HONORING

VIETNAM WAR

M.I.A. PILOT

 

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 teens my mother gave me a POW – MIA (Prisoner-of-war, Missing-in-Action) bracelet. She was a registered nurse at the V.A. Hospital in Miami, Florida at the time; during a career where she spent over 30 years as a psychiatric nurse in V.A. Hospitals. 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 early 2020(now postponed due to COVID-19). 

 

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. My first destination on this trip was Bangkok Thailand, which ended up being a place that I would go back to several times. 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. I attempted to hire a driver on short notice to take me to the area in the province where the colonel was last known alive. But, I quickly learned that there would be a lot more planning involved. My next trip took place in March 2019.

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 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 maintained electronic communications with George, and upon my arrival back to the U.S. I had a lengthy phone conversation with him. He led the rescue mission into Laos after Colonel Luna’s F-4D Phantom aircraft was hit by enemy fire, and the colonel and his weapon service officer Colonel Aldis Rutyna ejected.  Captain Marrett had very good recall of the events that took place that day which he said “still haunt” him.

One of the next contacts that I made was with Colonel Aldis Rutyna, U.S.A.F., Ret.. He was rescued on the mission led by Captain Marrett on March 10, 1969.  Colonel Rutyna shared information with me that was helpful in trying to pinpoint the possible location of their aircraft. However, I would come to realize during my research that the aircraft’s location was not relevant at this point in time. What was important was to pick up the trail from the known coordinates where he and Colonel Luna landed on the ground.

I made contact with other individuals who I don’t feel a need to identify, however, they were instrumental in helping me read tactical pilot charts, 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.

Undoubtedly though the most significant and special contact that I made was with Patricia Luna who is the wife of Colonel Carter Luna. Although in my years of research I knew some information about the colonel’s background I really had not explored his family tree in depth.  In May of 2018 I decided to approach this area to determine if he had any remaining next-of-kin, by contacting the U.S.A.F.  The air force advised me that they would forward communications to his next-of-kin on my behalf. They stated that they could make contact with the next-of-kin to see if they wanted to communicate with me, or I could write a personal letter to them and they would forward it. I chose the latter… there was no option! I prepared a detailed and heartfelt letter to the colonel’s next-of-kin whom I had no idea who that was.  About 3 weeks after sending the letter to the air force I received a phone call on Memorial Day.  My caller i.d. on my phone immediately alerted me that the call was from someone related to the colonel as the last name “Luna” was displayed. I answered the phone to hear the voice of Pat Luna who had received my letter. After the initial tears subsided we had a nice conversation where she shared information about the colonel, and reflected on their life together. To this day we remain in contact. I can’t imagine the heartache, grief, sadness as well as probably a multitude of other emotions that she has experienced in the last 50 years… the uncertainty of the colonel’s fate except for what can be the best conclusion by the government.  The colonel’s parents went to their graves knowing that their son still had not been recovered.  It’s just unimaginable to me especially as a parent to not have a recovery of their remains to provide final closure to the loss of a child.

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. Of course I already had a passport, and some familiarity with traveling into Laos. But, this trip required much more preparation and acquiring of gear.  I had the typical backpack but acquired a tactical backpack which offered more versatility for items that I would need to have at my fingertips.  I might have over prepared anticipating situations that could be challenging, but I felt that was better than not being prepared.  First aid kit, compass, GPS, maps, images of items such as bathrooms, cars, food to help communicate in a place where no one spoke English, change of clothing on my back, medications (routine, and for the “unexpected” events), but definitely no weapons of any type! My Canon camera, and my phone camera for dual photo shooting and one as a back-up to the other; the same with the GPS on my phone, camera, and actual GPS.  

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.

 

March 2019…

I traveled to Bangkok Thailand where I spent about a week visiting my son and his family. 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.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PHOTOGRAPHS– 2017 Savannakhet Laos

 

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PHOTOGRAPHS2019 Laos: Vilabouly and remote villages

 

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