LAOS & VIETNAM 2024

For now this reads from the beginning of the trip in Vietnam at the bottom to the ending in Laos at the top. The last day in rural Laos on 24 March was spent wandering to an area I previously went to in 2019 to try to find a cave. There is no entry here about that day.  I think 23 March is probably of most interest to anyone that has landed on this page.

 

We found a BLU-26 cluster bomb

 

 

In Ban Kok Mak Laos

village elder, village chief, Chris/Lao Adv Tours, Karen Standerwick,
Susan K. Crosby, some of the supplies we delivered.
Not shown: Hulle/guide- taking photo

 

23 MARCH 2024

After spending time in Ban Kok Mak the village chief (naiban) accompanied us (Chris/owner and operator Lao Adv Tour, Hulle/guide Lao Adv Tour, Susan K. Crosby, Karen Standerwick) to the surrounding areas of interest to me. Before detailing what we encountered I’ll provide some background information from my research to help put today’s activity in perspective. I’ve put dates in red for emphasis… time has and is slipping away to recover the remaining 1577 MIAs from the Vietnam War, 285 of them are in Laos.

Background– In 2013, the DPAA (Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency- an agency within the Department of Defense who investigates and conducts recovery missions of MIAs in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was led to a possible burial site of Colonel Carter Luna by a former NVA soldier. (see photo) This soldier who fought in this area during the war indicated that Colonel Luna was buried between two NVA fighting positions. An excavation took place that covered an area of 480 sq. meters, at a depth of 71 centimeters/28 in. in an effort to locate and recover remains. No evidence or remains were found during this excavation.

My findings:

First, just outside the village of Kok Mak near the village of Nam Keng we came to the coordinate of an F-4 crash site which in 1996 was associated to that of Colonel Luna’s F-4D (see photo) but not officially correlated to that loss. This site was seen on aerial images taken by military aircraft 10 days after Colonel Luna was shot down. (see photo)  This area is a cassava field and a short distance from it is an cleared area at a road intersection that is used for loading cassava trucks (see photo).

Next, a short distance away we arrived in the area of the excavated site/s and started wandering around in and around a cassava field. I almost immediately saw the remnants of a BLU- 26 cluster bomb and chunk of rusted metal (see photos) in the dirt, we studied maps and coordinated with the GPS. We needed to move to the other side of this large field to access the area of interest which was the burial site location mapped for me by a geospatial expert prior to my trip.  Hulle walked through the field where he encountered more bomb remnants and met Chris and I on the other side after we drove there; this field is several acres in size. As I walked through the field to get to the coordinate where the excavation took place I estimated it was maybe as much as 10″ deep in the trenches of the rich soil where the plants had been harvested. We reached the coordinate in this cassava field; per the village chief the cassava field has been in existence for the last two years.

I had no expectations but had hoped to be able to access the area of the excavation for more reasons which are explained below.

Additional aerial images of the areas I would visit that were taken 10 days after Colonel Luna was shot down on 10 MAR 69 showed an area of “ground disturbance”. This was a significant discovery as it could have possibly related to a burial site. If I was hopeful for anything on this trip it was to get to that location. It is not a location that was specifically excavated from what I could determine, but it may have been 50 meters away from the 2013 excavated site based on the map I was referring to while in the field.

Feeling disappointed because of all the current day disturbances to the ground from cultivation, I now wanted to go to a location that was identified in 2006 by the same NVA witness as also a possible burial site of Colonel Luna. It was located approximately 164 yds. from the 2013 excavated site (see photo). This area was all jungle and once we reached the edge of the cassava field we could not get into the location of the coordinate. Chris took the naiban back to the village to get another guy to help us and get some machetes. I paid them to cut us a path so we could gain access to the coordinate. We got there but it was somewhat treacherous with lots of vines with very big thorns (see photo). There was nothing obvious to see at the location 55 years after Colonel Luna became MIA. The DPAA has not gone back there since 2006 (which is 18 years ago) to excavate this location even though in a DPAA report dated 21 MAY 2019 it was stated: “Strongly recommend excavating the original identified location during JFA 07-1LA” (the location surveyed in 2006). Although, I have to wonder why there was no attempt to excavate this site between 2006 and 2013. An eyewitness initially identified the site, and while it’s understandable due to changes in terrain and maybe other considerations that 7 years later he directed the DPAA to another location less than 200 yards away,  I don’t think the original site should be totally dismissed. What do you think?

It would seem to me that there’s nothing to lose, and maybe something to gain by excavating the possible burial site identified in 2006. If the land is burned to cultivate it for a cassava field any potential evidence or remains risk being destroyed. Short of any new information from witnesses from the war 55 years ago, there are no additional leads to follow to a possible burial site of Colonel Carter Luna to try to recover his remains to repatriate him… which is the right thing to do.

It’s already a tremendously challenging situation to make recoveries of MIAs. In fact, in the last 3 years there have only been 8 recoveries made from the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Throughout the years there have been many success stories, I don’t want to take away from those. It would seem to me that there’s nothing to lose, and maybe something to gain by excavating the location of a possible burial site identified in 2006. Cultivation of the land in central Laos by Laotians and possibly Chinese, mining of the land in central Laos by the Chinese is nothing new. However, compared to my previous trips over the last few years it does appear that all this activity is rapidly expanding in Savannakhet Province in the areas of Ban Kok Mak and other villages, as well as into Khammouane Province. There are many large trucks traveling through the nearby village of Vilabouly transporting cassava and mining material, burning, cultivating… lots of activity taking place. I have to wonder if this agricultural and mining activity is and will have an adverse impact on the effectiveness of present and future efforts by the US Government to recover MIAs in this area.

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22 MARCH 2024

Today, we began our trip to Khammouane Province which adjoins Savannakhet Province where we are staying.  It was a four hour drive through often very rugged terrain to our destination. During the drive we saw beautiful country much of which is being ravaged by burning to allow for planting of cassava.  Cassava root is widely grown throughout Laos or at least central Laos where I traveled. It is drought tolerant, has various uses such as for flour, it’s like a potato but also if not properly processed has a cyanide element to it which can be toxic.

We traveled through several small villages or bans as they are called, and stopped at one to have a cold drink.  During the short break we sat outside at a table and offered cookies to the people that were gathered around before continuing on our journey.  It was quite a rough ride at some spots and our driver had to take his time and pay attention to the road.

As we got closer to our destination we reached one of the most infamous locations of the Vietnam War… Ban Laboy ford.  This area was heavily bombed and noted for where Medal of Honor recipient (posthumously) Lance Sijan escaped capture by the North Vietnamese for 46 days. On 09 NOV 67 he ejected from his F-4 Phantom during a bombing run and in the process he suffered very severe injuries.  Search and rescue attempts were made until all radio contact with him was lost. Once he was captured he did escape but was recaptured and would later be imprisoned in the Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton) prison.

Upon reaching our destination which was a village of interest to Karen we met with a local area leader.  Through our guide and translator Hulle this leader was agreeable to assisting us.  We also brought food and supplies for his village which he gladly accepted.  At this point he accompanied us to a police check point where there was a discussion about allowing us to continue further in the area.  It’s customary when entering a village to seek permission from the village chief or in this situation the area leader who was the individual available to us.  The police gave permission for us to proceed as far as the Vietnamese border with the leader accompanying us.  Once we reached the border we had to stop as it was not an official border crossing; our interest was only on the Laos side.  At this point it was determined that we couldn’t access any area of significance at this time so we returned to the village.

What we learned at this village… 

  • the leader was born in 1971 which means his parents were alive during the war.  If they are still alive (I’m not clear about whether they are or not) they could be a valuable source of information.
  • Ban San was another village in the area during the war that has assimilated into this village. This village was known as Nong Ma but is now Ban Ga (ph.)  There could be residents here that may have information relevant to Karen’s father’s loss which occurred closest to these villages.
  • It is a gradual process to gain the trust of people in villages. They can be valuable sources of information. By nature they are skeptical and suspicious… wouldn’t you be if people that were so obviously different in appearance, spoke a foreign language just appeared in your neighborhood?  The meeting today though was the laying of the foundation for future interactions which by all indications should move forward in a positive way.

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21 MARCH 2024

First day back in Laos to continue research on Colonel Carter Luna.  Once again I utilized the services of Lao Adv Tours owned and operated by Chris Corbett of Luang Prabang Laos.  He is accompanied by Mr. Hulle (Hulle) a tour guide who provided excellent service along with Chris and was invaluable in translating the Lao language where needed… everywhere!  These guys know their way around the country on motorbikes but for my tour they provide service in a pick-up truck.

Karen Standerwick the daughter of Colonel Robert Standerwick, MIA is on her first trip to Laos.  She seeks information about her father’s fate and wants to try to get to the area where he was last known alive.  He was the aircraft commander of a F-4 Phantom and ejected after being hit by enemy fire.  So, he was last known to be alive but was injured when shot by enemy troops.  The back seater flying with him was captured and he was a POW until he was released in 1973.

We flew from Vientiane Laos to Savannakhet Airport where Chris and Hulle picked us up. From there it was a four hour drive to Vilabouly.  A good portion of this drive is a rugged road which passes by the Sepon gold and copper mine.  This mine has been expanding rapidly since my trips here in 2019 and 2023.  We checked into a guesthouse in Vilabouly where I’ve stayed on my two previous trips here.  No frills for $6 per night but clean and offering all the necessities.

 

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20 MARCH 2024

Today is my last day in Hanoi Vietnam and I’ll be moving forward by returning to Laos.

 

19 MARCH 2024

We toured the DPAA facility and were given an overview of recovery efforts operations.

Also, we went to the Vietnamese Air Force & Defence Museum which was interesting to tour.  It largely consists of memorabilia related to the Vietnamese side of the war (not surprising). However, I was somewhat surprised at the number of American pilot id cards on display which numbered around 20.  I would think there may be more in storage at off-site facilities.  There were a couple of blood chits on display (see photos), one which had the number on it clearly visible. The numbers are the means to identify the pilot it is issued to, however, that information is not publicly available. There were remnant of aircrafts, small personal items of pilots, a few uniforms, helmets, pair of boots.  Of course, I didn’t know what to expect arriving at the museum as far as being able to interact with personnel.  It did not meet what I thought could be a possibility of that interaction. Also, based on conversation at DPAA it was unlikely that there would be any opportunity to view other property of Americans.  I got the impression that even U.S. officials have not received 100% access to conducting inventory of American pilot (mostly) equipment held by the Vietnamese.  The Vietnamese control the property and choose what to do with the items, including attaching a price tag to items that U.S. government may have an interest in acquiring. There doesn’t seem to be an easy resolution to this issue.

 

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18 MARCH 2024

Today we visited the Hanoi Hilton and I will describe it as an “eery” experience from the beginning. Many dark, dingy areas of cells dating back many decades even prior to the Vietnam War.  Thoughts of how American POWs were treated when they were held there during the war occupied my time during the couple of hours I was there.  However, much of the displays pre-dated the Vietnam War which is what interests me the most.

 

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17 MARCH 2024

I arrived in Hanoi Vietnam today.  This is my first trip to Vietnam and what I’ve seen so far is that it closely resembles other cities in Southeast Asia such as Bangkok.  Prior to the trip I was forewarned about walking through the streets and how dangerous it could be.  Having had experience walking around Bangkok I felt I was prepared, but this was even worse!  After today I think for any distance walking I prefer to get a Grab (Uber).  There are no traffic rules and pedestrians don’t have any right-of-way.

I will tour the Vietnamese Air Force & Defence Museum with hopes of viewing a piece of equipment a blood chit that was known to be there and belonged to Colonel Robert Standerwick whose daughter Karen is accompanying me on this trip.  We also will be attempting to determine if any equipment or personal effects of Colonel Luna’s may be stored at the museum.  Also, we plan to visit the Hoa Lo Prison a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War.

 

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06 MARCH 2024

It’s been almost 24 hours of flying time in the last two days and a lot of walking through airport terminals in Detroit, Seoul South Korea, Bangkok Thailand, and Kuala Lum Pur Malaysia.  I will spend nine days with family in Malaysia before returning to Bangkok for a couple days.  From there I’ll go to Hanoi Vietnam for a few days.

On the flight from Detroit to Seoul I was looking for a movie to watch and noticed one that I had on DVD at home but had never watched.  “We Were Soldiers” based on an actual battle (Battle if Ia Drang, 1965) during the Vietnam War documented in a book by Lt. Col. Hal Moore.  Since I’m going to Vietnam to further my research related to the war this seemed like the time to finally watch the movie.  I have to admit before I was too far into the movie I was wiping tears from my eyes.  At the time I didn’t know how accurately the movie portrayed the war since we know some movies do this better than others. But, since watching the movie I’ve researched that and found this movie was rated above average in this respect.  I do know that the movie accurately conveyed one point about the war and that is… death.

The movie also has given me reason to think about how I will feel being in Vietnam for the first time. Granted the country is nothing like it was during the war years, it is in many ways capitalistic and even a thriving tourist destination.  Much of the population only know of the war from stories passed on to them.  What I’ve learned from my research will definitely be etched in my mind, vivid images that I saw in this movie right next to them.

 

03 MARCH 2024

I’ll be “wheels up” tomorrow for Southeast Asia.  This trip I’ll be visiting Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and for the first time Vietnam.  As it relates to Colonel Luna I will be attempting to get close to possible burial sites in Laos as well as as possible crash site of the F-4D Phantom he was piloting on 10 MAR 69.  The potential crash site is also very near another aircraft possible crash site of an unrelated loss in December 1968.

In Hanoi Vietnam I will be searching for information at the air force museum that may relate to equipment of Colonel Luna.  Accompanying me will be the daughter of another pilot who is still MIA since 1971.  A piece of his equipment, his blood chit is known to be in the museum and we will attempt to view that as well as anything else we may find related to the losses of these pilots.

In Laos we will attempt to reach this pilot’s last known position when he was shot down and presumably killed.  The weapon systems officer flying with him was captured several days later and became a POW until he was released in 1973.

PLEASE check back here for updates during my trip to Vietnam and Laos from 17 March – 25 March.

 

29 DECEMBER 2023

I am currently in the process of planning a trip to Laos and Vietnam in 2024.  There are a couple challenges that I’m facing regarding flights in Laos, hopefully, I can overcome them for a March trip.

My goals for this trip are:

  • return to the village of Kok Mak with food, water, toys, educational materials
  • interview elders in villages near the area where Colonel Luna was last known alive
  • return to the area where Colonel Luna was last known alive
  • travel to Khammouane Province Laos with the daughter of a pilot who is still MIA since 1971
  • travel to Hanoi Vietnam to visit the war museum.  In the war museum are many artifacts from the Vietnam War including (at least at one time) the blood chit of the pilot whose daughter is accompanying me.  This would be an opportunity to try to determine if any equipment assigned to Colonel Luna is stored or displayed in the museum.

When I went to Laos in March 2023 several of my followers on social media asked how they could help the village people in Kok Mak. I am considering starting a Go Fund Me page prior to my next trip.  For those who want to be a small part of what I’m doing in Laos this is a way they may contribute to off-set some of my costs for supplies for the village. While these supplies are minimal by U.S. standards they do add to the overall cost of my trips to Southeast Asia which I totally fund myself.