ACALOTTO, ROBERT JOSEPH

Name: Robert Joseph Acalotto   
Rank/Branch: Staff Sergeant/US Army  
Unit: 48th Assault Helicopter Company
223rd Aviation Battalion,
1st Aviation Brigade
Dong Ha, South Vietnam  
Date of Birth: 30 January 1951 
Home of Record: Greensburg, PA
Date of Loss: 20 February 1971  
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 162721N 1062748E (XD562198) 
Click coordinates to view maps
Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: UH1C "Huey"
Other Personnel In Incident: Randolph L. Johnson (missing); David M. May and Jon E. Reid (remains returned)  

REMARKS: 

SYNOPSIS:By early 1967 the UH-1 was already the standard Army assault helicopter, and was used in nearly every "in-country" mission. Huey Troop carriers were referred to as "slicks" and gunships were called "hogs." It proved itself to be a sturdy, versatile aircraft which was called on to carry out a wide variety of missions including search and rescue, close air support, insertion and extraction, fire support, and resupply to name a few. It usually carried a crew of four.

On 8 February 1971, South Vietnamese President Thieu announced Lam Son 719, a large-scale offensive against enemy communications and supply lines in that part of Laos adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

Lam Son 719 was intended to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would provide and command ground forces, while US military would provide airlift and supporting fire. Phase I, renamed Operation Dewey Canyon II, involved an armored attack by the US from Firebase Vandergrift Base Camp toward Khe Sanh, while the ARVN moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border. Phase II began with an ARVN helicopter assault and armored brigade thrust along Route 9 into Laos. ARVN ground troops were transported by American helicopters, while the US Air Force provided cover strikes around the designated landing zones.

On 20 February 1971, as part of Lam Son 719, CWO Jon E. “Jake” Reed, pilot; 1Lt. David M. May, Co-pilot; Sgt. Randolph L. Johnson, crew chief; and then Cpl. Robert J. Acalotto, door gunner; comprised the crew of a UH1C gunship (tail # 66-700) that was providing air cover for a multi-aircraft emergency resupply mission to ARVN troops engaged in heavy combat with communist forces in Savannakhet Province, Laos. All helicopters from the 48th AHC used the call sign “Joker.”

As CWO Reid directed suppressive fire on an enemy position, the Huey was struck in the tail boom by .51 caliber ground fire and made a forced landing on the east edge of dense jungle that was bordered to its east and south by elephant grass, bamboo groves and shrubs. This sector was also laced with roads, trails and footpaths of all sizes that formed an intricate maze used by the NVA as they moved through Laos. The Huey landed upright on its skids, with its tail boom broken off and the right aft section on fire. The loss location was on the southeast side of Highway 914 and 10 miles south of Highway 911, both of which were major arteries in the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The location was also 21 miles southeast of Tchepone, Laos and 24 miles southwest of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.

Another Huey piloted by WO Stephen Knowles attempted to land nearby to rescue the downed aircrew, but his aircraft was driven off by intense enemy gunfire. However, before pulling away from the crash site, WO Knowles’ crew hurriedly conducted a visual inspection of the wreckage. They saw that the pilot’s door had been jettisoned and later reported that they thought both the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats were empty. They also saw two people, who they believed to be the door gunner and crew chief, exit the aircraft through a side cargo door and run into the trees. Over the next several days many rescue attempts were made, but each was unsuccessful due to the heavy fighting that continued throughout the sector. At the time the formal search was terminated, Jake Reid, David May, Randolph Johnson and Robert Acalotto were declared Missing in Action.

Jake Reid, David May, Randolph Johnson and Robert Acalotto are among the nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Like this aircrew, many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding "tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but they were never negotiated for either by direct negotiations between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords which ended the Vietnam War since the Laotians were not a party to that agreement.

Through the debriefing statements of returned POWs gathered after Operation Homecoming, Jake Reid was reported to have been captured and alive in captivity in March, May and June 1971. It is not known if other members of the crew were also held in the same POW camp.

In 1992, a National Security Agency (NSA) correlation study of all communist radio intercepts pertaining to missing Americans, which was presented to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in a classified format, was finally declassified and made public. According to this document, 4 North Vietnamese radio messages were intercepted and correlated to this incident. The NSA synopsis states:” … of Battalion 4 used infantry weapons and shot down one helicopter. No crew status.” Another part of the report added: “Captured one 2nd Lieutenant and one Aspirant. Note: possibly (name is blacked out), and Warrant Officer Reid.”

In January 1994, a joint US/Lao team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Savannakhet Province, Laos to investigate this loss incident. The team found nothing conclusive at the official crash site coordinates. However, while interviewing residents of a nearby village, a man provided them with information about another crash site. The team traveled to the new location and found that it had been almost completely scavenged. Even so, they found a few pieces of aircraft wreckage, but found no evidence to link this site directly to CWO Reid’s aircraft.

In October 1996, another JTFFA team returned to that crash site location. In addition to conducting more witness interviews, the team dug a test pit. They found enough material evidence in it to warrant the team recommending this site be scheduled for excavation in the future.

In late March 1998, a third team lead by civilian anthropologist Bradley Sturm returned again to the site to conduct a full scale excavation. They cleared the area of trees and under growth, and established a search grid over it. On the third day, the team found a fragment of David May’s dog tag. Over the next weeks, they found and recovered the remaining pieces of 1st Lt. May’s dog tag, pieces of a wristwatch, a key, a pen cap, approximately 90 bone fragments and 3 teeth/tooth fragments.

On 13 April 1998, the crash site excavation was closed. Shortly thereafter all possible human remains were transported to the US Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination.

On 9 November 1999, the families were notified that remains attributable to David May and Jake Reid had been positively identified. For Jake Reid, two of the teeth matched his dental radiographs and the third tooth matched those of David May. Some of the larger bone fragments underwent DNA analysis. The test results supported finding individual DNA sequencing in some of the bone fragments that matched samples provided by each of the men’s families.

When asking questions related to their men’s survival intelligence, the Reid and May families learned hard lesions. As in other cases where intelligence information indicated a specific POW/MIA was alive on the ground after his loss and/or was reported to be alive in captivity and later identifiable remains were recovered during a crash site excavation, the US government had no answers to explain away the validity of the live intelligence information the US Government had in its possession for years verses its current premise that the man died in or shortly after the loss with his remains being left in or buried near the wreckage.

On Friday, 14 January 2000, all remains associated with CWO Reid and 1st Lt. May with the exception of the 2 teeth identified as belonging to Jake Reid were buried in Arlington National Cemetery under a headstone baring both men’s names. CWO Reid’s teeth were interred later that spring in the family plot in Idaho with his parents.

While the fate of David May and Jake Reid is resolved and their families and friends of the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies, only unanswered questions remain for Randolph Johnson and Robert Acalotto. If they died as a result of the loss of their helicopter, they have the right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country. However, if their were able to exit the downed Huey as witness statements indicate, they most certainly could have been captured and their fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way there is no doubt communist forces openly operating in this region could return the men or their remains any time they had the desire to do so.

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.

Aircrews in Vietnam and Laos were called upon to fly 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