Name: Paul Wedlake Bannon b118p

Rank/Branch: Colonel/US Air Force
Unit: 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron
8th Tactical Fighter Wing
Ubon Airfield, Thailand

Date of Birth: 15 October 1934
Home of Record: Hueytown, AL
Date of Loss: 12 July 1969
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 180400N 1051300E (WE229974)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps

Status in 1973: Missing In Action
Category: 4
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F4D "Phantom II"
Other Personnel in Incident: Peter X. Pike (missing)


SYNOPSIS: The McDonnell F4 Phantom used by Air Force, Marine and Navy air wings served a multitude of functions including fighter/bomber, interceptor, photo/electronic surveillance, and reconnaissance. The two man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2) and had a long range, 900 - 2300 miles depending on stores and mission type. The F4 was also extremely maneuverable and handled well at low and high altitudes. It was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronics conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the "hottest" planes around.

On 12 July 1969, Maj. Paul W. Bannon, pilot; and then 1Lt. Peter X. Pike, weapons systems officer; comprised the crew of an F4D aircraft, call sign "Wolf 04," on a Forward Air Control (FAC) visual reconnaissance mission. Their mission area included extremely rugged jungle covered mountains known to be under the control of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) located approximately 10 miles southwest of the Lao/North Vietnamese border and 38 miles southwest of the major North Vietnamese city of Vinh, Khammouan Province, Laos.

Further, this area of eastern Laos was considered a major artery of the infamous 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.

At 0845 hours, Maj. Bannon accomplished an air refueling and returned to his assigned area to continue their mission. By 0950 hours he notified a radar controller who was monitoring the flight that they were going to try to find a hole in the clouds to climb above them because of the poor weather conditions with broken to overcast cloud layers. At that time the clouds tops were at approximately 4300 feet with 5830 foot peaks in the surrounding area. Their last known position placed them 55 kilometers southeast of Khamkeut, 30 kilometers southeast of Ban Lakxao and 12 kilometers northeast of Ban Songkhone, Laos.

There was no indication of problems with the Phantom, however, during the last radio transmission the conversation ended abruptly and their image disappeared from the radar scope. No formal search and recovery operation was possible because of the bad weather. A C130 already in the area orbited the loss location for 2 hours trying to make contact with the downed aircrew. During that time no emergency beepers were heard and no voice contact was established. The search effort by the C130 was terminated at 1240 hours the same day. Both Paul Bannon and Peter Pike were immediately listed Missing in Action.

After 1975 when all US involvement ceased in Southeast Asia, reports kept trickling into CIA's Bangkok station that Americans had been seen among the prisoners working on Laotian road and irrigation projects. In 1979 a Lao informant for the DIA claimed that 18 Americans had been moved to a cave north of Nammarath, Laos. He identified one of them as "Lt. Col. Paul W. Mercland," but no Mercland was listed as missing. Pentagon intelligence analysts suspected that Mercland was a garbled version of the American name and erroneously assumed to be the officer's last name. Based on their extensive evaluation of all the known data about this group of prisoners and of all records of POW/MIAs, they believed that Mercland was probably Paul W. Bannon. The source passed a polygraph test while satellite photos analyzed in the Pentagon confirmed the cave's location.

In November 1980 US intelligence sources provided solid information about approximately 30 American pilots working on a road gang near the central Laotian town of Nammarath. These source reports were supported by a spy-satellite photo confirming that a prison camp had recently been built near the town. This camp was later nicknamed "Fort Apache" by the US intelligence community. Two months later the Pentagon began preparing "Operation Pocket Change," a top-secret plan to retrieve these American captives. It was the only postwar rescue the US government ever considered in Southeast Asia.

Never before had photographic, electronic and human intelligence all pointed to one site where American POWs might very well be alive. Spy satellites continued to watch the camp 24 hours a day while the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) planned and practiced to rescue the POWs. On 18 March 1981, because the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not want to run the risk of being accused of keeping too many key government officials uninformed, members of the congressional POW Task Force were given a classified briefing. The result was a flood of media leaks about Operation Pocket Change, and the need for the head of the Pentagon's news division to convince news agencies to sit on the story.

On 29 March 1981, a 13-man CIA indigenous team crossed the Mekong River into Laos to confirm the existence of the camp and that Americans were being held there. This team did not include any Americans as originally planned. It immediately ran into trouble in crossing the 40-mile distance to Nammarath. When they finally returned to Thailand on 13 May, the extent of its failure to properly photograph and visually examine the camp was slow to unravel. In the end, the news media believed the US government was intentionally dragging its feet about the raid to rescue POWs and 21 May 1981 the first news stories about this mission were aired. The end result was Operation Pocket Change was cancelled and the POWs once again abandoned.

Was Paul W. Bannon one of some 30 American Prisoners of War who could have been liberated in 1981 as was believed by US intelligence analyst? Could Peter Pike also been among these prisoners? These questions, along with many others, remains unanswered. What is known, however, is in February 1994 Laos finally allowed a Pentagon team into the country to inspect the Nammarath prison. Americans in the party say nervous Laotian officials rushed them through their tour of the camp and gave them little time to read the prisoner logs. Further, no photographs were allowed to be taken. Investigators were allowed to interview only two elderly villagers from Nammarath who claimed they never saw POWs. With that, the team was forced to report back that there was "no evidence" Americans had been held there.

Paul Bannon and Peter Pike are among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. 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 these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords which ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

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 America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Fighter pilots 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.