CHENEY, JOSEPH C.

Name:  Joseph C. Cheney
Rank/Branch: Civilian
Unit:  Air America, 
Vientiane, Laos 

Date of Birth:

Home of Record:

Date of Loss: 05 September 1963 
Country of Loss:  Laos
Loss Coordinates:  164245N 1061021E(XD250480)
Click coordinates to view maps




Status in 1973: Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered
Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground:  C46 "Commando"
Other Personnel in Incident: Eugene H. DeBruin, Charles G. Herrick, Prasit Promsuwan, Prasit Dhanee and To Yick Chiu (missing); Pisidhi Indradat (escaped).

REMARKS:

SYNOPSIS:   During the 1950's, the deteriorating political situation in Laos allowed the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao guerrillas to seize the Laotian panhandle from the Royal Lao Army. Even though the Geneva Accords restricted a large military presence in Laos, in 1958 the US established a "Program Evaluation Office" (PEO) as a CIA cover for anti-Communist covert operations. One of its first programs utilized Hmong tribesmen for a pilot guerrilla program. It soon became the largest clandestine army in CIA's history. Using US Special Forces as PEO "civilians," a few CIA officers and 90 elite Thai Border guards, an army of some 9,000 Hmong were trained. Within 10 years, the Hmong army grew to a force of over 40,000 guerrillas and became the most effective fighting force in Laos.

Air America, the CIA's covert airlines, supported the Hmong as well as other agency-backed clandestine troops. As the war escalated throughout Southeast Asia, the growing US military presence guaranteed that Air America could operate in relative obscurity. Likewise, with little fanfare throughout the war, Air America fought in the frontlines of the unconventional war with very little attention paid to it. It's aircrews flew "black missions" over China, North Vietnam and the Laotian panhandle and flew every type of aircraft from 727 jets to small Cessna's. Frequently using an aging fleet of World War II twin-engine Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft, nicknamed "Gooney Bird's," it transported everything from combat troops (alive, wounded or dead) to baby chicks, while supplying refugees and specially trained Chinese Nung trailwatchers operating in areas denied to US military personnel, with whatever was needed. Additionally, Air America contracted both with the US Drug Enforcement Agency to track international drug smugglers while at the same time it hauled the Hmong's valuable annual opium crop from where it was harvested to where it was to be processed. As US forces pulled out of Southeast Asia and the communists drove the Guerrillas from their homeland, Air America personnel picked up the slack by hauling and feeding tens of thousands of refugees.

At 1600 hours on 5 September 1963, an Air America C46 (Chinese Nationalist registration #B-150) departed Vientiane, Laos on its third resupply mission of the day to an outpost occupied by the Royal Lao Army's 33rd Battalion at Ban Hoeui Sane, Savannahket Province, Laos; located 200 kilometers east of Savannahket and less than 8 kilometers from the South Vietnamese border. Its multinational crew included Capt. Joseph C. Cheney, pilot, Charles G. Herrick, co-pilot (both Americans); Y. C. To, radio operator (Hong Kong); and a team of air freight specialists: Eugene H. DeBruin (American), Prasit Promsuwan, Prasit Dhanee and Pisidhi Indradat (Thais). These air freight specialists, or "kickers," were responsible for the safe delivery of the cargo. The cargo to be delivered during this flight consisted of buffalo meat and sacks of rice.

For reasons never made clear, Capt. Cheney strayed north of his planned course (the same route he successfully used on the first two flights of the day) enroute to Ban Hoeui Sane. Thirty minutes into the flight, as the aircraft approached the major North Vietnamese supply depot at Tchepone and at an altitude of 4,000 feet, an explosion rocked the Gooney Bird. Bracketed by 37mm anti-aircraft artillery, the transport never had a chance. A shell hit the right engine, and black smoke began to poor out of it. Joseph Cheney feathered the propeller and the fire went out for a few seconds, but soon restarted with even greater intensity. As flames engulfed the wing, Capt. Cheney ordered the crew to bail out. After transmitting a Mayday call, Y. C. To was the first out, followed by the two Prasits, then Gene DeBruin and Pisidhi. Just as his parachute opened, Prisidhi watched the aircraft explode and fall to earth. Neither Joseph Cheney nor Charles Herrick had an opportunity to get out of the damaged transport.

At first light the next morning, 6 September 1963, Air America initiated an intensive search for the downed aircraft. The wreckage was soon sighted, but an aerial inspection failed to reveal any signs of survivors. Due to difficult terrain and presence of enemy troops, a ground search could not be brought in until two days after the crash. At that time two Air America helicopters inserted a rescue team one kilometer from the crash site. Making their way through the jungle to the site, they found the aircraft had hit the ground nose first and its superstructure had collapsed in on itself. Without metal saws and jacks, it proved impossible to identify, much less retrieve, any bodies from the tangled mass of metal and cargo. The team remained at the site for about an hour before small arms fire broke out and forced them to withdraw. When Air America personnel returned to Vientiane and reported the situation to Ambassador Leonard Unger, he ordered that the hunt for possible survivors be abandoned lest additional lives be lost. All seven men aboard the ill-fated transport were listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

The five crewmen who safely bailed out of the damaged transport were captured almost immediately by Pathet Lao forces and taken to a village some 2 to 4 kilometers from their points of capture. They were all tethered to a pole anchored in the ground. The next morning the soldiers marched them southward along Route 9. In the afternoon they reached a group of crumbling buildings along the Sebang Fai River. Later they would be moved through several prisons in Savannakhet and Khammouane Provinces. On 12 July 1964, while in Ban Tha Pa Chon camp, the Pathet Lao photographed the five prisoners and published in a leaflet naming them as their prisoners. When it became known that they in fact were captured by the Pathet Lao, all five men were reclassified as Prisoners of War.

In mid-February 1964 the POWs were moved northward again, this time into dense jungle along the border, to a camp near Ban Long Khong. As the guards grew lax, the prisoners began to contemplate escape. The wall of their cell consisted of tree trunks tied together with rattan. The rattan had dried out loosening the binding. This allowed them to move one log enough for them to crawl out. On the night of 3 May, during the dry season, the men made their way past a sleeping guard and into the jungle. They walked until daybreak, then hid in the dense foliage. Communist search parties came close, but passed by without discovering them. Their greatest problem was the lack of water. On their fifth day of freedom, shortly after dawn, the group came across a pond. As they scooped clear water into their mouths, they saw the reflection of a soldier who was standing on a cliff overlooking the waterhole. The tired group was quickly recaptured and beaten on the walk to a nearby Kha village. Gene DeBruin and Pisidhi Indradat were blamed for the escape attempt. Each man's ankles were tied with rope and they were hoisted upside down into a tree. A nest of red ants was brought into the village and it was beaten until the ant poured over the bodies of the two prisoners. Eventually both men lost conscientiousness and were cut down at dusk. The next day all five were taken back to Ban Long Khong where they were placed in a barbed-wire pen. As the months passed, the prisoners were relocated to new prisons, each time moving northward along the Lao-Vietnamese border.

By February 1966 Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Duane W. Martin and Navy pilot Lt. Dieter Dengler joined the POWs from the ill-fated transport. In late June the seven POWs prepared for another escape from their camp at Houei Het. They were housed in two cells constructed of logs in a bamboo fenced compound measuring 20 by 20 meters. Three towers overlooked the compound. The camp's 16 guards had their quarters and mess hall near the front gate. Each morning the prisoners would be taken to a nearby stream and allowed to bathe and fetch water. They were permitted to walk within the compound until receiving their morning ration of rice. After eating, they were placed in stocks and handcuffs which they soon learned to remove. The guards then would eat together leaving their weapons in the watchtowers.

On the morning of 29 June 1966, while the 16 guards ate their meal in the mess hall, Pisidhi, Dieter Dengler and Duane Martin removed a previously loosened log, left their cell, climbed through a prepared opening in the bamboo fence and secured the rifles from the empty guard towers. The three armed POWs confronted the guards. When they were ordered to remain still one of the guards panicked and began to flee. The three POWs killed the guards and all seven POWs fled the compound. Following prepared plans, they split into three groups: Lt. Dengler and 1st Lt. Martin, Gene DeBruin and a sickly Y. C. To, and the three Thais. They planned that if one group was rescued, it would direct a search party toward the other two groups of escapees. Of the three groups of escaping POWs, the following facts are known: Some five days after their escape, Dengler and Martin were near a Kha village. According to one report, after being seen by a young girl, Duane Martin entered the village to beg for food and was killed by a villager with a machete. Dieter Dengler, who did not enter the village with 1st Lt. Martin, was able to escape with his life. On 20 July 1966, 23 days after making their escape, Dengler was rescued by helicopter. The communists have made no attempt to returned the remains of Duane Martin.

On the second day after the escape, Pisidhi seperated from the two Prasits. On his 32nd day of freedom, shortly after crossing a well-traveled path, an exhausted Pisidhi lapsed into unconsciousness. When he woke, he found himself once again a prisoner. He had reached a point near Seno, 30 kilometers from Savannakhet, in an area that had only recently been taken over by the communists. He was taken to a prison complex located in caves near Mahaxay. This camp contained a large number of Royal Lao POWs, but no Americans or other Thais. In early January 1967, information about this prison complex was received by CIA personnel responsible for operations in Laos. They devised a rescue plan which was successfully implemented on 7 January 1967. They rescued 53 prisoners - 52 Lao and 1 Thai.

Since the day of their escape, no information about the two Prasits or Y. C. To has surfaced and their fate remains unknown. US intelligence confirmed Gene DeBruin was recaptured and returned to the Muong Phine prison in late June 1966. According to intelligence reports obtained by his family, Gene DeBruin was moved to a POW camp at Muong Nong which contained 8 other American POWs and which was under the joint control of the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. While in this camp, he was strictly guarded by the NVA, given intense indoctrination lectures, yet allowed to talk with the other Americans. According to these reports, in January 1968 the Americans were moved out of this complex by the NVA. Their destination was never known. Since the end of the war, live reports continue to surface indicating Gene DeBruin remained alive well into the early 1990's.

The Air America crewmen are among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. The Lao 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 the Paris Peace Accords since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, 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.

Civilian Air America personnel, just like the US military, were called upon to fly under 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.