This is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr. USAF who has been missing in action over North Vietnam since January 1968. His story is typical of many service members who are still unaccounted for and the attempts of our government agencies to artificially reduce the numbers missing at all costs, regardless of known facts and solid evidence to the contrary. This story is dedicated to all those who have not returned and to their families. For the complete story click on the links in succession at the end of this account of the incident.
1. Synopsis of the incident:
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 10 January 1968, Capt. Keith N. Hall, aircraft commander, and then 1st Lt. Earl P. Hopper, Jr., pilot, comprised the crew of a F4D, call sign "Rematch 3," that departed Udorn Airfield as the #3 aircraft in a flight of 4. Their late afternoon mission was to escort and protect an "Iron Hand" flight of F105s that were to bomb the Hoa Lac MiG Base, 19 miles west of Hanoi. At 1607 hours and approximately 15 miles from bomb drop, the North Vietnamese fired 3 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAM). Two passed harmlessly through Rematch flight while the third SAM exploded 100 feet below and to the right of Rematch 3 damaging the hydraulic and fuel systems. The aircraft was seen streaming fuel and several fireballs shot out of the aft section of the left engine. Neither man was injured by the blast. After initial ejection problems Capt. Hall successfully ejected. The other pilots in the flight marked Keith Hall's position, then continued with Earl Hopper while he headed for Laos in an attempt to overfly that country to return to Udorn; or at a minimum, to reach more friendly territory. Further, the other pilots stationed their aircraft in an escort formation - one on each side of the damaged jet, and the third behind and slightly above it.
Just before 1st Lt. Hopper's jet entered a 5,000 foot undercast of clouds, and after flying the Phantom for approximately 8 to 10 minutes, the other pilots saw two objects leave it - one was believed to be the canopy, the other the ejection seat. They did not see his parachute open due to cloud cover. However, they did hear two emergency radio signals, one being very strong and the other rather weak and both nearly on the same frequency. Keith Hall was captured approximately 20-25 minutes after reaching the ground near Ta Lao Hamlet, Xuan Nah Village, Son La Province, North Vietnam. He arrived at the Hao Lo (Hanoi Hilton) Prison Camp 4 days later. The last known position for Earl Hopper was approximately 5 miles across the river west of Ban O Veuo, Son La Province, North Vietnam.
According to official reports, Earl Hopper's emergency beeper was tracked for three consecutive days by search and rescue (SAR) aircraft, as well as others overflying the rugged, jungle covered mountains approximately 1 kilometer north of the Vietnamese/Lao border where his aircraft was downed. The beeper signal was weak and voice contact could not be established. On the second day, a pilot monitoring the emergency beeper gave 1st Lt. Hopper's authenticator code and said: "Lt. Hopper, if that's you, give me 15-second intervals (in the signal)." The pilot received several 15-second intervals in a positive response. This information was released to his family in an 8 February 1968 communiqué. At the time formal SAR efforts were terminated, Earl Hopper was listed Missing in Action.
Capt. Keith Hall returned to US control on 14 March 1973 during Operation Homecoming. In his debriefing, and later to Earl Hopper's father, Capt. Hall recounted an incident that occurred in August 1970 - over 2 ½ years into his captivity. He was pulled out of his cell in the Hanoi Hilton and interrogated for roughly 10 minutes about 1st Lt. Hopper's personal life: Was he married - Did he have children - Where was he from - Where did he go to school - What were his hobbies, etc? The importance of this fact is if Earl Hopper were dead at that time, the Vietnamese would have no interest in him or his background. Because this was the first mission they flew together, Keith Hall knew virtually nothing about his backseater, and he responded to the questions with "I don't know." When the guard began to leave, Keith Hall asked if this meant that Earl Hopper was also imprisoned there? The guard just shrugged his shoulders in a noncommittal manner, said, "I don't know" and left.
In February 1980, the Department of Defense and the US Air Force scheduled a Status Review Hearing for Earl Hopper, the purpose of which was to declare Earl P. Hopper, Jr. Killed in Action under a Presumptive Finding of Death. After 3 ½ days of testimony, the case inexplicably became inactive for 2 ½ years. This was highly unusual since all other POW/MIAs having Status Review Hearings during this same timeframe, had their status's changes within 60 to 90 days of the hearing. On 14 July 1982, Earl P. Hopper, Jr., one of the last five men still carried in the live category of POW or MIA, and the last man listed as POW/MIA in North Vietnam, ceased to "live" according to the United States Air Force and the US Government.
At the urging of their casualty officer, 1st Lt. Hopper's parents filed for the POW compensation pay awarded all Prisoners of War for inadequate food and housing while being held captive ($5.00 per day). A three-man judiciary committee from the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, Department of Justice, determined, based on information including classified documents provided them by the US government, that "for the purpose of this act, Earl P. Hopper, Jr. survived the crash and was captured on 10 January 1968. The Commission further finds that he remained a Prisoner of War from that date until 1 April 1973, the date upon which the last known prisoner of war was returned to the control of the United States."
During the first few months of 1982, additional information concerning Earl Hopper surfaced through a reliable former intelligence official that adds new depth and dimension to the extent of the suppression of information in this case. A check of his file maintained by the CIA revealed that the agency always listed him as a POW, not MIA as claimed by the Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Further, that file yielded facts that the Agency tracked him climbing the most rugged mountain in the region as he headed for a "safe" area in Laos; that there were heavy concentrations of NVA and Pathet Lao troops in the area searching for the downed pilot; and that the CIA sent in a Free Lao team to extract him. When Earl Hopper realized he was in imminent danger of capture, he turned his radio on and hid it behind some rocks thus marking his location of capture.
Additionally in 1984, Earl Hopper's father received data unofficially from another sensitive intelligence source, that a computer profile of his son's personality traits, his training, all known incident data and the known treatment of POWs up to this time frame had been run. The results of this profile, based upon all known parameters, stated "there is a 55% probability that Earl P. Hopper, Jr. is ALIVE TODAY."
From 1981 to 1984, the Special Forces Detachment, Korea was charged by President Reagan with the responsibility of collecting live POW information throughout Southeast Asia. "SFDK" was commanded by Major Mark Smith, himself a returned POW from the Vietnam War. Through his efforts, and those of team Intelligence Sergeant Mel McIntire, an agent net of 50 agents was established, specifically in Laos. This intelligence net resulted in Major Smith compiling a list of some 26 American POWs by name and captivity location with Earl Hopper being one of them. In April 1984, Major Smith received a message from one of his agents specifying that on 11 May three US Prisoners of War would be brought to a given location on the Lao/Thai border. The only prerequisite was that an American be on the Thailand side of the border to receive the men.
When this information was reported up his chain of command, Major Smith's team was ordered not to leave Korea, to destroy all documents pertaining to LIVE POWs and they were sent back to the United States 6 months early. According to Major Smith and SFC McIntire, they believe Earl P. Hopper, Jr. was one of those three Prisoners who could have been returned on 11 May 1984. This documented information was provided to the United States Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in sworn testimony on 28 January 1986.
Why was 1st Lt. Hopper's family not given this information in previous years when it was first known by US Intelligence agencies? And why did the family have to learn these details from private sources rather than through normal channels? Was Earl Hopper captured in North Vietnam as the official record indicates, or had he already crossed into Laos before capture? Further, who captured him, the North Vietnamese who claim to have returned all Prisoners of War during Operation Homecoming or the Pathet Lao who RETURNED NONE?
Earl P. Hopper, Jr. could easily be one of 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 American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Fighter pilots in Vietnam 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.
Earl P. Hopper, Jr. graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1965.
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