Charles G. Herrick – Major, United States Air Force Pilot, Central Intelligence Agency (Air America)

From a contemporary press reports:

July 5, 2003Charles Herrick died in his civvies, not that it mattered to the men who shot him down. In the shadowy dawn of the Vietnam War, Herrick seemed simply another American pilot; a suitable target for enemy soldiers on the ground in Laos. Certainly, his 1963 combat death while flying a CIA-owned airplane came in service to his country.

But because he died a civilian, having earlier resigned his Air Force commission to join an unusual outfit called Air America, Herrick also left behind some ambiguities about benefits. They are questions still frustrating his daughter, Modesto resident Gayle Herrick Holt.

“I can’t get anybody to explain it, because I can’t find anyone who will acknowledge having any records,” Holt said.

Nor is Holt the only one struggling to resolve disputes over service and benefits. Indeed, amid the patriotic wash of Independence Day celebrations, Holt and others like her showcase more fundamental questions about the meaning of service, the obligations of country and the significance of uniform.

When do wartime civilians deserve military-style benefits? Sometimes, Congress will simply dictate an answer. This week, for instance, Mariposa Republican George Radanovich introduced legislation extending veterans benefits to merchant seamen for all past and future wars.

“The primary effect is just the honor, because you’ve been in harm’s way,” said Rufus Hernandez, a 76-year-old retired Fresno businessman and former World War II merchant sailor. “It’s a recognition, which is primarily what we wanted all along.”

In the case of Air America, struggles are under way at both the group and individual level. While Holt tracks down what the government may owe her family, other Air America survivors are making a group bid to secure what they believe is due.

“Yeah, they weren’t in uniform,” Holt said, “but they were still in service to their country.”

Air America was what the CIA termed a proprietary company — in other words, a front. Like its predecessor firm called Civil Air Transport, Air America served U.S. national security interests in Asia. In Laos, Air America crews carried supplies, rescued downed pilots and undertook some very sporty missions indeed. Approximately 100 Americans died in the Vietnam War while serving with the company.

Holt’s father was shot down while co-piloting a C-46 cargo plane filled with supplies for troops. A civilian when he died about 30 miles from the border of Laos and North Vietnam, Herrick is not listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Following her father’s death, Holt recalls her mother receiving “a little stipend” from the federal Harbor and Longshoreman’s Fund.

She’s subsequently heard suggestions that other Air America families received something more substantial, but details are scarce and stone walls abundant.

“All we ever get out of the CIA is, ‘We don’t have any records about it,'” said William Holt, Gayle’s husband and himself a Vietnam veteran.

The Holts run an import business in Modesto along with son Charles, a 32-year-old Beyer High School graduate. The Holt’s oldest son, William Jr., is a 36-year-old Army drill sergeant.

Last week, all of the family members had the somber satisfaction of seeing Charles Herrick’s remains buried in Arlington National Cemetery. They also met a new CIA casualty assistance officer who, the Holts say, seems willing to delve into the benefits question. Herrick merited the Arlington burial by virtue of his prior Air Force service.

This dual identity — a military veteran who died in wartime civilian service — captured a core dichotomy within the Air America community.

“There is a dispute among (us) as to who we were,” said Allen Cates, a former Marine Corps and Air America pilot. “Some want to be (considered) civil service employees and some want to have veteran status.”

Seeking benefits

Cates is now pinning his own hopes on a little-known review panel.

In a newly filed application with the Civilian/Military Service Review Board, Cates is seeking veterans-style benefits for all Air America alumni. These could include disability payments, increased retirement pay and an Arlington burial for those wounded in combat.

“Medical evacuations under fire, refugee movements under siege and rescues of downed military flight crews were conducted voluntarily and came from the heart,” says Cates, a Louisiana resident and past president of the Air America Association. “Air American employees were truly veterans of a foreign war, and conducting work for America.”

Congress opened the door for such requests in 1977 when it recognized the World War II-era Women’s Air Forces Services Pilots.

Lawmakers said groups “similarly situated” to the WASPs could apply for benefits, though some cautioned against the precedent.

“We should not now rewrite history by deeming their service, valiant though it was, as military service, which it was not,” Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston of California warned during Senate debate. “What disturbs me is what will happen when some of these other groups come forward.”

Veterans groups and federal judges, too, have viewed skeptically some past efforts to extend government benefits. For instance, the Board of Veterans Appeals in 1999 denied benefits to a former Air America pilot injured by exposure to Agent Orange, on grounds that he wasn’t active-duty military. An appellate panel in 1987 denied the civil service benefits being sought by former Air America pilot Roy F. Watts.

“The value of (his) work is not denied or questioned, but Congress clearly did not intend to reward retirement benefits to all persons who might be thought to deserve them,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit noted.

The Civilian/Military Service Review Board has granted 39 applications for benefits so far. Some are a historical footnote, such as World War I female telephone operators.

Others are far better known, like the American Field Service ambulance drivers of World War I and the U.S. Merchant Marine sailors from World War II. The World War II merchant seamen repeatedly fought with the review board before winning a lawsuit.

At least 74 other applications have been denied. These include, for instance, civilian Navy Department employees who came under fire during the 1968 Tet offensive.

The review board considers criteria including whether the group’s members were subject to military control and susceptible to assignment in a combat zone. Like Gayle Holt’s more singular efforts, the group application could take a long time to process.

“I’m just going to keep pushing,” Holt said.

Undercover Warrior Finally Honored Air America Pilot Buried 40 Years After a Death Shrouded in Secrecy

Courtesy of the Washington Post
Thursday, June 26, 2003

When Charles G. Herrick was shot down over Laos 40 years ago, his family and his country had no inkling what he was really doing flying cargo planes around Southeast Asia.

His wife and two children in San Antonio were told only that the Air America plane on which he was co-pilot had crashed, and that he was presumed dead.

Everything about the CIA-owned airline was clouded in secrecy then, particularly its covert missions to drop food and ammunition for friendly tribesmen fighting communist rebels in officially neutral countries such as Laos.

With Herrick’s remains having finally come home for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, yesterday was a day for colleagues and family to talk openly about how and why he and pilot Joseph Cheney died on their fourth run one September day in 1963. The CIA, and the departments of State and Defense, all sent representatives, as did a group called the Air America Association, which now holds annual conventions.

To Gayle Herrick Holt, who was 15 when her father died, it all was strikingly different from the day a neighbor told her that Air America was a CIA front, and when she asked her mother about it, was admonished, “Don’t you ever repeat that.” Yesterday, it could be repeated aloud.

“It’s a celebration to me that he’s home and it’s done,” said Holt, who lives in Modesto, California. “It was always in the back of my mind — was he really in the plane when it crashed? Did he really not get a chance to jump out? Now I know he was never taken prisoner, he was never tortured.”

The return of the remains of Herrick and Cheney is the latest success story in a U.S. government effort to locate the remains of 1,874 Americans missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War era. Among them are 35 civilians, including medical missionaries and journalists. Most of those missing in Laos worked for Air America, said Liz Flick, an official with the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The group starts its annual conference today at the Hilton Hotel in Arlington.

Air America was so secretive that even many of its employees did not realize the extent of CIA involvement. They surmised that they were flying some CIA missions, but did not know that the agency owned a large share of the company until years later, said Bart Crotty of Springfield, a former Air America maintenance engineer who attended Herrick’s funeral.

Herrick, who grew up in Lockport, New York, and was a former semi-professional ice hockey player, began flying supply planes for the U.S. military in 1943. As an Air Force captain during the Korean War, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He eventually joined the Air Force Reserve and retired as a major.

He joined Air America in 1962 in Taiwan, and soon was transferred to an airstrip in central Laos near the border of Thailand.

Michael LaDue, one of two assistant chiefs of aerial delivery for Air America, flew about 10 missions with Herrick. Typically, their missions were to drop palettes of rice, meat and weapons to tribesmen known as Hmong.

On the day their plane went down, LaDue said, Cheney and Herrick had completed three drops. They refilled their C-46 twin-engine cargo plane with sacks of rice and water buffalo meat. Just before the scheduled drop, he said, they flew over a known stronghold of Pathet Lao communist rebels, and the aircraft was hit with 37mm antiaircraft fire. Their final radio message, that they were heading back to their base in Thailand, ended in mid-sentence.

Five crew members in the rear of the plane, including one American named Eugene DeBruin, safely parachuted but were captured. LaDue led a rescue attempt a few days later, but they were turned back by enemy gunfire and forbidden by their superiors to try again. After years in jungle prison camps, and several aborted escapes, one of the surviving crew members was rescued. The others are presumed to have died, and their remains have never been recovered.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the airline and the agency,” said LaDue, who lives outside Kansas City. “Everyone felt that as a secret airline, it couldn’t be doing anything good. But we thought what we were doing was terribly honorable. We were following the rules of the Geneva Accord, and the North Vietnamese were not. The military couldn’t go into Laos because of the Geneva Accords. But the North Vietnamese were there, 30,000 of them. We were able to go where the military couldn’t, to stem communism. Honorable means a lot to the people who flew for Air America.”

Though Holt is relieved that her father’s story is now in the open, she believes some government missions must remain a secret. Four generations of her family have served in the U.S. military, their service a thread through the 20th century’s major conflicts. Her grandfather fought in World War I, her father in World War II and Korea, her husband in Vietnam and her son in Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991.

“I didn’t expect the funeral to be so emotional,” she said. “But I’m glad I stuck a couple Kleenex in the purse at the last minute. Patriotism. That’s what it’s all about.”

Family of Air America Pilot Say Goodbye

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Gayle Herrick Holt was 15 when frightening news reached the family home in San Antonio, Texas. Her father, Charles G. Herrick, had been shot down in a cargo plane in faraway Laos.

It was September 1963 and Laos, while officially neutral, had become a focus of U.S. covert operations against communist rebel forces allied with the North Vietnamese army. The U.S. government — which kept secret the fact that Herrick was flying a CIA owned plane — told Holt’s mother, Margaret Louise, only that her husband was presumed to have died in the crash.

Years passed.

No body was recovered, no details were offered.

And for Gayle Holt, the tragedy had no finality.

“In my mind there was always a question: Is he alive? Is he not alive?” she recalled.

Seven days after the crash, a headline in her hometown newspaper in San Antonio said he “may be alive.”

Herrick was not alive, but that reality did not reach Holt until May 2000 when, out of the blue, her family got a telephone call from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. A bone recovered from the crash site in Laos might be her father’s.

“It was a neat, neat shock” to finally learn the truth, she said.

On Wednesday, after nearly 40 years and two U.S. excavations of the crash site, Herrick’s remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony with full military honors.

“This to me is a celebration,” Holt said in a telephone interview from her home in Modesto, Calif., before flying to Hawaii to take possession of the remains. “He’s home finally. He’s where he belongs.”

Herrick was flying for Air America, an airline based in Taiwan that was secretly owned by the CIA. It was used to deliver weapons, food and supplies to Laotian regular forces as well as Hmong tribesmen who were enlisted for guerrilla operations in communist-held areas of Laos.

The remains of Herrick and Joseph Cheney, the pilot-in-command on that fateful mission in 1963, were recovered over a period of years starting in 1989 and finally identified in the past year. Among the items found at the crash site was a radio microphone marked with Herrick’s initials.

Herrick and Cheney are, respectively, the second and third Air America civilian fliers — of approximately 100 who perished in Laos from 1957 to 1974 — to have their remains recovered, positively identified and returned to their families, according to Pentagon and Air America records. The first was Lowell Z. Pirkle, a flight mechanic who was shot down over Laos August 3, 1967; his remains were identified in 1998.

Herrick had been flying missions over Laos for less than a year from a base at the capital, Vientiane, when his C-46 Commando plane was shot down on September 5, 1963. The mission was to airdrop bags of rice and buffalo meat to Laotian soldiers. He was 44 years old.

It is not clear Herrick knew he was working for the CIA, since he was not a staff employee; most of Air America’s hires were told the airline was property of the Pacific Corp., but they were not told that Pacific Corp. was a CIA front company.

The CIA did not publicly acknowledge the wartime role of Air America and its predecessor, Civil Air Transport, until June 2001, when it issued citation awards to former employees.

One year after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Air America disbanded and its planes were sold.

Herrick was born in Buffalo and grew up in Lockport, New York. He played semiprofessional ice hockey in Canada before he enlisted in the U.S. military in 1943. He flew supply missions in the China-Burma-India theater — in support of Chinese troops fighting on the side of the Allies against Japan — during World War II.

The family’s scant records of Herrick’s military career indicate he flew in the Korean War at the rank of Air Force Captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. When that conflict ended in 1953 he switched to the Air Force Reserve until he retired as a Major in April 1963.

When Herrick joined Air America in 1962 he was sent to its main base on Taiwan. His wife and two children in San Antonio were going to join him in January 1963, but that plan was scrapped when Herrick was transferred to Vientiane.

Michael LaDue, a former assistant chief of aerial delivery for Air America, remembers Herrick in Laos and estimates they flew together on about 10 missions to drop food, fuel and sometimes weapons, mostly to Hmong tribesmen.

Herrick was a quiet professional who aspired to move up from co-pilot to command pilot, LaDue said.

“He had the right amount of self-assurance,” LaDue said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

It is not clear who shot down Herrick’s unarmed, twin-engine plane, but LaDue thinks it most likely was North Vietnamese soldiers. The plane was loaded with rice and meat for delivery to soldiers of the regular Lao army at Ban Houei Sane, a village in southern Laos a few miles from the Vietnam border, LaDue says.

Only Herrick and Cheney died in the crash. The five crew members in the rear of the plane parachuted and were captured in the jungle by soldiers of the Pathet Lao, the communist rebel forces. Of those five, only one lived to tell about the ordeal, and LaDue is one of the few people who ever heard the story in person from the single survivor, a Thai named Pisidhi Indradat.

LaDue also was in charge of a rescue mission that arrived at the crash site about two days later. The C-46 had crashed nose first, collapsing onto itself like an accordion, he said.

The rescue team was chased off by gunfire, and the U.S. Embassy overruled their plan to return to the scene later.

The last words from the air crew were recalled by Thomas A. Krohn, an Air America operations manager in Laos. In a telephone interview last week from his home in Las Vegas, Krohn recalled being summoned urgently to the radio room at his operations compound at the Vientiane airport. He believes he communicated with Herrick, who said the plane had been hit by ground fire south of Tchepone, a known stronghold of North Vietnamese forces.

“He said, `The wing is on fire; we’ll get back to you,’ or something like that,” Krohn recalled.

Then only silence, followed by years of waiting by the Herrick family for a final goodbye.


  • VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 08/13/1947 – 04/01/1963
  • DATE OF BIRTH: 12/21/1918
  • DATE OF DEATH: 09/05/1963
  • DATE OF INTERMENT: 06/25/2003
This photo of Charles G. Herrick was provided by Herrick’s daughter, Gayle, in Modesto, California, and shows him during his assignment in Vientienne, Laos, in 1962-63. On Wednesday, June 25, 2003 after nearly 40 years and two U.S. excavations of the crash site, Herrick’s remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony with full military honors
Gayle Herrick Holt, left, receives the U.S. flag from the casket of her father, Charles G. Herrick, of San Antonio, Texas, from the Air Force chaplin, Captain Kenyon, during a full military honors ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday, June 25, 2003, nearly 40 years after he was shot down in a cargo plane in Laos
Gayle Herrick Holt, left, bids a final farewell to her father, Charles G. Herrick, during the full military honors ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday, June 25, 2003

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