VIETNAM WAR PILOT
It’s hard to believe that the Vietnam War was 50+ years ago. I was a young girl… a pre-teen to teen during the war years. I have vivid memories of listening to the music of the time, and of a couple people that I knew of who had served in the war, but not much more than that.
When I was in my early teens my mother gave me a POW/MIA (Prisoner-of-war, Missing-in-Action) bracelet. She was a registered nurse at the Veterans Administration (V.A.) Medical Center in Miami, Florida at the time; during a 32 year career as a psychiatric nurse in V.A. Medical Centers. At the time she got me this bracelet in the early 1970’s they were a popular item worn by thousands of people. She randomly selected a bracelet from a box at an office of a veterans organization located in the hospital. The inscription on the bracelet is “Lt. Col. Carter Luna, 3-10-69“.
This bracelet has survived many of my life events including marriage and divorce, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a 25 year career as a law enforcement officer just to name a few highlights. Now, 50+- years later I have come to understand much more about the bracelets certainly more than I realized when I was a teenager. Also, I’ve become dedicated to learning about Colonel Carter Luna who has been missing since the date inscribed on my bracelet. In the last several years I have done extensive research on him focusing primarily on the day that he was last known alive.
Colonel Carter Purvis Luna, a U.S.A.F. pilot from Mississippi who was based at Ubon Royal Thai Airbase, Ubon Thailand in March of 1969. He had arrived there in January 1969 and was assigned to the 8th TFW, 435th TFS. The 8th TFW had a couple years earlier been commanded by legendary Colonel Robin Olds, a triple ace, who later retired as a brigadier general.
Through the years that I’ve had the bracelet I had thought of making a trip to Laos, to the crash site to honor Colonel Luna. Realizing that this was something I would likely never be able to do, it was only a “thought”, however, it became a reality in 2017. Maybe ironic was the fact that my son and daughter-in-law were based in Bangkok Thailand. When I decided to make a trip to visit them the “light bulb” went on and I realized how close to Laos they lived.
Just prior to this trip I ordered a book that has a chapter about Colonel Luna, and the SAR (search and rescue) mission involving him and Captain Aldis Rutyna in the back seat as a weapon systems officer of the F-4D Phantom that was shot down over Laos on 10 MAR 69. The book titled “Cheating Death- Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos” is written by Captain George Marrett. I did not read it until I arrived in Bankgkok Thailand, when I also contacted Captain Marrett. I told him that I had purchased his book, and would be going to Laos in a few days. After brief communication on the computer we agreed that I would call him to talk in more detail when I returned to the U.S.
How likely was it that I would be able to talk to the pilot who led this SAR mission almost 50 years earlier?
At the bottom of this page you can view slideshows of photographs from my trips to Laos in 2017, and 2019.
My first trip to Laos in 2017 was limited to a weekend in Savannakhet town. It was there that my son and I were doing more research at the Library of Congress website. It was that day that I found next-of-kin letters from the U.S.A.F. in 1969 to the colonel’s wife and parents. I experienced emotionally heart wrenching minutes reading letters from the air force informing of then Lieutenant Colonel Luna’s status of “missing-in-action”. On that afternoon Colonel Luna became more to me than a name on a bracelet, he became “real” to me.
This was an experience like no other especially considering that this was my first (successful) trip outside of the U.S. to Southeast Asia. Savannakhet (town) is located in the Savannakhet Province situated in central Laos along the Mekong River. U.S. airmen flew various missions from bases in Thailand into Laos on a daily basis during the Vietnam War. As I flew across the Mekong River into Laos I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for the pilots on similar flight paths during the war.
What were their thoughts… primarily the current mission, but also the question of returning safely to their base, thoughts of loved ones… we can only imagine.
During our weekend in Savannakhet I found the local people to be very accommodating to us even though they were unable to communicate very effectively. The Daosavahn Resort where we stayed reminded me of places that I’d been to in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. But, this resort overlooking the Mekong River was not crowded which was very appealing! This trip turned out to be uneventful as far as making forward motion related to my research of Colonel Luna. I learned that it would require A LOT of advance planning to travel four hours to the area where Colonel Luna was last known alive.
Upon my arrival home in the U.S. I would spend 2018 and part of 2019 preparing for my next trip to Laos. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done to organize a trip to a remote village called Vilabouly a.k.a. Vilabouli, Vilabouri. At the same time I was continuing my research of Colonel Luna, and the events that took place on 10 MAR 69.
In addition to having a phone conversation with Captain George Marrett I made contact with other individuals who were helpful by providing insight into the recovery efforts that still take place in Laos. They also were very helpful with logistics for my trip into remote areas of Laos.
I did extensive searching to find a driver (who should speak English) to transport me around Laos. This was not an easy process as resources like that are limited in the remote areas where I would travel. However, I engaged the services of a company that assured me that their driver spoke English. Fast forward for a moment to the day the driver picked me up at the DaoSavanh Resort in Savannakhet in March 2019. It was immediately obvious the driver I was to spend the next 4 days with did NOT speak a word of English, and understood about the same…none.
I traveled to Bangkok Thailand and after about a week there I embarked on my trip to Laos. My first stop was the Daosavahn Resort in Savannakhet. This is my second time staying at this beautiful hotel on the Mekong River. I would highly recommend this resort to anyone traveling to Savannakhet. It’s hard to describe the “draw” that I have to this country. It’s not a touristy, fast paced, thriving area at all. Maybe it’s the humble experience I have when I’m there. My next destination is Vilabouly which is about a 4 hour drive.
We traveled on route 9 which is a paved road in good condition; especially compared to other roads that I would later travel on to my destination. The road travels east to Vietnam, and while riding on it occasionally we would encounter cows meandering in the road. Lunch was at a roadside restaurant where I chose to stick with something “simple”… a rice dish. We took a detour to tour the Lam Son 719 Museum before making a U-turn towards Vilabouly on route 28A.
Route 28A to Vilabouly was an experience as it was very rugged! Many large trucks traveled on this road from the Sepon Mine. However, the most notable view was when I saw two men less than 50′ off the road who were sweeping for UXO’s (unexploded ordnances). I knew there were millions of unexploded bombs in Laos (the most heavily bombed country in the world) but I didn’t expect to see this activity so close!
Searching for UXOs along Route 28A
The next couple of days were spent traveling on rugged roads often encountering wooden bridges that were questionable to drive over, in fact some of them were not passable and we had to drive around them. One reason for traveling this time of year is that it’s the “dry” season so there wasn’t any water under these bridges. On 10 MAR 2019 I thought that I was close to the coordinates where Colonel Luna was last known alive after ejecting from his aircraft exactly 50 years earlier. However, with further research and better coordinates available I would learn I wasn’t as close as I thought.
When it was time to leave the remote village of Vilabouly I felt an unexpected feeling of great sadness. Really, I was overcome with this feeling as I thought about Colonel Luna never having the opportunity to leave this country which was devastated by war.
After returning to the U.S. I’ve had several encounters with individuals related to the loss on 10 MAR 69 in Laos. I have had experiences that I don’t think were merely coincidences as they relate to something that happened 50+ years earlier. UPDATE: In May 2023 I had the opportunity to have a phone conversation with a veteran who served in the U.S.A.F. and knew Colonel Luna from a stateside base assignment and being based in Ubon Thailand at the same time in March 1969.
Sunset as seen from Mekong River in Savannakhet Laos
This page is intended to be a short summary of my experiences in Laos. A book is in progress, and my trip to Laos in March 2023 will hopefully reveal more information.
If you have any questions or information please contact me by e-mail: [email protected] or complete the form on this website. I have been contacted by a few individuals related to the Vietnam War, Colonel Luna’s flight on 10 MAR 69, and more, so please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Missing man table
PHOTOGRAPHS– 2017 Savannakhet Laos
PHOTOGRAPHS– 2019 Laos
Vilabouly and remote villages