Marine Air Group 16
1st Marine Air Wing
Marble Mountain (DaNang), South Vietnam
|Date of Birth:||24 July 1947
|Home of Record:||Ventura, CA
|Date of Loss:||21 March 1970
|Country of Loss:||Laos|
|Loss Coordinates:||160142N 1071748E (YC457733)
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Thomas
W. Underwood (missing); Larry Parsons (rescued); and Robert Castle
SYNOPSIS:By early 1967, the UH1 helicopter, nickname “Huey”, was already the standard assault helicopter being used in nearly every in-country mission by both the Marine Corps and Army. 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.
Oscar Eight was the code name given to a sector of eastern Laos located in rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 25 miles northwest of the infamous A Shau Valley, Saravane Province, Laos. The area encompassed the junction of Highway 92, which was a primary north-south artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Highway 922, which branched off and ran directly east where it crossed into South Vietnam at a strategic point near the northern edge of the A Shau Valley. Oscar Eight was also located at the southeastern end of a large and narrow jungle covered valley that had two primary roads running through it, one on each side of the valley. Highway 92 ran along the west side and Highway 919 along the east. A power line ran parallel to Highway 92 and sometimes crossed it. In addition to the roads and power line, the Hoi An River also flowed through the valley passing the road junction roughly 1 mile west of it.
More American aircraft were downed in this sector than any other place in Laos. This was because burrowed deep in the hills of Oscar Eight was North Vietnamese General Vo Bam’s 559th Transportation Group’s forward headquarters. It was also the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s control center and contained the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam. Oscar Eight was defended by consecutive belts of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns of all sizes that were not only stationed on the ground, but also mounted on platforms in the trees and were expertly camouflaged. Oscar Eight also favored the enemy because the only suitable landing zones were located in a wide bowl surrounded by jungle covered high ground containing AAA guns and bunkered infantry.
On 21 March 1970, 1st Lt. Robert Castle, pilot; 1st Lt. Larry Parsons, co-pilot; Sgt. David Gonzales, crewchief; and SSgt. Thomas W. Underwood, door gunner; comprised crew of a UH1E helicopter (aircraft #152427) that was on a multi-aircraft troop insertion mission. Their aircraft was part of a flight inserting a special operations “Prairie Fire” reconnaissance team into a denied area of Laos. The flight was over the extremely rugged, jungle covered mountains approximately 3 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border, Xekong Province, Laos when it was struck by enemy ground fire and crashed into the jungle below. It was also 4 miles southwest of the southern edge of the infamous A Shau Valley and 55 miles due west of DaNang, South Vietnam.
No search and rescue (SAR) operations were initiated due to the location of loss and the fact that these types of missions in Laos simply did not exist as far as the mission planners were concerned. Likewise, because no sign of survivors in or around the crash site were seen by other flight members, Robert Castle, Larry Parsons, David Gonzales and Thomas Underwood were listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
According to other members of the squadron, when the helicopter went down everyone was prepared to fly back in to find their friends. This included Marine recon team personnel who were ready to accompany the aircrews in order to secure the area for a SAR operation. They were told “there was no way anyone could have lived through the crash” and headquarters was not willing to risk the possibility of loosing other aircraft and personnel “just to recover bodies.”
Nineteen days after the Huey’s loss, another flight of 10 helicopters from the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division was inserting another special operations team west of the Huey’s loss location. As they flew over the rugged terrain not far from the crash site on its way in to insert the team, a crewmen aboard the #10 aircraft spotted “someone in a small clearing waving something” at them. The aircraft commander relayed the information in the clear to the flight leader, who immediately turned about to check out the situation and set up for a possible extraction.
The aircraft commander of the #10 aircraft reported that he saw a person on the ground who appeared to be a white male with a beard and wearing a flight suit and he was “in” to pick him up. The Lead aircraft commander responded with “be careful it may be a trap.” The helicopter landed under enemy small arms fire, grabbed Larry Parsons and rapidly exited the clearing as the enemy continued to fire at the helicopter. When the flight returned to base, the crew counted 34 enemy bullet holes in its fuselage.
During his debriefing while in the hospital, 1st Lt. Parsons recounted the downing of his aircraft as well as his ordeal during those 19 days he spent on the ground deep in enemy held territory. He reported that after the crash, he found Robert Castle dead. He looked for his crewchief and door gunner, but found no sign of David Gonzales or Thomas Underwood in the wreckage or in the surrounding area.Larry Parsons found a secure hiding place in the nearby jungle, venturing out only at night. Over the course of the following days and weeks, he heard enemy patrols moving through the jungle, and successfully dodged them. On occasion 1st Lt. Parsons heard enemy shots being fired, but did not know who or what they were firing at.
When he departed the crash site, Larry Parsons took some pin flares with him and over the next several days he fired them at two different flights of helicopters that passed close to his hiding place. Unfortunately none of the aircrews saw his signals. On the day he was rescued, Larry Parsons reported he had reached the end of his rope. He had no flares left, that he was starving and surrounded by the NVA. He decided to go for broke and ran out into the open field waving what remained of his map in the hope of attracting attention.
Shortly after Larry Parsons was rescued, a Marine ground team was inserted into the crash site. They successfully recovered the remains of Robert Castle, but were unable to find any sign of Sgt. Gonzales or SSgt. Underwood in or around the Huey’s wreckage. In addition to 1st Lt. Castle’s remains, the team recovered working weapons and other useful military equipment before departing the crash site.
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, 3 North Vietnamese radio messages were intercepted and correlated to this incident. The NSA synopsis states: “…. The 2nd Engineer Battalion used infantry weapons to shoot down a helicopter. The pilot was killed, the radio was collected.”
Thomas Underwood and David Gonzales 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.
If Thomas Underwood and David Gonzales died in the loss of their helicopter, each man has the right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if they survived, there is an excellent chance they were captured by NVA troops known to be operating throughout the region 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 the Vietnamese or Lao could account for Sgt. Gonzales and SSgt. Underwood any time they have 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 Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
American military men in Vietnam and Laos were call upon to fly and fight 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.