually carried a crew of four.

When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

On 8 February 1971, South Vietnamese President Thieu announced Lam Son 719, a large-scale offensive against enemy communications and supply lines in that part of Laos adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The mission was to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would provide and command ground forces, while US forces would provide airlift and supporting fire. Phase I, renamed Operation Dewey Canyon II, involved an armored attack by the US from Vandegrift Base Camp toward Khe Sanh, while the ARVN moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border. Phase II began with an ARVN helicopter assault and armored brigade thrust along Route 9 into Laos. ARVN ground troops were transported by American helicopters, as the US Air Force provided cover strikes around the landing zones.

On 5 March 1971 Captain David L. Nelson, Aircraft Commander; Warrant Officer Ralph Moreira, Pilot; Specialist 4 Joel Hatley, Crewchief; and Specialist 4 Michael E. King, Door Gunner, comprised the crew of the lead elicopter (tail # 67-17341), call sign “Auction 01.” Auction flight consisted of the second group of ten aircraft on a combat assault mission in an overall air armada of 40 Huey helicopters inserting ARVN troops into Landing Zone (LZ) Sophia in conjunction with Lam Son 719. The Hueys' were to insert the ARVNs, then return to Khe Sanh to refuel, rearm, and load the next wave of troops to be inserted. The combat assault into LZ Sophia was the final stepping stone toward the ultimate objective of Tchepone, Laos, a village roughly 20 miles from the border that was known to serve as a major hub for the NVA supply activities on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

LZ Sophia was located just south of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, and because of its close proximity to it, some of the flight path approaches took the helicopters to the northwest and over Laotian territory. To complicate matters further, during October 1970, the NVA positioned 2 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries with more that 200 pieces of heavy artillery in the area. Because of this, nearly every aircraft participating in this overall mission, including the command and control aircraft that flew at 5,000 feet, was hit by AAA fire. In addition to the AAA batteries, American aircraft had to contend with SA-7 missiles as well as enemy helicopters and fighters that were also operating in the area of LZ Sophia. Auction flight followed Chalk flight, the first set of 10 helicopters in the armada, into the release point over which all the Huey's turned left before making the final approach to the LZ. The release point was a river bend just west of a hill occupied by an NVA 23mm battery. In the very low visibility caused by smoke, haze and the chaos of battle, Chalk 01, missed the spot to execute the hairpin turn to the south before final approach and flew too far west over entrenched NVA AAA positions.

As Capt. Nelson turned toward the south, he radioed that his aircraft had been hit in the fuel cell by 23mm AAA fire, they were trailing fuel, his door gunner had been wounded in the head and several of his 11 passengers were also wounded. Capt. Nelson made radio contact with the command and control aircraft stating, “…I broke off the LZ on long final. I'm heading back to Kilo Sierra (Khe Sanh) at this time. I've got a gunner hit in the head, some of my troops are hit, and the aircraft's hit pretty hard…and I was losing fuel…but I've stopped loosing fuel now…so I'm just heading back…to Kilo Sierra.”

The other aircraft disembarked their troops and were on their way back Khe Sanh when some of the other aircrews reported seeing a helicopter believed to be the lead aircraft below and well out in front of them. As they watched Auction 01, it burst into flames, exploded twice in the air, then crashed and exploded again on impact. As soon as the ball of flame was seen, attempts to make radio contact with the flight leader were made, but all attempts were unsuccessful. No formal air to ground search was attempted because of known enemy AAA batteries and the large number of communist ground troops operating in this region. All four crewmen aboard the Huey were immediately listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

The crash site was located in a very long narrow jungle covered valley between a rugged mountain range to the south and a river flowing from the northwest to southeast through the center of the valley, and roughly ½ mile from each one. A major artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail paralleled the river to the north of it and another mountain range farther to the north of the road. Two major entry points on the North Vietnamese/Lao border joined together approximately 36 miles northwest of the crash site. The Ban Karai Pass was 43 miles north of the crash site and the Mu Gia Pass was 78 miles north-northwest of it. The wreckage was also located 32 miles west of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam; 7 miles southwest of Tchepone and 17 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnam border, Savannakhet Province, Laos.

In 1988 a former Royal Lao Army Officer who received some of his training in the United States, Somdee Phommachanh, reported to the US government, then later to the American public on national television, that prior to his escape from captivity, he was held captive by the Communist Pathet Lao along with two Americans at a prison camp in northern Laos. He reported the identity of those two men as being Army Capt. David Nelson and Navy Lt. Stanley Smiley. That identification was later confirmed by US officials through the positive identification of both men's pre-capture photos. According to Somdee, he nursed the very ill David Nelson as best he could until the day he died. The guards allowed Somdee to bury his friend with all the care he would a cherished loved one, given his limited ability as a Prisoner of War. The last time he saw Lt. Stanley Smiley was shortly after David Nelson's death. Lt. Smiley was sitting with his back against a tree a short distance from their hut with a stick in his hand randomly writing, then erasing, his name in the dirt before him. Somdee was unable to talk with Lt. Smiley because of the nearby guards.

Somdee Phommachanh escaped from the Lao prison camp and eventually made his way to the United States. He settled in Nebraska and found employment as a janitor with the town's school system. In the mid-1980s he told his friend, the school's principal, of his experiences as a prisoner in the communist's reeducation system, including his knowledge of David Nelson and Stanley Smiley. With his friend's assistance, Somdee provided his first-hand live sighting information to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the US Government agency responsible for the POW/MIA issue at that time. He also provided his information to several Congressmen, including Bill Hendon of North Carolina and Bob Smith of New Hampshire. He also offered in writing and in person to testify under oath to the House Sub-Committee on Pacific and Asian Affairs, chaired by Congressman Steven Solarz of New York. Steven Solarz declined Somdee's offer to testify. From 5 to 10 January 1990, a joint American/Lao excavation team excavated the remnants of a Huey crash site in Laos presumed to be the one David Nelson, Joel Hatley, Ralph Moreira and Michael King were aboard. As a result of that recovery operation, one of the few items recovered was Ralph Moreira's wedding ring with his and his wife's initials and the date of their marriage engraved on it. Also recovered from the crash site were 10 tooth portions and 44 bone fragments that were fractured and burned. The remains were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination.

On 21 September 1990, the US government announced “the remains of all four men were successfully accounted for.” According to the CIL-HI forensic report, the remains of Ralph Moreira “consist of one tooth – the unrestored #18 molar.” This determination was made because he was the only American on that aircraft who did not have a filling in the #18 tooth. The remains for Michael King “consist of the #4, #7, #15 and #18 teeth (restored).” The 44 bone fragments were consistant with human bones, but could not be determined to be exclusively human, and were too small to for MT-DNA testing. For David Nelson and Joel Hatley, no remains were identified. Further, there was no mention of recovering the remains of any of the 11 ARVN soldiers who were also on board the Huey.

The four families, who were thrilled when first notified that the remains of their men were coming home and who were shocked to learn that no actual remains were being returned, were in attendance. The reality of the quantity and quality of the recovered material came to light only upon questioning by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The families learned no remains at all were recovered for Captain Nelson and Specialist 4 Hatley. There were unidentifiable minuscule fragments of bone. There were no whole teeth, only 10 pieces of teeth. The US government pressed forward with the burial of the minuscule fragmented remains in one casket in Arlington National Cemetery on 5 October 1990 under a headstone bearing the names of the four crewmen.

David Nelson, Joel Hatley, Ralph Moreira and Michael King were among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding “tens of tens” of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords which ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

For Michael King and Ralph Moreira, their families accepted the identification of remains presented by CIL-HI and their families have the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one now lies. For David Nelson and Joel Hatley, the situation is not so simple.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots and aircrews were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.

While the USG considers David Nelson and Joel Hatley to be “remains returned,” their families do not. They ask that Americans continue to wear their POW/MIA bracelets and help them fight for an honorable accounting of them.

David Lindford Nelson – Captain, United States Army


David Lindford Nelson was born on November 10, 1943 and joined the Armed Forces while in Kirkland, Washington.

He served in the United States Army, and attained the rank of Captain.
David Lindford Nelson is listed as Missing in Action.

Ralph Algelo Moreira, Jr. – Chief Warrant Officer, United States Army


Ralph Angelo Moreira, Jr. was born on June 19, 1949 and joined the Armed Forces while in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.

He served in the United States Army, and attained the rank of Chief Warrant Officer.

Ralph Angelo Moreira, Jr. is listed as Missing in Action.

Joel Clinton Hatley – Specialist 4, United States Army


Joel Clinton Hatley was born on October 24, 1948 and joined the Armed Forces while in Albermarle, North Carolina.

He served in the United States Army, and attained the rank of Spcialist 4.

Joel Clinton Hatley is listed as Missing in Action.

Michael Eli King – Specialist 4, United States Army


Michael Eli King was born on August 3, 1949 and joined the Armed Forces while in Calhoun, Georgia.

He served in the United States Army, and attained the rank of Specialist 4.

Michael Eli Kingis listed as Missing in Action.


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