SYNOPSIS: On June 3, 1967, Capt. Steven P. Hanson, pilot; 1Lt. John G. Gardner, co-pilot; Sgt. Timothy R. Bodden, crew chief/door gunner; LCpl. Frank E. Cius, doorgunner; SFC Billy R. Laney, SFC Ronald J. Dexter, SFC Charles F. Wilklow and an unknown number of ARVN personnel, all passengers, were aboard a CH46A helicopter (serial #150955) on an extraction mission in Laos.
The USMC aircraft picked up a U.S. Army Special Forces team attached to MACV-SOG, Command and Control, and the ARVN troops they were working with. Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) was a joint service high command unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (not a Special Forces group) through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA) which provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction which were called, depending on the time frame, "Shining Brass" or "Prairie Fire" missions.
The aircraft received extensive automatic small arms fire upon takeoff from the Landing Zone, took numerous hits and crashed 350 meters from the LZ, located about 15 miles inside Laos west of the A Shau Valley. The helicopter did not burn on impact, and continued to receive fire. Three ARVN troops were able to return to the LZ where the troops remaining at the LZ were extracted the following day.
The troops waiting at the LZ could not search because of the hostile threat in the area. Air searches located the survivors of the crash, but they could not be evacuated. The only America found to be in a position to be safely evacuated was SFC Wilklow. He gave the following account of what happened to the crew and passengers aboard the CH46:
SFC Dexter appeared uninjured and left the wreckage with a large number of ARVN troops. Capt. Hanson was wounded and outside the helicopter, but stated that he had to return to get his carbine. The Marine Corps believes he died of the wounds he received when the aircraft was overrun, although Hanson's wife later identified her husband in a widely distributed Vietnamese propaganda photograph of a pilot being captured. When last seen, all the other Americans were still in the wreckage, and enemy troops (the U.S. Army says they were Viet Cong; the U.S. Marines say they were North Vietnamese Army - possibly a joint force of both) were tossing grenades toward the aircraft with no attempt to capture the personnel inside. Wilklow left the crash site, and noted that gunfire suddenly stopped. He continued to evade the enemy and was picked up 3 days later.
When Mr. Ky, the Nung Commander was being evacuated by the last helicopter out, he noted several men (undoubtedly Dexter and the ARVN) in a large bomb crater firing red star clusters from a flare gun. Frank Cius was taken prisoner and released from Hanoi in 1973. He was one of the dozen or so captured by the Vietnamese and taken immediately to Hanoi claimed to be the "Laos" prisoners. In reality, none of the dozen had been held in Laos. Ronald Dexter, according to Frank Cius, was captured, and died in captivity on July 29, 1967. John Gardner, according to the USMC, died on the ground after the crash of the aircraft due to intense enemy fire. Billy Laney was last seen lying wounded on the floor of the aircraft between a crewmember with a broken back and the door gunner with a head wound.
NOTE: the USMC states that Bodden, crewchief/door gunner was shot in the back and never left the aircraft, but reports received by the National League of Families indicate that he was definitely alive after the aircraft crashed. The U.S. did not know Cius was captured until he was released, evidently believing he never exited the aircraft, and Wilklow had indicated that the Vietnamese were not trying to capture the occupants of the aircraft. Therefore, as door gunner, he must have been the "door gunner with the head wound", and Bodden the "crewmember with a broken back".)
Since 1975, the U.S. Government has received thousands of reports relating to Americans still alive in Southeast Asia. Many of them cannot be dismissed as untrue. Officially, the U.S. says it is operating under the assumption that men are being held, and that the matter is of "highest national priority". Yet, we seem unable to resolve the mystery. Nor have they ever negotiated for the "tens of tens" of American prisoners the Lao stated they held.
There can be no question that the communists know the fate of those who were last seen on the ill-fated CH 46A that day. The men aboard this craft were inserted into Laos for exceedingly dangerous and important missions. They deserve no less than America's very best efforts to determine their fates. If any of them are alive, they must be brought home.