Charles Ervin Shelton

Charles Ervin Shelton

Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 5th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
Date of Birth: 29 April 1932
Home City of Record: Owensboro, KY (family in CA)
Date of Loss: 29 April 1965
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 202800N 1040200E (VH126571)
Status (in 1973): Prisoner of War
Category: 1
Acft/Vehicle/Ground: RF101C
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing)
Refno: 0079


Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with Mrs. Marian Shelton, published sources, including a series of articles appearing in the Riverside Press-Enterprise (CA), written by David E. Hendrix. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2020

SYNOPSIS: At about 11 a.m. on April 29, 1965, Capt. Charles E. Shelton’s RF101C “Voodoo” aircraft departed Udorn Airbase, Thailand, as the lead plane in a flight of two aircraft on a photo-reconnaissance mission over northern Laos. (The second aircraft, flown by Capt. Richard L. Bilheimer, is thought to be an F105 serving armed escort.) Shelton was serving his second Southeast Asia tour of duty. Based in Okinawa, he served 30-day rotations at Udorn after which he returned to Okinawa. His family was preparing to celebrate his 33rd birthday that night when he returned.

Bad weather aborted attempts to photograph the first target. Shelton and Bilheimer continued to their second target near Sam Neua, Laos, less than 50 miles from the Lao/North Vietnam border and less than 100 miles from China’s Yunan Province. The Sam Neua area was the communist Pathet Lao headquarters, with command facilities, training centers, communication equipment and personnel quartered in a jumble of mountain and river caves.

Shelton and his wingman descended to 3,000 feet above ground level as they neared the target. Shelton was just lining up for his first photo at 11:59 a.m. when fire erupted from the center of his plane. Shelton asked his wingman if he had been hit.

“Roger. You are on fire,” was the reply.

The wingman saw the canopy of Shelton’s plane fly off and watched as Shelton ejected and parachuted to the ground.

A few hours later, two rescue planes spotted Shelton and his parachute on a tree-covered ridge. They talked to him by radio and told him a helicopter would pick him up in a half-hour. Shelton indicated that he was in good condition, and used his radio to direct rescue forces.

In Okinawa, the wing commander came to tell Marian Shelton that her husband had been shot down, was OK and evading capture, and that he should be picked up by midnight, Okinawa time.

Before Shelton had left Okinawa, he had detailed with his wife all the things she should do if he were killed. He told her about their finances,
advised her on what kind of car and house to buy. The greatest threat was death, although Laos was considered a “safe” flight. Neither of them had heard of Americans being captured in Southeast Asia.

Rescue helicopters approached to pick Shelton up, but because of adverse weather closing in, rescue was delayed. After the sun went down, Shelton removed his parachute from a tree, buried it and hid while Pathet Lao forces searched for him. With the shroud of low clouds and approaching darkness, it was impossible for rescue crews to see Shelton, but radio contact indicated that he was OK and still evading. Rescue efforts were suspended until first light on April 30.

Again, bad weather and enemy fire thwarted the rescue. When the weather finally broke on May 2, Shelton was nowhere to be found. The search was finally called off on May 5, and Shelton was listed as “Missing in Action, believed captured.” The search for Shelton had involved 148 missions by military aircraft flying a combined total of more than 360 hours. Not included in this figure are the missions flown by Air America — the CIA’s airline — whose brave pilots flew countless rescue missions over Laos.

One search mission, according to a 1966 Air Force document, involved a CAS (Controlled American Source) ground search team. The team was inserted by Air America aircraft.  The team, according to the document, included Shelton’s wingman, Capt. Richard L. Bilheimer, who was on hand to pinpoint the location Shelton was last seen. The pilot’s participation in the search was unprecedented, and Air Force later claimed to have no record of Bilheimer’s participation in the search. The ground search was unsuccessful.

Shelton had evaded the enemy for three days, but was finally captured by two platoons of Pathet Lao militia. A villager later reported that witnessing Shelton’s capture, and his status was changed to Prisoner of War.

Rallier reports also confirmed his capture, as did reports by special indigenous rescue team members. U.S. Intelligence indicate Col. Shelton was held in caves in the vicinity of Ban Nakay Teu and Ban Nakay Neua in Tham Sue Cave (VH193564) in northeast Laos with another POW who is thought to be David Hrdlicka. These were the very caves he was trying to photograph, and intelligence sources indicate he was held here for at least the next 3 1/2 years.

Shelton was an uncooperative prisoner from the start and is infamous for his many escape attempts as described by a continual flow of intelligence over the years since he was captured. The reports are summaries of interviews with villagers, informants, defecting Pathet Lao soldiers and refugees. The documents tell of escapes, resistance, rescue attempts and possibly the last straw: killing three interrogators.

Shelton was first taken to the Sam Neua city jail and escaped twice, only to be recaptured. On his first trip to prison he refused to walk and was carried there by soldiers, according to some reports.

He was then taken to the Pathet Lao Supreme Command headquarters cave and interrogated. He reportedly gave no information.

Tony Weisgarber, Shelton’s squadron operations officer, recalled Shelton as being “a solid citizen…he was very solid, very reliable. Physically, he was a very solid person. He was built like a tree stump.”

Shelton was joined by other American POWs, most unidentified in reports. After spending an unknown period in the caves near Sam Neua, they were moved to a new Pathet Lao complex of caves along a river.

Shelton allegedly tried to escape again. Reports over the next three years tell of three to eleven Caucasian prisoners in the area, one of them in chains or manacles. The prisoner in irons was believed to be Shelton. He was by this time considered “incorrigible” by the Pathet Lao and some reports described him held in a shallow ditch or pit with bars over the top.

Marian Shelton knew nothing of these events except that her husband was still alive and rescue attempts were being made. She was told to not to talk about her husband’s incident. The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos cabled officials in Washington D.C. with warnings to be prepared with a story or keep silent about the shoot-down. Laos was still denied territory, and a credible story had to be devised explaining the presence of American aircraft in Laos.

Ironically, Shelton’s mission did not count toward the 100 missions needed to rotate him back to the U.S. The flight was considered a “non-counter” because Laos was considered safe territory.

Only after the war ended did Marian Shelton get other information or see copies of reports when she began using the Freedom of Information Act to gain some knowledge of her husband’s fate.

Defense Department records indicate that Shelton’s photograph appeared in a Soviet newspaper and he was named in a broadcast tape recording.

A May 13, 1967 photo which appeared in the Vietnam Courier bearing the caption, “An American airman captured in Laos,” is in Shelton’s casualty report file. The face of the airman is blacked out by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), but the presence of the photo in the file seems to indicate that the airman is Shelton.

State Department and CIA records show that at least four teams were inserted into the Sam Neua area to look for Shelton after he was a known captive. At least one attempt was planned and vetoed. Richard Secord, the retired Air Force general accused of conspiring to illegally divert proceeds from the U.S./Iran arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels, has said that he planned a 1967 rescue attempt on behalf of Shelton and Hrdlicka, but his CIA superiors vetoed the plan in favor of an alternative effort that did not work.

Ernie Meis, a retired photo reconnaissance pilot, said he took aerial photos of a prison cave in August 1968 for a planned Shelton rescue mission.  He was briefed that Shelton was being held there in a shallow grave with bars on the top because of his numerous escape attempts. He was told there was a guard standing over Shelton with a hand grenade and a couple of other guards with bayonets who would poke him and keep him awake. Meis was told there was going to be a rescue attempt. Meis flew the mission and took a lot of ground fire, but photographed the cave. Meis was never told if the rescue attempt took place.

In 1983, Meis was told by an ex-CIA agent of an attempt to rescue Shelton.  This dramatic account details an operation code-named “Duck Soup.” Sources differ as to the time frame, which was first thought to be late fall of 1965, and later believed to be in 1971. The most detailed versions relating to 1971 include two American POWs — Shelton and Hrdlicka.

According to multiple sources, including former military personnel, Shelton and Hrdlicka were returned to northern Laos in 1971. Vietnam and the U.S. were negotiating about POWs but there were no direct negotiations with the Pathet Lao. By then the two POWs had spent almost six years in the Pathet Lao-North Vietnamese prison system, including time in the Laotian communist headquarters complex in Sam Neua.

A small team of CIA-supported Hmong tribesmen was assigned the task of entering the prison area and leading the prisoners out. A Chinese man coordinated the identification of the specific prisoners and the designated rescue team.

Rosemary Conway, a CIA operative who was captured in Laos in 1975, adds that her guards told her a story about a famed American POW named Charles Shelton. They said he had killed three Vietnamese interrogators, beating them to death with a metal chair. When Conway was expelled from Laos later in 1975, she returned to Chicago and began working with Hmong refugees arriving in the U.S.

In 1976, two former Hmong intelligence officers told Conway that Shelton and Hrdlicka had been rescued by a Hmong team and turned over to an American team of “CIA agents and Army Special Forces.”

The multi-source account states that Shelton and Hrdlicka were rescued in Operation Duck Soup and held for about 10 days, and then returned to their captors. Scenarios for this rescue-return say the POWs were either returned to gather more intelligence information about the communist Pathet Lao headquarters where they were being held, returned to protect the cover of the rescuers, or that the party had been attacked and the two Americans were recaptured. One version says the rescuers, posing as communists, showed off the highly conspicuous Americans as prisoners they had captured. The ploy worked until they came to a village where a North Vietnamese Army company had set up shop.

Supposedly, the NVA commander reminded them of the policy to turn American POWs over to them and the rescue team, not wanting to blow their cover, relinquished “custody” of the Americans. Some versions state that there was a heated argument among the “captors” as to whether they should turn the prisoners over to the enemy, but ultimately they did, and Hrdlicka and Shelton concurred with the decision.

A Medal of Honor recipient related to David Hendrix that he was a friend of one of the Special Forces members of the team and confirmed the Duck Soup report, adding that his friend, to his knowledge, was the only team member left alive. The friend, still on active duty, would not confirm the story because activities in Laos were considered very sensitive and he was obligated to protect such information.

The U.S. Ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan stated that Duck Soup “rang a bell in his mind, but (he) couldn’t remember what it was.” He added that he believed it had to do with a rescue of a POW who was returned to enemy hands because of the death of the liberator.

One of the last documents released by CIA about Shelton was a two-page report dated January 5, 1969. The report states, “On 10 June 1968 two of four American pilots held prisoner in Tham Sua cave…south of Ban Nakay Neua…in Houa Phan Province, Laos, were sent to Hanoi, one of the American pilots, described as an older man, killed three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers when they attempted to interrogate him. The elder pilot refused to answer the NVA officers’ questions and instructed the other pilots not to cooperate as well.

“The killings occurred when the North Vietnamese attempted to chain the pilot to a desk — he overturned the desk on his captors and beat three of them to death with the chain before guards overpowered him. Following the incident, the older pilot and one of the younger pilots (believed to be Hrdlicka) were sent to Hanoi. The reason given for the transfer was that the two pilots were considered to be incorrigible cases by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.”

Shelton’s official record ends with the move to Hanoi, but the search continued for his wife. Having raised five children alone, ranging from age one to age thirteen, she also determinedly tracked down information on her husband. In her efforts, she has received many incredible responses which she relates with her characteristic wry humor. Marian says she has received so many conflicting reports that some have “Charles buried next to himself.” U.S. officials have discounted some reports saying they relate to “albino Laotians,” not Americans. In Laos, Soth Petrasi jokingly told her her husband had been “eaten by a tiger.”

The Pathet Lao, when pressed for further information, claimed that both Shelton and Hrdlicka had died in captivity, but that American bombing had destroyed their graves and their bones had been scattered. Mrs. Shelton discounted this information, because DIA told her on April 9, 1982 that it knew where her husband was being held.

Between 1981 and 1985, Shelton allegedly was in Camp 214 near Tchepone, Laos. Information given Shelton’s family by an alleged former terrorist stated that Shelton was called “Shaker” and was balding, had no teeth, and “was not in great shape.”

In 1984, then-Secretary of the Air Force Vern Orr said Shelton would be retained in active POW status until the fate of every American missing from Southeast Asia was known. The decision was made despite an Air Force review board recommendation four years earlier that Shelton be declared presumed dead.

A former American intelligence agent said that in August 1986 he was told by U.S. intelligence analysts that Shelton was again moved to Vietnam in April 1985, this time to an island prison known as Ho Thach Bai, northwest of Hanoi. The island prison, under triple-canopy jungle and accessible only by boat, is in the northwest corner of a man-made reservoir northeast of En Bai and is the Alcatraz of Vietnam. A large prison at En Bai (Yen Bai) was well-known during the war, but the island prison was created especially for post-war POWs of major stature, according to the agent. U.S. POWs were in this category, he said.

Reports in November 1986 suggest that Shelton was teaching in a high-security military prison in the Haiphong area of Vietnam.

Capt. Shelton has been promoted to the rank of Colonel since he was first captured. He remains the only Prisoner of War who has not been arbitrarily declared dead by his government. He is one of nearly 600 Americans lost in Laos. Because the U.S. did not formally recognize the communist government of Laos, it refused to negotiate with the Pathet Lao for the “tens of tens” of Americans the Lao publicly stated they held. Consequently, neither Charles Shelton nor any Americans held by the Lao have ever been released.

Former DIA chief LtGen. Eugene Tighe says that Vietnam, not Laos, holds the key to missing Americans: “It’s naive to call Laos an independent nation” because of Vietnam’s military presence and influence in Laos.

Vietnam spokesman Tran Trong Khanh said in New York, “Without our cooperation the issue cannot be solved. We have the information.”

In August 1987 AP news stories reported that Lao officials had agreed to account for three Americans known to be prisoners in their country. Among them was Charles Shelton. No accounting has been made since that report.

In protest of the major party presidential candidates’ silence on the POW/MIA issue, a campaign was launched in late 1987 to put Charles Shelton on the ballot for the office of President of the United States.

His wife once said, “This will always be with me, if it takes 10 years, 20 years, whatever. I will hold on. Someone, somewhere knows where my husband is.” It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Charles Shelton saw his wife and family. Isn’t it time we did whatever it takes to bring him home?