Bitter Legacy of Families with MIAs in Laos.

Bitter Legacy of Families with MIAs in Laos.

Above Photo: Unexploded ordnance dropped during the Vietnam War being wired for detonation on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Savannakhet, Laos.

I read an interesting article on huffingtonpost.com by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, which I have edited below, detailing the anguish her family experienced after her uncle was shot down over Laos in the Vietnam War. He was subsequently declared MIA (Missing in Action).

There are a couple of unusual aspects to this – for example I’m not aware of any SAM missiles being located in southern Laos in 1972, and certainly not bringing down a plane. Although the article later goes on to quote another eyewitness, who says the plane was brought down by anti-aircraft fire, which is more likely.

I have added photos for illustration.

unexploded ordance from the vietnam war in Savannakhet province laos aeroplane bombes C-120 gunship shot down over ho chi minh trail savannakhet in 1972 MIA POW mysteries in laos

An F-4 Phantom reconnaissance plane being shot down by a SAM missile during the Vietnam War.

“According to an eyewitness report, on the night of March 28, 1972, Edwin “Jack” Pearce and his 14-man crew boarded the AC-130 gunship “Prometheus” in the darkness of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base bound for an armed reconnaissance mission over Laos. The slow-moving gunship was accompanied by 4-FE flying escorts, and it’s from the vantage point of one of their pilots that the last known whereabouts of my uncle are recorded.

It’s 3 a.m. in Savannakhet, and Jack is in the narrow gunner’s seat, his weapon trained on the jungle below. The pilot reports “three closely spaced surface-to-air-missile (SAM) firings and an unidentified radio transmission “SAM.'” The sky lights up as the second SAM collides with Prometheus and she explodes in the sky, sending the burning remains tumbling to the ground.

Massive Firepower: A C-130 Gunship

Massive Firepower: A C-130 Gunship

A fifteen-second emergency beeper signal was heard from the vicinity of the burning aircraft approximately ten minutes after impact. The exact location of the signals could not be determined, no parachutes were observed, and repeated passes over the crash site revealed no indication of survivors.

The next morning, in the small town of Milford, Pennsylvania, an Air Force representative knocked on Eddie and Rosemary Pearce’s door to tell them that their son — whom they thought had been serving his second tour of duty in Thailand, out of harm’s way — had been shot from a plane flying over neutral Laos and was considered missing in action.

My grandparents refused to believe that their firstborn had died in the crash, and an eyewitness account of Jack’s crash from a different perspective gave my grandparents renewed hope.

A Laotian man who had been aboard one of the 30 trucks carrying supplies across the Ho Chi Minh Trail that night told an Air Force representative that the AC-130 made five passes over his group, setting several trucks in his convoy on fire. On its fifth pass, the gunship was hit by 37 MM anti-aircraft fire and erupted in flames.

Trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Wartime Laos

Trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Wartime Laos

The AC-130 turned southward and crashed approximately 10 km south, and nine crew members of the downed aircraft had been rescued by Laotian civilians living near the crash site.

My grandfather retired early from the Pennsylvania State Police force to devote himself full-time to the search for his son. He became State MIA Chairman for Veteran’s Affairs and Northeast Coordinator for the National League of Families, a group composed of the family and loved ones of missing men. It was at a League meeting in Washington in December 1972 that my grandfather stood up in a crowded conference room and asked President Nixon if the peace agreement ending the Vietnam War would include Laos. He replied, “All of Southeast Asia.”…

There is a photograph of my grandmother standing alone at a podium. She is in tears as she speaks about her son at a “Freedom Tree” dedication ceremony in Milford, PA, on October 13, 1973, while her husband is halfway around the world in Vientiane. The next day, the Royal Lao and Pathet Lao release their list of prisoners of war. Jack’s name is not on the list.

UXO Lao defuse a SAM 7 missile that still guards the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos

UXO Lao defuse a SAM 2 missile that still guards the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos

When the Paris Peace Agreements were signed in Washington on January 27, 1973, they made no mention of Laos or the U.S. soldiers missing there. My grandfather and his wife begin to spend their weekends protesting in D.C. and their weekdays at the kitchen table, making calls and writing letters to anyone who would listen.

On July 26, 1979, Rosemary and Eddie received word that their son’s status, in the absence of further information, had been moved from MIA to KIA, that his “death is presumed to have occurred for the purpose of termination of pay and allowances…” The letter offered a lump sum to Rosemary Pearce for $20,000.

Without a body to bury, my grandparents refuse to accept it.

The volatile political situation in Laos prevents excavation of the crash site until 1984. A joint Laotian and Air Force team identify a single tooth they find amongst the debris as Jack’s and claim it as evidence of his death. My grandparents reject this, too.

A JPAC mission in Laos recovers some aircraft wreckage (dfmadden Flikr)

A JPAC mission in Laos recovers some aircraft wreckage (dfmadden Flikr)

Stories that some of the men survived the crash continue to swirl; the inscribed wedding band of crew member Curtis Miller is recovered by a reporter and returned to his family and the dog tags of another crewman, Robert Simmons, are anonymously mailed to the U.S. embassy in Laos. Tests reveal no fire residue on the tags, further fueling the belief that not all of the men died in the crash.

In October and November of 2005, another joint excavation team returns to the crash site in Laos, this time armed with DNA-based identification technology. Their report states the site had to be re-cleared during the recovery process because “the vegetation had grown about a meter high over the intervening 13 weeks.” In a place where the thickness of the encroaching jungle threatens to erase all traces of the past, their tools unearth what they later identify as parts of boots, safety vests — and human bone among the weeds. The excavation is stopped early due to “time constraints.”

And after 36 years of searching, doubt, and the excruciating wait for an answer, countless prayers were answered; the team had found something.

On September 20, 2008, I stood behind my mother and grandmother as they held hands before the tiny box about to be lowered into the ground. It contains a single bone, identified as Jack’s by a rare mtDNA mutation matching one in blood samples drawn from my mother and grandmother.

More aircraft parts recovered at a crash site by a JPAC team in Laos (

More aircraft parts recovered at a crash site in Laos by a JPAC team (dfmadden Flikr)

A far-off droning sound turns into a rib-shaking thrum. The 30-odd assembled guests at the funeral look up at the sky as the thick underbelly of an AC-130 passes overhead. I think of my uncle, the same age as I am now, flying over the jungles of Savannakhet. I think of the man in the truck below him that he is trying to kill, watching the night sky suddenly fill with light and the sound of gunfire.

Three volleys of shots pierce the sky over Pennsylvania, commemorating the dead.”

Jessica Pearce Rotondi.

For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see news of our latest film, MIA A Greater Evil: http://peteralanlloyd.com/mia-a-greater-evil-an-exclusive-introduction-to-our-forthcoming-film/
And for POWs left behind in Laos:

Peter Alan Lloyd

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2 Comments

  1. Matt Wiser

    Uh, that’s an SA-2, not an SA-7…SA-7 was man-portable. SA-2 requires a fixed launcher.

    Reply

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