MIA in Laos: On The Trail of Two Airmen shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A Vietnam-War-Era F-4 Phantom.
The “Secret War” in Laos was so called because both sides were lying about conducting it. The North Vietnamese Army had illegally invaded the country to build, use, protect and maintain their vital supply route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the US were illegally bombing it, and them, inside Laos.
Both sides knew what the other was doing, yet they both vehemently denied their involvement in Laos when challenged by the media or at International Peace Conferences.
Hundreds of US airmen were lost over and near the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war, many of whom remain unaccounted for. This is a theme we explore in our film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil, when a group of students enter the jungles of Laos on a trek to find gold along a river on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
By accident, I ended up with a cameo in the film. I played a downed airman in the jungle, a role which although brief, is very important , and I was proud to play it, given my own investigations and trips along the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking for signs of others still missing out there.
This was one such trip.
Just before midnight on 29 July 1970, Captain Gary A. Chavez, a pilot, and Captain Donald A. Brown, a weapons systems officer, took off in an F-4 Phantom jet from Udon Thani Airfield in Thailand, on a night photographic reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos, after which they were never seen again.
Their mission was to photograph uncharted, densely-jungled mountains around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which were sparsely populated but securely held by the North Vietnamese Army.
At the time of their last contact, the Phantom’s position was just east of a ridgeline that marks the beginning of the Bolavens Plateau, in Attapeu Province, Laos.
No undue concern was raised by the lack of radio and radar contact with the jet until its estimated fuel would have been exhausted. A radio check of all military bases where the aircraft might have diverted was immediately begun. However, none were able to provide information about the missing aircraft or crew.
No In-Flight Emergency was ever declared on their mission, and on the morning of 30th of July, Search and Rescue teams were sent out to their last known position, but nothing was ever heard from the missing airmen again.
Recently, on a trip in southern Laos, I received an email from someone in the US asking could I help trying to find out what had happened to these men.
As I happened to actually be in Attapeu Province when I got the email, I said I’d look into it.
Of course, there’s no office in Laos saying ‘MIA Enquiries Here,” so all emails had to go through the US Embassy in Vientiane.
Further, Freedom of Information issues meant that only family can usually find a way through the maze of bureaucracy surrounding MIAs, but eventually I was put in touch with someone in the organisation that actually searches the jungles in Laos for crash sites and remains of airmen.
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I was able to discover that, over the years, MIA teams have often searched for this crash site in the jungle, but have always come up empty, although there is another jungle crash site that has been pinpointed, which may be where the missing jet and airmen still lie.
It is now on a Master Excavation list, and a mission will be launched to find them in the future.
Apparently, budget issues and logistics mean MIA teams have to concentrate on sites which are about to be swallowed by roads, shopping centres and other developments, before continuing their needle-in-a-haystack task of finding the many remaining crash sites in the remote jungles and still-inaccessible mountains of Laos.
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.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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