Name:  Noel Luis Rios
Rank/Branch: Staff Sergeant/US Air Force
Unit:  15th Aerial Port Squadron DaNang Airbase, South Vietnam
Date of Birth: 03 April 1941
Home of Record: Newark, NJ
Date of Loss: 06 March 1969
Country of Loss:  South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates:  163659N 1064559E (XD933404)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Killed/Body Not Recovered
Category: 4
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: C123K “Provider”

Other Personnel in Incident: William F. Anselmo (missing)


SYNOPSIS:Though it had been declared obsolete in 1956, the Fairchild C123 Provider, which was a converted WWII glider, became one of the mainstays of tactical airlift in the Vietnam War. In 1962 the Provider was fitted with special equipment to spray defoliants. Later, it was modified with a pair of J-85 jet engines that increased its payload carrying capability by nearly one third. The first of these modified C123s arrived at Tan Son Nhut on 25 April 1967, and this venerable old aircraft proved to be among the hardest working aircraft throughout Southeast Asia. The C123K differed from other C123 models in that it had the addition of auxiliary turbojet engines mounted in underwing pods. While this addition did little to increase the speed of the "Provider", it added greater power for quicker climbing on takeoff, and power for maintaining altitude.

On 6 March 1968, SSgt William F. Anselmo and SSgt Noel L. Rios were assigned the duty of traveling from their squadron at DaNang to Khe Sanh Airfield to repair a disabled aircraft. They were originally manifested on a C123K Provider, tail #662, Mission #701 that was a direct flight to Khe Sanh. A second flight was scheduled for the same day, Mission #702, which was to fly to Phu Bai Airfield first – some 39 miles northwest of DaNang – than on to Khe Sanh, Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam.

Mission #701 carried a cargo of ammunition for Khe Sanh. After it was delivered, the aircraft returned to DaNang. According to the loadmaster’s log and PAC-AF form 112A, mission 701 carried only cargo, no passengers, as originally planned.

Lt. Col. Frederick J. Hampton, aircraft commander; 1st Lt. Ellis E. Helgeson, co-pilot; and Sgt. Jeffrey F. Conlin, crew chief; comprised the crew of the C-123K (serial #54-0590), Mission #702. All members of this aircrew were assigned to the 311th Air Cargo Squadron, 315th Air Cargo Wing, Phan Rang Airbase, South Vietnam and were detached to DaNang Airbase.

Mission #702 departed DaNang with its cargo for Phu Bai. After off-loading its cargo was accomplished, the aircraft was subsequently loaded with 44 US Marines bound for Khe Sanh, SSgt Anselmo and SSgt. Rios. Phu Bai’s passenger representative assisted the aircraft’s loadmaster in organizing various pallets loaded with the passengers’ gear, another set of pallets stacked with M-60 machine guns and other weapons, and more loaded with beer and soft drinks that were all to be delivered to Khe Sanh.

The passenger representative also saw the right steering mechanism part needed to repair the aircraft along with SSgt. Rios and SSgt. Anselmo’s tool box both of which were stowed near the rear door of the aircraft.

When the C123K, Mission #702, departed Phu Bai Airfield, it carried a total of 49 manifested passengers and crew - 44 Marines, 1 Navy corpsman, 1 Civilian photographer and the 3-man Air Force aircrew. It proceeded to Khe Sanh without incident. Once in the vicinity of their destination, Lt. Col. Hampton established radio contact with ground control and was cleared to land. He initiated his final approach to Khe Sanh’s airfield, but was forced to abort the landing because of a South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) light aircraft that obstructed the runway.

The Provider circled around at low altitude to set up for a second approach; however, as it did so, it was hit by enemy ground fire in the port jet engine. Lt. Col. Hampton climbed for altitude as he transmitted their situation and reported that he was returning back to DaNang with battle damage.

Shortly thereafter, the Provider spiraled into the ground exploding on impact. The crash site was located in extremely rugged jungle covered mountains that was dotted with small clearings covered with elephant grass and bamboo just a mile southeast of the base’s runway, less then a mile east of the closest point along Route 9 and just north of the closest location on the Song Quang Tri River that nearly encircled the loss location. The crash site was also located approximately 14 miles east of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, 58 miles west-northwest of the Phu Bai Airfield and 100 miles northwest of DaNang Airbase.

Due to the tactical situation in and around Khe Sanh, ground search parties first reached the aircraft’s wreckage on 26 April 1968 to begin the grizzly task of recovering remains. Other search teams returned to the crash site on 24 June and 3 July 1968 respectively. On each occasion, human remains, dogtags, other identification media and personal affects were recovered. Further, because of the large size of the debris field, each search party concentrated its efforts in a designated area with the last two search parties demolishing wreckage sections prior to the departure.

All possible human remains and personal affects that were recovered were transported to the US Army mortuary facility at DaNang for the arduous task of identification. Military morticians were able to positively identify only 19 of the men aboard the Provider. Those remains were embalmed prior to being returned to each man’s family for burial with full military honors. A tentative identification of remains was made for the other 30 men known to be onboard the C123K. These remains were also processed and turned over to their families for burial with full military honors.

After the crash and with no proof that SSgt. Anselmo and SSgt. Rios were actually on board Mission #702, their squadron conducted a formal crash investigation. As part of this investigation, a series of inquiries were made of the Dong Ha Hospital, other mortuary detachments as well as to other bases/outposts in the area on the outside chance the men had not been on the aircraft and were located there. Unfortunately no trace of either man couldbe found.

Air Force personnel determined that both William Anselmo and Noel Rios had excellent military records; that they were responsible, reliable and both men had frequently performed similar repair missions to Khe Sanh in the past. Further, neither man was in any trouble what so ever and there was no reason to believe they might have been absent without leave (AWOL).

The investigation also confirmed that while the equipment was known to have been loaded aboard that aircraft, no one at Phu Bai could say with certainty that the two Air Force mechanics were actually aboard when it took off. At the time the Board of Inquiry issued its findings, both William Anselmo and Noel Rios were declared Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered.

On 23 October 1968, two sets of remains tentatively identified as William Anselmo and Noel Rios were shipped from Saigon to the mortuary at Dover, Delaware. Those remains were further examined at Dover by their forensic experts who determined that the extremely limited amount of material tentatively identified for each man was not sufficient to uphold even a circumstantial identification. Based on their findings, the tentative identification for SSgt. Anselmo and SSgt. Rios was not accepted by the United States Air Force. Noel Rios and William Anselmo’s status of Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered based on the premisehat they were in fact on board the Provider at the time of the crash was upheld. However, what really happened to these men remains a mystery.

If they were on board the Provider when it crashed into the South Vietnamese countryside, they most certainly would have been killed along with the other passengers and crew. However, if their equipment and the repair part made it onto that flight, but for some unknown reason the men did not, their fates could be quite different. Above all else William Anselmo and Noel Rios have the right not to be forgotten by the nation for which each gave his life.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing, and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American POWs remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.