Vietnam War MIAs: Man Finds His Father’s Plane Crash Site & Remains in the Laotian Jungle.
Above Photo: Paul Clever explores the crash site in the jungles of Sekong Province, Laos. (© Paul Clever)
“I feel like I’ve found the cure for insanity. After carrying the burden for so many years, you become numb to it, but it’s always there.” Paul Clever.
In all my years of research and writing about the Vietnam War, the Secret War in Laos and POWs and MIAs lost in the jungles of Laos, I have never come across a story as incredible as this.
Given a modern-day trip ‘back’ into the Laotian jungle searching for something family-related and linked to the Vietnam War forms the plot of my novel BACK, this was just amazing.
I have told the story below and added historical photos from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to illustrate wartime life in the same jungles of Laos. Back then, the whole Trail in this area was firmly in the grip of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
On February 5, 1969, a US EC47 (electronic surveillance) aircraft left Pleiku Airbase in the Republic of Vietnam on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. On board was a crew of ten men, including Technical Sergeant Louis J Clever.
Sometime into the flight, Louis Clever’s plane mysteriously disappeared, the last radio contact indicating it was flying over Saravane Province in Laos.
It was never heard from again, and an immediate search for the aircraft turned up nothing.
Then, later in 1969, the wreckage of an EC47 was located in a jungle-covered mountainous area in the approximate last known location of the aircraft, in Saravane Province, Laos. The wreckage site was searched, and human remains and a number of items were recovered, which linked the crash site back to the missing aircraft.
The Air Force believed a wing had caught fire, detached from the plane (it was found some distance away from the main crash site), and in the speed of the accident the crew didn’t have time to parachute to safety.
The absence of emergency radio signals further diminished the hope that any of the crew members could have survived, so at this time, the Air Force conveniently declared the ten men on board the aircraft to be dead.
The remains found at the crash site were interred in a single grave back in the US. Only two of the crew members were ever identified through the remains, leaving eight crew members unaccounted for, including Louis Clever.
Even though the US authorities couldn’t really say what had happened to the missing airmen, it decided that all of them must have died at the crash site. The danger of making these assumptions during the Vietnam War can be seen in a similar situation I have written about, when a man ‘buried’ in a mass grave in the US turned up very much alive when he was released from the Hanoi Hilton, years later (see link below).
Some crew members on Louis Clever’s flight may indeed have survived the crash and been taken prisoner by the NVA, but this method of mass accounting served the US’s purposes well in Vietnam, and meant it didn’t have the difficult job of figuring out what happened to the unidentified majority at the crash site.
Nowadays searches for MIAs in Laos are conducted by an organization called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (‘DPAA’ – formerly known as JPAC), which is overstretched and under-funded. It also prioritises excavations where modern developments are about to be built over suspected crash sites.
Jungle crash sites have a lower priority so, realistically, the families of the eight missing servicemen in this crash had no chance of knowing the fate of their loved ones. The site had already been investigated when the human remains were found back in 1969, something which would have pushed a new dig even further down DPAA’s excavation list. Also, time is running out for human remains in the Laotian jungle, as they are attacked by acidic soil. In a few years’ time there will be nothing left to find.
One man was dissatisfied with this. His name is Paul Clever and he’s married to a Thai-born wife, Nita. He was also the son of Louis Clever, one of the MIAs from the crash.
After considerable research, and helped by an organization called MRSEA: Maximum Recovery in South East Asia, a private organization devoted to bringing home US MIAs from the Vietnam War, they decided to make the trip back into the Laotian jungle to search for the crash site and to see if they could find any clues as to what had happened to the eight missing men who hadn’t been identified from the recovered human remains in 1969.
So Paul and Nita flew from the US, travelled to southern Laos and penetrated the remote, dense jungles of Sekong Province, in search of the last resting place of the downed aircraft and its crew.
To get there they had to ride up the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and ended up camping in the jungle next to it, which was an ironic twist, as that is what the plane had no doubt been sent up to spy on, when it was lost all those years ago.
Paul said “Motorcycle travel up the Ho Chi Minh Trail was much more difficult than we expected.”
But incredibly, they ended up finding what they were looking for.
Paul said, “The crash site was located about 100 meters from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and 150 meters from the village of Ban Buaong – which didn’t align with the 1995 JPAC co-ordinates. Access to the site (once the location was known) was actually very easy.”
They then used metal detectors to search the location for unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War. Once they had secured the area, they were ready to begin their search.
They spent the next three days excavating the crash site and three nights camped out in the rainy jungle, sleeping in hammocks and fighting off animals, ants and insects.
Paul said: “At the site, the fuselage and all significant pieces from the aircraft which were on the ground’s surface had long ago been removed by metal scavangers, but some artifacts we recovered with metal detectors.”
“The aircraft appeared to impact the embankment of a small creek with most of the artifacts and all of the remains being found on the opposite embankment. The creek bed was not excavated due to the delay in finding the crash site and concerns of disrupting the matrix which holds the soil firm when the water flows.”
Their hard work paid off, as they discovered a large number of personal, plane and uniform-related items, as well as pieces of human bone.
Once back in the US these bone fragments were DNA-tested, when it was discovered that Paul and his wife had recovered remains from three of the missing crew members – INCLUDING his father.
Faced with this evidence, the US authorities had no choice but to open up the mass grave from 1969, and as a result of the further testing of these remains buried in the grave, it was discovered that the remains of FOUR, not two crew members were in the grave.
Paul told me: “There were three of the ten crew members identified by the remains we recovered at the crash site. Major Olson, Sgt McNeil, and my father: TSgt Clever. The other four crew member identifications came from the group remains in the grave. Three remain left behind in Laos (Lynn, Burke, and Hatton). We still hold a small number of remains from our trip. Eventually they will be analyzed and appropriately interred.”
So, as a result of Paul’s work in the jungle, out of a crew of ten men, seven families now had closure.
Paul said in a statement:
“It is with great pleasure I can fill in the gaps regarding my father’s loss and poor accounting which have led to decades of senseless emotional distress by the families involved.
On February 22, 2015 Dad was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery (near St. Louis, MO) next to my mother. Mom never remarried. After decades of research I was able to determine the Air Force had knowingly left members of the crew behind in 1969. When there was no apparent motivation to set things right by the Air Force and JPAC, I took ownership of properly accounting for this ten-man crew.
JPAC has supposedly put the crash site on an excavation schedule because we proved there were bones still there and because there are Americans unaccounted for associated with this site. The priority of the excavation was set so low it is doubtful it will happen in our lifetimes.
What became of the three crewmen whose remains were not recovered?
Unfortunately, that mystery still lies buried somewhere deep in the Laotian jungle, perhaps many hundreds of miles away from the crash site, or perhaps very close. Paul hopes to go back to the site and continue excavating, looking for these remains in order to bring closure to all the families of the missing.
Paul told me: “I know today there are seven identified Servicemen and three left behind from this crash. Documents in 1969 indicated some of the crew was “driven underground” and was left behind. Those documents were ignored and as we know today; those documents were factual.”
The total budget for our jungle effort was only $20,000, compared to the DPAA’s total budget of $300 million. The problem with DPAA is mismanagement, lack of knowledge continuity, and apathy in purpose at the higher levels. For those who have taken the step into ownership of American remains recovery and return DPAA remains the problem and not the solution.
The MRSEA team is all volunteers. Regardless of the magnitude of the task each of these individuals went beyond waving a flag and got involved. There were a lot of people who “took ownership” and did something. Given how few people step up for POW/MIA issues in a way that really counts I think this is mentionable.
Knowing this part of Laos very well (see location map below) and having travelled through its remote and impenetrable jungles, I remain amazed by this couple and what they have achieved.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
For US mistakes in burying the undead during the Vietnam War, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/general-news/a-marine-killed-in-vietnam-buried-in-the-usa-turns-up-alive-in-hanoi/
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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