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May-27-2008 13:06printcomments

Remains of C-130 Crew Missing From Vietnam War Recovered

The final chapters are written in a saga about 14 families who believed their loved ones never died at all.

Ribbons from a tribute page to Curtis Daniel Miller who was aboard the Air Force AC-130A Spectre gunship that was shot down over Laos in 1972.
From a tribute page to Curtis Daniel Miller who was aboard the Air Force AC-130A Spectre gunship that was shot down over Laos in 1972. Courtesy: virtualwall.org

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - The remains of four U.S. servicemen, crewmen of a C-130 Spectre gunship missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to their families. The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced the information today.

But that news is only the tip of the iceberg for this story involving the loss of 14 different men in 1972.

Hundreds of families of Vietnam War Prisoners of War and Missing in Action believed their loved ones survived the war in captivity, and many still do. This AC-130 was based in Thailand and shot down over Laos. The men aboard are some of those who were seriously believed to have survived the crash and the war and would rank among those left behind in Southeast Asia by the Nixon Administration which chose to renege on a $2.2 billion war reparation payment to North Vietnam.

The most ironic part when taking today's United States into view, is that the reason Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided not to pay North Vietnam the money they had agreed to pay, is the revelation that our POW's were tortured in North Vietnam at places like the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."

Degrading forms of torture used on Americans was enough for a President to make a political move that effectively abandoned remaining prisoners forever. Today we have a President who believes torture is OK. It is all very confusing, and in the end those who lose are, once again, the people who serve their nation in uniform and their families.

The men coming home after 36 years are Major Barclay B. Young, of Hartford, Connecticut; and Senior Master Sergeant James K. Caniford, of Brunswick, Maryland.

The names of the two others are being withheld at the request of their families. All men were in the U.S. Air Force.

James Caniford will be buried May 28th in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., and Barclay Young's burial date is being set by his family. Remains that could not be individually identified are included in a group which will be buried together in Arlington. Among the group remains is Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Henry P. Brauner of Franklin Park, New Jersey, whose identification tag was recovered at the crash site.

Staff Sgt. Merlyn Paulson

Other men aboard the plane when it crashed were Howard Stephenson; Curtis D. Miller; Robert Simmons; Edwin Pearce; Edward Smith; Richard Halpin; Irving Ramsower; Richard Castillo; Charles Wanzel; Merlyn Paulson; William Todd and Robert E. Simmons.

The government reports that on March 29th, 1972, the 14 men were aboard the AC-130A Spectre gunship that took off from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, on an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos. The aircraft was struck by an enemy surface-to-air missile and crashed. According to the POW Network, the aircraft crashed in the jungle foothills 56 miles east of Savannakhet in southern Laos, it was shot down by a Russian Surface to Air Missile, otherwise known as a SAM.

Military documents indicate that search and rescue efforts were stopped after a few days due to heavy enemy activity in the area.

The POW Network reported, "U.S. government sources stated in February 1986 that a fighter escort plane reported that the aircraft crashed in a fireball, no parachutes were seen, nor was radio contact made with the AC130 or any of its crew."

But vanished hope returned when the family of Edwin Pearce was contacted by a source that described signals received after the plane was hit, that were a sign of survival.

U.S. Air Force Major Henry Brauner

The report continued, "In 1972, however, the Pearce family was told that an F4 support plane traveling with the AC130 heard 'so many beepers they couldn't count them' and that the emergency beeper type carried by the crew could only be activated manually. The Pearce family took this as strong proof that a number of the crew survived. The support aircraft plane left the area to refuel. When it returned, there were no signs of life."

Interestingly, the inscribed wedding band of Curtis Miller was recovered by a reporter and returned to Miller's family. The existence of the ring suggests to Miller's mother that the plane did not burn, and gives her hope that he survived, the POW Network stated.

Then an article appeared in a May 1985 Thai newspaper stating that the bodies of Robert E. Simmons and Charles Wanzel were among the remains of five people that were brought to a base camp being used by Lao Liberation forces. The article also reported a group of 21 Americans still alive, held prisoner at a camp in Khammouane Province, Laos.

Reports of that nature had many Americans asking questions and the POW/MIA family support groups were very active for years with their efforts to revive recovery missions to bring back any remaining American servicemen who may have been alive.

At about this same time, Robert Simmons' dog tag was mailed anonymously to the U.S. Embassy in Laos. Testing by the FBI failed to show fire residue on the dog tag, and this was proof to the Simmons family that Robert "Skeeter" Simmons did not die in the explosion and go down in the fiery crash.

As the government is now, in May of 2008, releasing information about the remains of five of the crewmembers being returned home, it is fascinating to realize that the first excavation of this site at Pakse, Laos happened 23 years ago, in 1985, when remains recovered were positively identified as the 13 crew members.

Capt. Curtis D. Miller also flew fighters

It seems that the U.S. government wanted to quickly and permanently close the book on this case, and it happened at a time when President Richard Nixon looked Americans square in the eye and said "there are no military operations taking place over Laos." Secrecy, lies, cover ups, scandals, left the truth about whatever really happened to the men aboard this plane foggy at best.

The government actually reported that they recovered 13 of the men while the Thai newspaper published a story about 21 Americans alive and in captivity nearby. It is disturbing. And you ask, how can the news today be possible if 13 of 14 were recovered in 1985? Fair question, the story continues.

As it turns out, independent examiners later proved that only 2 of those "positive" identifications from 1985 were even scientifically possible. The American government has acknowledged the errors made in identification on two of the men, but as one would expect from the U.S. government, two individuals are still considered "accounted for".

One interesting, unrelated side note is that this same AC-130A Spectre gunship aircraft had #3 and #4 props shot off in Nov 1971. While most troops were out of Vietnam by 1972, many aerial operations increased.

After the first excavation in 1985, the U.S. and Laos jointly returned to the crash site in February 1986. This time the teams recovered a limited number of human bone fragments, personal effects and large pieces of plane wreckage.

It was later announced by the U.S. Government that the remains of Richard Castillo, Richard Halpin, Irving Ramsower, Robert Simmons, William Todd, Merlyn Paulson, Edwin Pearce, Charles Wanzel and Edward Smith had been positively identified from these bone fragments.

The AC-130 Spectre gunship earned the nickname "Puff the Magic
Dragon during the war in SE Asia. Courtesy: taskforceomegainc.org

The POW Network says that because of the identification problems of the first excavation, the families of the Savannakhet AC130 considered the information given them about their loved ones very carefully. The families of Robert Simmons and Edwin Pearce for years, actively resisted the U.S. Government's identification, which is in both cases reportedly based on a single tooth.

These families insisted that they do not know if their men are alive or dead, and they wanted the books are kept open until further proof that there is no longer any hope for their survival.

In January 1991, a federal judge ruled that when the Simmons family collected death benefits, they lost the right to question whether he was dead.

The government says that it took from 1986 to 1988 to determine if the remains were identified as those of nine men from this crew.


Between 2005 and 2006, joint teams returned to the crash site and excavated it twice. The teams found more human remains, personal effects and crew-related equipment. As a result, JPAC identified Barclay Young, James Caniford and the other crewmen using forensic identification tools, circumstantial evidence, mitochondrial DNA and dental comparisons.

It may be closure for families, and it can still be a very jagged pill for some to swallow. If the men had been taken captive and were alive today, they would only range from their mid 50's to possibly late 60's. They were serving at the tail end of the conflict there. Stranger things have happened in history.

But it is the knowledge that our government was in there in 1985 claiming to have recovered all but one, while the Thai paper reported 21 Americans living in captivity in the general area, that strikes me as the most difficult part of all.

Nobody should forget the POW's and MIA's of the Vietnam War and we should not ignore the possibility that many survived in captivity long after the war officially ended in 1975. We also should not take lightly the good honest work that the JPAC is doing today to bring closure to cases like this, as well as many from WWII and Korea.

For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO Web site at dtic.mil/dpmo

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Zachary K Pearce January 14, 2012 7:59 pm (Pacific time)

My uncle was C/M Sgt. Edwin "Jack" Pearce. I too have read reports from across the Internet. All though my family has accepted the remains of my uncle and he is buried on a hillside in Milford Pennsylvania next to his father Edwin A. Pearce who spent two years as POW in WWII in Stalag 17, we still question what happened after the plane went down. There is a lot of evidence to suggest the crew survived the crash and were probably taken prisoner. I believe the DOD has a file on this somewhere and knows the exact accounting of what actually happened, one day I will lay my eyes on it.


mike houghton January 4, 2011 9:39 pm (Pacific time)

It is critical to note that missions over Laos were considered Secret and that enemy activity and lack of DNA analysis at the time prevented positive ID of these brave AC-130 crewmen. Later ability to ID them allowed what has now taken place - not for a desire to hide any "conspiracy theory" of leaving our airmen behind.


bomeb80q December 16, 2010 7:11 pm (Pacific time)

the AC-130 was known as the "spectre"; "puff the magic dragon" was the nickname of the AC-47. In response to sister - names of MIAs are a matter of public record and do not require permission of next of kin to be published


Gary September 18, 2010 2:03 pm (Pacific time)

I was flying a 12 hr night mission over laos 1n 71 or 72 and heard spectre 22 as it was shotdown. The pilot was making radio calls as the plane "limped" back toward Thailand. He reported being hit by sams and that a copilot and a "back ender" bailed out over the target area. This we deduced from their call signs. Spectre 22 B and Spectre 22 K. After 10 or more minutes the AC gave the command to bailout. Then the AC announced everyone was out and he was going. To this day I still remember the tenseness in his voice as he asked ?Redbird? to mark his position. We were told the next day all had been recovered but the two over the target area.

Tim King: Gary, that gave me chills to read this.  I have had several inquiries over this article and welcome anything else you may be willing to provide.  This is such important recent history and I am honored to carry this comment, many thanks.  tim@salem-news.com.


Kevin October 31, 2008 5:13 pm (Pacific time)

Major Curtis Dan Miller is my first cousin and I agree with Bryans posting. He flew training jets but his plane in the theater was a C130 gunship.


Roy A. Hebel October 16, 2008 5:00 pm (Pacific time)

My father, Lt. Col. Roy B. Hebel USAF deceased, was ordered back to either Ubon or Udorn Thailand, to fly Spectre missions for a 6 month tour of duty, after flying C-130's in Vietnam '66-'69. Having flown C-47's in Korea a mere 16 years earlier, the idea of going back to Southeast Asia for 6 months only a year after returning to the States, was more than my fammily could endure at the time. Dad retired and eventually died from cancer attributed to the Agent Orange missions that he flew in Vietnam '66-'69. It was an agonizing death that my personal hero endured, surely he could have been on a mission like this one in '72 that claimed the lives of these heroes. My heart goes out to every family who lost a hero during the Vietnam war, and every other conflict that our country asked our brave heroes to fight and die in. Never Forgotten, ever!

Editor: Roy, thanks for taking the time to write, we are humbled by your father's service


Bryan July 15, 2008 8:00 pm (Pacific time)

Dan Miller did not fly fighters, that picture was taken on a T-38 Talon trainer during his USAF pilot training.


Sister June 11, 2008 6:59 am (Pacific time)

I am a sister to one of these men and I would like to know how this information was released to the paper without the families permission to do so..


Tim King May 27, 2008 11:02 pm (Pacific time)

Lance, glad to help in any way. I'm just working from reports from the DoD and the POW Network. I was able to locate the images of the three men fairly easily, so there is definite interest.


Lance Woodruff May 27, 2008 11:00 pm (Pacific time)

Living in Thailand at that time, I would like to know more about this. I live in Thailand still.

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