COPLEY, WILLIAM MICHAEL

Name: William Michael Copley 
Rank/Branch: Staff Sergeant/US Army 
Unit: Command and Control North Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observation Group 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces 
Date of Birth: 22 May 1949 (Columbus, OH)
Home of Record: Northridge, CA
Date of Loss: 16 November 1968 
Country of Loss: Laos 
Loss Coordinates: 144000N 1071754E (YB475226) 
Click coordinates to view maps
Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: Ground
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing) 

REMARKS:

SYNOPSIS:  Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), was a joint service high command unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (though it was not a Special Forces group) through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA), which provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction which were called, depending on the time frame, "Shining Brass" or "Prairie Fire" missions.,

On 13 November 1968, SSgt. Roger T. Loe, team leader; then SP4 William M. Copley, assistant team leader; and an unspecified number of indigenous team members, comprised Recon Team (RT) Vermont, a reconnaissance patrol that was operating deep in enemy held territory. This area of extreme southeastern Laos was considered a major artery of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail feeding communist troops and material into the hotly contested tri-border area where Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia meet.

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 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.

Before RT Vermont could establish its overnight position in rolling, forested mountains west of Ben Het, approximately 29 miles west of Dak To, South Vietnam; 34 miles southeast of the city of Attopeu, 7 miles west of Ban Pakha and 3 miles north of the Lao/Cambodian border, Attopeu Province, Laos, it was ambushed by an enemy force of unknown size. SP4 Copley was seriously wounded in the initial burst of enemy automatic weapons fire. As he was hit, he cried out to SSgt. Loe, "Help me, I'm hit!" Roger Loe immediately moved to William Copley's position to check his condition. He noted that the bullet entered his upper left shoulder and exited through the middle of his back.

After applying a pressure bandage, SSgt. Loe carried William Copley on his back for a short distance toward the patrol's hastily established perimeter. While struggling to carry him over uneven ground, SSgt. Loe tripped and fell. He immediately began administering first aid to William Copley and continued it until he believed his assistant team leader's face showed signs of death. Under intense pressure from hostile forces, the team leader was forced to withdraw to protective cover leaving William Copley behind. The remainder of the team, including the team leader, was able to escape the ambush site and evade to safety.

Later on 13 November, another recon team, RT New Hampshire, was inserted into the area of the ambush to conduct a search and rescue (SAR) in an effort to rescue/recover SP4 Copley. 1st Lt. James D. Birchim, team leader; SP4 Frank L Belletire, assistant team leader and 10 indigenous personnel; comprised RT New Hampshire. Over the next two days an extensive search in and around the ambush site was conducted. During the search no sign of the missing assistant team leader or his remains were found.

On 15 November, RT New Hampshire was also ambushed by communist troops in the same general area as RT Vermont. At dusk, and after engaging in a running gun battle with NVA forces, emergency extraction helicopters recovered 8 of the 12-man SAR team, including 1st Lt. Birchim and SP4 Belletire who were extracted by use of McGuire rigs. Of the four indigenous team members not recovered, three were listed Missing in Action and the fourth was listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. On return flight to base, the recon team members remained in the McGuire rigs dangling below the helicopter. During the flight, Jim Birchim fell from the McGuire rig that he and Frank Belletire shared and was also listed Missing in Action.

In spite of the initial firefight in which SP4 Copley was wounded commencing on 13 November, his date of loss was officially established as being at the time formal search efforts were terminated on 16 November 1968. At that time William Copley was officially declared Missing in Action.

For every insertion like this one that was detected and stopped, dozens of others safely slipped past NVA lines to strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969. It was the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence-gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history. MACV-SOG's teams earned a global reputation as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.

William Copley is 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.

There is some doubt as to whether or not SP4 Copley died of his wounds or could have survived them. If he died of those wounds, he has the right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. On the other hand, if he managed to survive, his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.

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 Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

American servicemen in Vietnam were called upon to operate in many dangerous circumstances both on and off duty, 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.