Name: Wendell Richard Keller 
Rank/Branch: Lieutenant Colonel/US Air Force 
Unit: 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron
Ubon Airfield, Thailand 

Date of Birth: 19 May 1934
Home of Record: Fargo, ND
Date of Loss: 01 March 1969 
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 171000N 1060400E (XD134981)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F4D "Phantom II"
Other Personnel In Incident: Virgil K. Meroney III (missing) 


SYNOPSIS:  The McDonnell F4 Phantom was flown by Air Force, Navy and Marine air wings served a multitude of functions including, fighter/bomber, interceptor, photo/electronic surveillance and reconnaissance. This two-man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2) and had a long range, 900 to 2300 miles depending on stores and type of mission. The F4 was also extremely maneuverable, and handled well at all altitudes. It was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronic conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the "hottest" planes around.

On 1 March 1969, then Major Wendell R. Keller, pilot, and 1st Lt. Virgil K. Meroney III, co-pilot, comprised the crew of the lead F4D, call sign "Sherman 01," in a flight of two to conduct a night strike mission. Sherman flight was working with the on-site Forward Air Controller (FAC), call sign "Candlestick 43", a C123 that was flying from Nakhon Phanom Air Base, Thailand. Their target was a suspected storage area and vehicles moving through the rugged jungle covered mountains southwest of the Ban Karai Pass, Khammoune Province, Laos.

This area of eastern Laos was considered a major gateway into the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. 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 used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and 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.

Candlestick 43 located the suspected storage area. The FAC directed Sherman 01 and 02 to make multiple rocket passes on the suspected storage area and all "movers" they observed in and around it. During these attack runs, both aircraft received moderate to light ZPU and 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire from enemy gun emplacements.

At 0145 hours, as Sherman 02 held high after making a CBU drop, Sherman 01 went down to make their final rocket pass on a target. A few seconds later, Sherman 02 observed a large explosion a few hundred feet from the intended target. Sherman 02 immediately attempted to make radio contact with Major Keller and 1st Lt. Meroney, but no contact was established.

Candlestick 43 immediately initiated electronic and visual search and rescue (SAR) procedures. As Sherman 02 crisscross the area of loss, no parachutes were seen in the darkness and no emergency beepers heard emanating from the jungle below.

Their last known position of the lead Phantom was 1 kilometer north of Highway 912 in the Echo Sector of southern Laos, 6 miles southwest of Ban Loboy and 12 miles southwest of the Ban Karai Pass. Because the area was under total enemy control, no ground search was possible. At the time the initial search effort was terminated, Wendell Keller and Virgil Meroney were listed Missing in Action.

Wendell Keller and Virgil Meroney 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 that ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

If Wendell Keller and Virgil Meroney died in the loss of their aircraft, each man has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if they were able to eject prior to the crash, they most certainly would have been captured 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 communists could return them or their remains any time they had 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 America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Fighter pilots 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.