Charles Ervin Shelton
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.
Much has been done over the years by many, many people, organizations and the United States government, but there are still more questions than answers about our missing men. We hope and pray that someday there will be an accounting of the fate of Col. Shelton and the others who are still missing.
Shelton's home town of Owensboro, Kentucky is building a memorial to him. Please
excellent information about the MIA/POW