I decided to add this page to my website even though it’s not related to my photography business. It’s a page about my interest in matters related to our military veterans, and specifically to a U.S.A.F. pilot who is classified as K.I.A./B.N.R. (killed-in-action/body-not-recovered) and still Missing-in-Action (M.I.A.) from the Vietnam War. At the bottom of this page you can view slideshows of photographs from my trips to Laos in 2017, and 2019.
It’s hard to believe that the Vietnam War was 50+ years ago. I was a young girl… a pre-teen during the war years. I have memories of the music of the time, and of a couple people that I knew of who had served in the war, but not 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 V.A. Medical Center in Miami, Florida at the time; during a career where she spent over 30 years as a psychiatric nurse in V.A. Medical Centers. At the time she got me this bracelet in the early 70’s they were a popular item worn by thousands of people. She randomly selected a bracelet from a box at the hospital canteen. The inscription on the bracelet is “Lt. Col. Carter Luna, 3-10-69“.
Now, 45+- years later I have come to understand much about the bracelets, 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 that day that he was last known alive.
Colonel Carter Purvis Luna was 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 just a short time earlier, and was assigned to the 8th TFW, 435th TFS. The 8th TFW had 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 Col. Luna. Realizing that this was something I would never likely be able to do, it was only a “thought”… until it became a reality in 2017. Laos is where the
F-4D Phantom aircraft that he was in command of was hit by enemy fire. My trips to Laos have been an experience of a lifetime and another trip is planned for 2021.
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 in the Library of Congress website. It was that day that I found next-of-kin letters to the colonel’s wife and parents. These were emotionally heart wrenching minutes reading letters from the air force informing of the then Lt. Col. status of “missing-in-action”. On that afternoon, Colonel Luna became more to me than… a name on a bracelet… he became a “real” person to me.
I spent the weekend wandering the streets of Savannakhet Laos. 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 missions from bases in Thailand into Laos on a regular basis during the Vietnam War. As I flew across the Mekong River I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for the pilots on similar paths during the war.
During my weekend in Savannakhet I found the local people to be very accommodating to us even though they were unable to communicate too effectively. The resort where I stayed reminded me of somewhere in Florida or the Bahamas but lacked any volume of guests… very appealing! This trip turned out to be uneventful as far as making forward motion related to Colonel Luna.
Upon my arrival home in the U.S. I would spend 2018 into 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 (Vilabouli). At the same time I was continuing my research of Colonel Luna, and the events that took place on March 10, 1969, and the years to follow with attempts by the U.S. government to develop information to assist in possibly recovering his remains.
I have had several interesting interactions take place in planning for my next trip to Laos. The first began while I was in Bangkok Thailand in 2017. Just prior to that trip I ordered a book that Colonel Luna was referenced in. The book title “Cheating Death- Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos” was written by Capt. George Marrett. I took the book to Bangkok but did not read the chapter about the colonel until I arrived there. I also contacted the author who was a U.S.A.F. captain that flew rescue missions during the Vietnam War. Surprisingly…
I made contact with other individuals who I won’t identify here, however, they were instrumental in helping me read tactical pilot charts and maps of Laos, and provide 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.
For the remainder of 2018 I prepared for my return trip to Laos, this time to a remote village named Vilabouly close to the village Ban Kok Mak where the colonel was last known alive. There is a great amount of planning that occurs to make a trip like this to a 3rd world country.
I did extensive searching to find a driver (who spoke English) to transport me around Laos. This was not an easy process as resources like that are limited… someone that knew the area and could speak some degree of English. However, I engaged the services of a company that assured me their driver spoke English. Fast forward to the day the driver picked me up at the DaoSavanh Resort in Savannakhet… 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.
I traveled to Bangkok Thailand and after about a week in Bangkok I embarked on my trip to Laos. My first stop was the Daosavahn Resort in Savannakhet. This is my second time staying at this location 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, so maybe it’s the humble experience I have when I’m there. My next destination is Vilabouly which is about a 4 hour drive.
As previously mentioned I engaged the service of a driver. He promptly picked me up at the Daosavahn as scheduled. Immediately, it was apparent that we had a language barrier and I didn’t know how the next several days would play out.
We traveled on Rt. 9 which is a paved road in good condition; especially compared to other roads that I would later travel on. 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. A detour was made to the Lam Son 719 museum before making a U-turn towards Vilabouly.
The road from Rt. 9 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 are 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!
The next couple of days were spent traveling on rugged roads often encountering wooden bridges that I thought were questionable to cross, in fact some of them were not passable and we had to drive around them. I believe that I was close to the coordinates where Col. Luna was last known alive after ejecting from his aircraft. However, you’ll have to read my book (when it’s complete) for this interesting adventure!
When it was time to leave the remote village of Vilabouly I felt an unexpected sense of sadness. Really, I was overcome with this feeling as I thought about Col. Luna never having the opportunity to leave this country devastated by war. After returning to the U.S. I’ve had several encounters with individuals related to the incident on March 10, 1969, or knowledgeable about the “Silent War” in Laos. I have had experiences that I can only explain as not coincidences, especially 50+ years after the incident.
This page is intended to be a short summary of my experiences, and my research. A book is in progress, as is planning for a second trip to Laos in 2021. If you have any questions or information please contact me by e-mail: [email protected]
PHOTOGRAPHS– 2017 Savannakhet Laos
PHOTOGRAPHS– 2019 Laos: Vilabouly and remote villages