Name: Clarence Nesbit Driver
Rank/Branch: Civilian/Air America

Date of Birth: 07 March 1922 (Phoenix, AZ)
Home of Record: Riverside, CA
Date of Loss: 07 March 1973
Country of Loss: Laos
Date of Birth

Loss Coordinates: 195145N 1010900E (QB230980)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps

Status in 1973: Missing In Action
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: C123K "Provider"
Other Personnel in Incident: James H. Ackley (missing)


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 transporting 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.

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 which 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 7 March 1973, Clarence N. Driver, pilot, James H. Ackley, co-pilot, and two "kickers" - one Lao and one Thai - who's job it was to push the pallets of supplies out the back of the aircraft, comprised the civilian crew of C123K, tail # NBR-524, that departed Luang Prabang Airbase, Laos on a backlog cargo/rice resupply mission. The last radio contact with the aircrew was upon take-off en-route to Houei Sai, Xaignabouli Province, Laos.

A standard communication search was initiated at 1610 hours when their scheduled 30 minutes "ops normal" radio report was overdue, then search and rescue (SAR) aircraft began a flight route/area search at 1620 hours, but was hampered by numerous thunderstorms in the area. At the time the Provider departed its base, weather conditions consisted of broken clouds with bases at 3,000 feet, overcast cloud cover at 8,000 feet and 4 mile visibility. There was also ground fog/haze in the area with no wind. Conditions in their destination location consisted of broken clouds with bases at 2,000 feet, overcast cloud cover at 6,000 feet, 2 miles visibility with thunderstorms, haze and 8 knot winds.

By 13 March, when the full scale SAR efforts were terminated, 10 aircraft had logged over 75 hours of flight time without finding a trace of the aircraft or its crew. On 14 March a limited SAR was conducted using two aircraft. During this mission wreckage of the Provider was sighted south of Pak Beng. One of the aircraft got close enough to the wreckage to confirm that it was the C123K, tail # NBR-524, before being driven off by enemy ground fire. However, during this brief examination of the crash site, the SAR personnel could not determine whether or not the crew was able to successfully bail out of it or not. Both Clarence Driver and James Ackley were immediately listed Missing in Action.

In late 1984, a number of first-hand live-sighting refugee reports from unrelated sources were received by the US government indicating that Clarence Driver was alive, in good health, and being held in a group of some 8 American prisoners in Laos. There was no indication if James Ackley was one of the other Americans in this prison compound.

Clarence Driver and James Ackley 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.

Civilian employees, like military personnel, were called upon to operate in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to lay down their lives or be captured, if necessary, in order to carry out their work. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned in the same manner as American military men by their country.