Other Personnel In Incident: Jacob Mercer; Richard Nyhof; Robert Wilson; Leon A. Hunt; Larry J. Newman; Paul F. Gilbert; Stanley Lehrke; Robert Harrison; Donald H. Klinke; Gerald F. Ayres; Mark G. Danielson (all missing); Robert V. Reid, William B. Patterson and Gordon L. Bocher (rescued)
Source: Synopsis compiled by Task Force Omega, Inc. of Glendale, AZ.
Synopsis: The Lockheed AC-130A Spectre gunship first made its trial appearance in Vietnam in late 1967. Because it was highly maneuverable at low speeds and could spend hours in an operational area while delivering a precisely placed stream of withering fire on a target, it immediately proved its worth in combat. By early 1969, seven AC-130A gunships were deployed to SEA. These originally deployed AC-130As were armed with four M61 Vulcan 20mm cannons mounted in the first half of the fuselage. Each was capable of delivering a maximum of 2,500 shots per minute. Further, each Spectre also had four 7.62mm miniguns that could fire 3,000 or 6,000 shots per minute. In 1969-1970, two of the miniguns and two of the 20mm cannons were removed to make room for the addition of a pair of 40mm Bofors cannons that were mounted in the aft section of the aircraft. While capable of delivering 110 shots per minute, they were generally used to fire 3 to 4 round bursts of fire one gun at a time. The second generation AC-130E/H models arrived in 1972 armed with two Vulcan 20mm cannons, one 40mm Bofors cannon and a 105mm Howitzer. This modification, along with a sophisticated fire control system, made the gunship an extremely affective tank killer as well as an equally effective weapon for interdicting enemy traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.>
It was well known in the summer of 1972 that the war was drawing to a close, and that the North Vietnamese had offered huge bonuses to anti-aircraft gunners who could shoot down American aircraft and capture the crews alive. At that stage in the war our enemy knew the more they could capture, the better their chances at the negotiating table to secure peace on their terms. Everyone knew the prisoners were worth much more alive than dead to both sides.
On 18 June 1972, Capt. Paul F. Gilbert, pilot; Capt. Robert A. Wilson, co-pilot; Maj. Robert H. Harrison, navigator; Maj. Gerald F. Ayres, sensor operator; Capt. Mark G. Danielson, electronic warfare officer; Capt. Gordon L. Bocher, fire control officer; 2nd Lt. Robert V. Reid, low light sensor operator; TSgt. Richard M. Cole, Jr., flight engineer; SSgt. Leon A. Hunt, aerial gunner; SSgt. Richard E. Nyhof, aerial gunner; SSgt. Larry J. Newman, aerial gunner; MSgt. Jacob E. Mercer, aerial gunner; SSgt. Stanley L. Lehrke, aerial gunner; then SSgt. Donald H. Klinke, illuminator operator; and SSgt. William B. Patterson, illuminator operator; comprised the 15-man crew of an AC-130A Spectre gunship (tail number 55-0043), call sign "Spectre 11," that was conducting a night armed reconnaissance mission to attack elite NVA forces known to be infiltrating from Laos into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.
Oscar Eight was the code name given to a sector of eastern Laos located in rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 25 miles northwest of the infamous A Shau Valley, Saravane Province, Laos. The area encompassed the junction of Highway 92, which was a primary north-south artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Highway 922, which branched off and ran directly east where it crossed into South Vietnam at a strategic point near the northern edge of the A Shau Valley. Oscar Eight was also located at the southeastern end of a large and narrow jungle covered valley that had two primary roads running through it, one on each side of the valley. Highway 92 ran along the west side and Highway 919 along the east. A power line ran parallel to Highway 92 and sometimes crossed it. In addition to the roads and power line, the Hoi An River also flowed through the valley passing the road junction roughly 1 mile west of it.
More American aircraft were downed in the vicinity of the junction of Highways 92 and 922 than any other place in Laos. This was because burrowed deep in the hills of Oscar Eight and located just to the east of the road junction was North Vietnamese General Vo Bam's 559th Transportation Group's forward headquarters. It was also the Ho Chi Minh Trail's control center as well as containing the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam. Oscar Eight was defended by consecutive belts of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns of all sizes that were not only stationed on the ground, but also mounted on platforms in the trees. All of these AAA batteries were expertly camouflaged.
At 2355 hours, Spectre 11 was making its second attack pass over the target area when it received a direct hit in the number 3 engine by a Soviet manufactured Strela SA-7 missile. Capt. Gilbert rang the egress bell, but a small explosion occurred and the right wing separated from the aircraft. At approximately the same time, a large explosion occurred blowing three crewmen - Capt. Bocher, 2nd Lt. Reid and SSgt. Patterson - clear of the aircraft. Personnel in three escorting F-4's observed the gunship in flames and missing what appeared to be the tail and right wing before it crashed and exploded again in the rugged jungle covered mountains west of the A Shau Valley.
The first loss location given to the families of the missing men was in Laos. That location was quickly changed without explanation for this abrupt change. The new location placed the crash site approximately 2 miles east of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, 2 miles northwest of the A Shau Valley; 3 miles southwest of Highway 548, the primary road running generally northwest to southeast through the valley; 5 miles southeast of where Lao Highway 922 crossed the border into South Vietnam, 8 miles south of the junction between Highways 922 and 548 and 26 miles west-southwest of Hue. Some of the gunship's wreckage fell into the Village of A Hua, Loui District, Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam while the rest of it fell into adjacent jungle foliage.
Click map for full size, along with two more maps of the crash site and surrounding area.
Other US forces immediately heard multiple emergency beepers. The escort aircrew flight leader immediately radioed the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) notifying it of Spectre 11's loss and requested a search and rescue (SAR) mission. At first light, SAR aircraft were on site. The SAR helicopters were able to locate and recover Robert Reid, Gordon Bocher and William Patterson. After rescue, US intelligence personnel immediately debriefed the survivors with all three men stating that they observed at least one additional parachute in the night's sky as they descended in their own parachutes to the ground. In spite of an extensive visual and electronic search that continued for six days, no trace of the rest of the crew was found. No ground search was possible due to the intense enemy presence in the region. At the time the formal search was terminated, the remaining 12 crewmen were declared Missing in Action.
On 30 December 1972 - Six months after the Spectre gunship was shot down - a photograph of an "unidentified" American POW appeared in Peking's Hsinahu News Agency publication. The family of Capt. Mark Danielson immediately identified it as Mark. At the family's request, leading forensic specialists compared pre-capture photos of Capt. Danielson with the unidentified POW in the communist publication. Through scientific means, they confirmed that the unidentified POW was in fact Mark Danielson. His survival and capture were supported years after the loss incident when former National Security Agency analysts testified under oath to congressional committees that Capt. Danielson was tracked by name and rank electronically through intercepted enemy radio messages for at least 48 hours after the shoot down as he was being moved from one location to another. It is not known if other crewmen were also tracked in this same manner.
From 1981 to 1984, President Reagan charged the Special Forces Detachment, Korea with the responsibility of collecting live POW information throughout Southeast Asia. "SFDK" was commanded by Major Mark Smith, himself a returned POW from the Vietnam War. Through his efforts, and those of team Intelligence Sergeant Mel McIntire, an agent net of 50 agents was established, specifically in Laos. This intelligence net resulted in Major Smith compiling a list of some 26 American POWs by name and captivity location with Jacob Mercer being one of them. In April 1984, Major Smith received a message from one of his agents specifying that on 11 May three US Prisoners of War would be brought to a given location on the Lao/Thai border. The only prerequisite was that an American be on the Thailand side of the border to receive the men.
When this information was reported up his chain of command, Major Smith's team was ordered not to leave Korea, to destroy all documents pertaining to LIVE POWs and they were sent back to the United States 6 months early. According to Major Smith and SFC McIntire, they believe Jacob Mercer was one of those three Prisoners who could have been returned on 11 May 1984. This documented information was provided to the United States Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in sworn testimony on 28 January 1986.
Further, in early 1985, additional information pertaining to Jacob Mercer surfaced through resistance forces in Laos that indicated that he was still alive and being held prisoner. The resistance personnel provided USG representatives a photograph of a bearded Caucasian, identified by them as being MSgt. Mercer, sitting on a log next to an Asian who appeared to be guarding him.
On 29 June 1993, a team from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Thua Thien Province to interview local residents about the Spectre 11 loss. The team identified two locations, one in and the second near the A Hua village, where aircraft wreckage was seen and surveyed. The villagers showed them two dogtags bearing the names and data for Robert Wilson and Robert Harrison along with three flight helmets, none of which could be associated with a specific crewman.
From 15 August to 15 September 1993, another JTFFA team returned to A Hua village to excavate both wreckage sites, which were designated Unit A and Unit B. In addition to aircraft wreckage and armament, the team recovered crew-related items. They were shown additional dogtags for Robert Harrison, Robert Wilson, Gerald Ayres, Donald Klinke, and Richard Nyhof by another Vietnamese. Over the course of excavating both locations, approximately 335 bone fragments, some of which are human and others that are "consistent with human origin," and 5 teeth/parts of teeth were recovered. On 5 October 1993, all remains were formally handed over by the Vietnamese and then transported to the US Army's Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination.
After a thorough examination by CIL-HI personnel, and in spite of the fact that none of the bone fragments could be identified as belonging to a specific crewman, all 12 men were considered to be remains recovered and identified under a "group-identification" process. When the family members - including mothers, sisters and daughters - first asked the CIL-HI mortician who processed the bone chips if DNA testing could be done on them to determine a positive identification, they were told it was not possible to do so because "the DNA would have to be checked against the maternal line." When female family members offered their assistance for DNA testing, they were then told, "No, it could not be done because it would destroy the bone chips and there would be nothing left to bury." These statements beg the question: If there aren't enough bone chips to test, how can you rationally pretend there is EVIDENCE of death for even one man let alone all twelve?
As for the teeth, one tooth was identified through dental comparison to be Jacob Mercer's back molar, two teeth were identified as belonging to Mark Danielson and the last two teeth were determined to belong to Gerald Ayres. These families believe that the identification of only one or two teeth and a small handful of unidentifiable bone fragments is not ample or sufficient proof of death for their men.
Even though Spectre 11's wreckage is located 2 miles inside South Vietnam, the gunship's mission area included the major NVA storage area and infiltration route in eastern Laos. Because of this, the gunship's aircrew may well be among the 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding "tens of tens" of American POWs, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiations between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords that ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement. Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Pilots and aircrews in Vietnam were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served. On 17 November 1994, a group burial of the co-mingled remains of the AC-130A Spectre gunship crew was held at Arlington National Cemetery. While the USG considers all these men to be "remains returned," some of the families of this aircrew, including Richard Cole's family, do not. They ask that Americans continue to wear their men's POW/MIA bracelets and help them fight for an honorable accounting of them. Richard Cole was on the first mission of his second tour of duty in Vietnam at the time of his loss.
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Following the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1973, only 591 POWs were returned, leaving more than 2,500 still unaccounted for, including hundreds who had been known to have been in captivity through confirmation by returned POWs, published and unpublished captivity films and photos, intercepted enemy reports and radio transmissions, and from countless other intelligence report sources.
The families of those unaccounted for have had to deal not only with the results of the uncooperative Southeast Asian governments but, with the ongoing nearly 30 year deceit and duplicity of our own government regarding an honest accounting for those missing and for the remains of our dead.
The US government’s intent to close out the cases - and thereby the coffins - on the remaining American POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia, led to ongoing deliberate mis-identifications of scores of remains (similar the Lt. Michael Blassie/Unknown Soldier case). False forensic findings including: several documented cases of returned ‘identified’ remains which upon further testing, were determined to be of animal origin. Many other cases of ‘positively identified’ remains which were re-examined by expert independent forensic anthropologists and found to be unidentifiable even as to race, sex or age. Other positive identifications have been based solely on as little as one tooth or partial fragments of teeth including, misidentifications based on wisdom teeth that were known to have been extracted long before the date of loss of the person they were ‘identifying’.
The list of unconscionable misidentifications by the government’s unique and creative accounting methods goes on and on to even include totally empty coffins as well as numerous group burials of ‘co-mingled’ untested, unidentified remains, consisting of a handful of minuscule bone chips not attributable to even one identifiable human, much less an entire crew of up to 12 men. With the majority of these group burials consisting of air crew members whose aircraft was shot down or crashed, the government conveniently ignores the glaringly obvious fact that the loss of teeth would most certainly occur frequently during crash impact, and should not preclude the possibility that a man survived if there is no further positively identifiable remains. On the contrary, these occurrences SHOULD justify a presumption of survival.
The standard procedure that our government has adopted when NO actual remains or few unidentifiable remains are recovered is to write off the entire crew as ‘accounted for’ despite the lack of confirmed human remains. To make matter worse, the families who reject those shameful findings are forced to accept these ‘creative accounting’ decisions even when they vehemently object, and the cases and coffins - are permanently closed.
AS OF 31 OCTOBER 2001, 1,949 AMERICAN POW/MIAS REMAIN MISSING IN ACTION FROM THE VIETNAM WAR AND, HUNDREDS OF THOSE PREVIOUSLY ‘ACCOUNTED FOR’ VIA THE GOVERNMENT ‘CREATIVE IDENTIFICATION’ PROCESS REMAIN QUESTIONABLE.
By Beverly Haire
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