Plane Shot Down On The Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos.
My Vietnam War/Backpacker novel BACK focuses on events along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia both during the Vietnam War (in 1968) and also in the present day, when a group of US and British backpackers enter the same jungle looking for something that was left behind during the war.
The following article, by Dave Olsen, is relevant to the book because it explains how and why the Ho Chi Minh Trail was so dangerous for US pilots and how so many of them were lost over it. Many of these shot-down air crews were believed captured alive but they were never heard from again.
My novel BACK explores what might have happened to them.
By Dave Olsen.
“U.S. Air Force Maj. Wendell Keller and his co-pilot, Lt. Virgil Mike Meroney, prowl the night sky above Laos in their F-4D Phantom jet, on the lookout for North Vietnamese forces stealthily making their way along the Ho Chi Minh Trail far below.
Muzzle flashes suddenly reveal the location of anti-aircraft guns.
Nearly out of rockets and bombs after striking at suspected enemy positions for the past half hour, Keller takes only a moment to decide that his wingman, who is flying an F-4D Phantom nearby, needs protection.
Radioing his intentions to a spotter plane that has been helping direct his attacks, Keller points his plane into a dive and sends a volley of rockets sizzling and snarling into the darkness. In the spotter plane, members of Kellers squad watch as tracer bullets stream skyward from the ground.
Fear grows when they see the sulfurous arcs suddenly terminate, indicating the fiery slugs have encountered ¦something. Simultaneously, small blooms of fire erupt on the ground as Keller’s rockets hit their mark.
Moments later, the flashes are dwarfed by a much larger explosion nearby.
Kellerâs wingman immediately calls, “Mayday, mayday, mayday!” on an emergency channel before attempting to raise Keller on the radio. But the calls go unanswered as the wingman circles above the Laotian landscape, which has again fallen dark.
The jet fighter eventually runs low on fuel, and its pilot reluctantly turns toward home, a U.S. airbase in Thailand. For the next week, radio frequencies are closely monitored, but Keller and Meroney are not heard from again.
Michael Keller knows the story well, having collected declassified data on the mission and accounts of the incident published in military magazines. And for most of his life he has understood that his father died that night in 1969, flying over the jungles of Laos.
“I pretty much knew he had been killed in action, and I just thought that, after all these years, they’d never find anything,” said Keller, who lives in West Fargo.
But in 2010, more than 40 years after his father’s plane went down, a search team traveled to Laos to take a closer look at a spot that had been identified many years before as a crash site.
Keller said at first he and his family weren’t very hopeful because the region saw heavy action during the Vietnam War and many planes were lost in the area. But then the news came: Searchers had found a tattered ID card belonging to Maj. Wendell Keller, along with samples of human remains, which were sent to the United States.
Since then, it has been confirmed that the remains were those of his father, Maj. Keller, and of his father’s co-pilot, Lt. Meroney, both of whom received promotions in rank after their deaths.
Michael Keller, who was 4 years old in 1969, said he always felt his father was a hero, but those feelings intensified when he learned the site of his father’s plane crash had likely been found.
In honor of his father and as an outlet for his feelings, Keller began building a scale model of his father’s F-4D Phantom, a task that took him the better part of a winter to complete.
He also put together a display that has been shown at the Fargo Air Museum, and he collected stacks of documents from his father’s career, including flight logs from the years his father, a graduate of North Dakota State University, was stationed in the Red River Valley and flew out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Keller said his dad was always busy flying and he did not see him much before he left for Vietnam. He remembers his father as a man of few words who was always gentle and caring toward his family.
Keller keeps a letter he wrote about his father in 1972 when he was 7 or 8 years old.
With boyish misspellings preserved, it reads in part:
“My Dad is Maj. Wendell Keller. He is a POW MIA. In the war.
He has been gone sence March 1, 1969. I am hoping he will come back. Our holl family is very sad about our dad.
If he comes back I am going to tell him not to go back to the war. I have been sorry about him. I have only seen him about five times.
I wish and wish for him to come back. He has been in the war since I was a little boy. I was about two then.
Every one feels sorry about him”, the letter concludes. “They wish he would come back too.”
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.
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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