Name: Donald Paul Knutsen   
Rank/Branch: Specialist 4th Class/US Army 
Unit: 176th Aviation Company,
14th Aviation Battalion, 
16th Aviation Group,
23rd Infantry Division (Americal) 

Date of Birth: 25 September 1949
Home of Record: Buffalo, NY
Date of Loss: 22 March 1971 
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 163623N 1063343E (XD666365)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Killed/Body Not Recovered 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: UH1H "Iroquois"
Other Personnel In Incident: Reginald D. Cleve; Walter R. Hall and John G. Traver III (missing) 


SYNOPSIS:  By early 1967 the UH1, nicknamed "Huey", was already the standard Army assault helicopter, and was used in nearly every "in-country" mission. Huey troop carriers were referred to as "slicks" and gunships were called "hogs". It proved 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 supply to name a few. It usually carried a crew of four.

In Laos Highway 19 was considered a major artery in the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once that road crossed the Laos/South Vietnamese border, it became Highway 9. 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.

On 8 February 1971, South Vietnamese President Thieu announced Lam Son 719, a large-scale offensive against enemy communications and supply lines in that part of Laos adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The mission was to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would provide and command ground forces, while US forces would provide airlift and supporting fire. Phase I, renamed Operation Dewey Canyon II, involved an armored attack by the US from Vandegrift Base Camp toward Khe Sanh, while the ARVN moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border. Phase II began with an ARVN helicopter assault and armored brigade thrust along Route 9 into Laos. ARVN ground troops were transported by American helicopters, as the US Air Force provided cover strikes around the landing zones.

On March 22, 1971, W1 Reginald Cleve, aircraft commander; W1 John G. Traver, pilot; SP4 Donald P. Knutsen, crew chief; and SP Walter R. Hall, door gunner; comprised the crew of the #5 UH1H helicopter (tail #68-15759), call sign "Chalk 5," in a flight of five. In addition to the crew of four Americans, there were two ARVN passengers on board the Huey along with a cargo of ammunition and explosives. Chalk flight was conducting an emergency resupply mission to Landing Zone (LZ) Delta for ARVN troops participating in Lam Son 719. The cargo was being carried internally and had been rigged to be airdropped from the aircraft into the LZ.

LZ Delta was located in the heavily forested mountains approximately 7 miles west of the Lao border, Savannakhet Province, Laos. The weather was hazy with extremely high broken clouds. The flight proceeded toward its destination in a loose trail formation at an altitude of 4,800 to 5,000 feet.

At approximately 1800 hours, Chalk flight was roughly a mile from LZ Delta, it arrived at the designated reporting point. Capt. Leon J. Pistone, Jr., the flight leader, radioed the airborne command and control aircraft, call sign "Danger 20," reporting their arrival at the reporting point. Unfortunately, Danger 20 was unable to visually locate the resupply flight. Capt. Pistone was told they were possibly at the first portion of the river that looked similar to the reporting point.

The flight leader continued forward for approximately 4,000 meters confirming to himself, and then to Danger 20, that they had actually been at the designated reporting point. As Chalk flight turned in a left turn trail formation toward the south, all five helicopters came under intense enemy ground fire. W1 Cleve radioed Capt. Pistone, that his aircraft sustained serious battle damage and needed to land.

Shortly thereafter, the other flight members observed Chalk 05 catch fire, trail black smoke that partially obscured their view, then explode. According to witnesses, the Huey was at 4,800 to 5,000 feet above the ground when hit. It appeared that the aircraft cargo compartment and cargo itself blew up engulfing the aircraft further in black smoke and flames. The Huey did not disintegrate in midair; however, the explosion appeared to shatter the whole aircraft. Chalk 05 immediately began an uncontrolled vertical descent in one piece with no signs of autorotation. As it descended, the other aircrews thought they saw through the smoke and flames one or more of the rotor blades to separate from the rotor assembly as well as possibly some aircraft parts fall away from the crippled aircraft. The helicopter exploded and burned on impact with no signs of survivors in or near the wreckage.

The location of the downed Huey was approximately 6 miles southwest of the Lao/South Vietnamese border where the Ho Chi Minh Trail's Highway 19 crossed into South Vietnam west of Khe Sanh and 16 miles southwest of Khe Sanh. The entire region of eastern Laos was known to contain well-established and fortified bunkered NVA positions as well as the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam.

Because of the heavy concentration of enemy troops in the area and the aircraft fire, the other flight members were ordered not to descend to the crash site to pick up or check for survivors. Likewise, no formal search and rescue (SAR) attempt was made for the same reason. At the time of loss, Reginald Cleve, John G. Traver, Donald P. Knutsen, and Walter R. Hall were immediately listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

Since August 1986, the crew of Chalk 05 has been the subject of multiple dogtag, crashsite and gravesite reports at several locations in the general area of loss. One report indicated that three of the crew died in the crash and their remains were buried nearby while the forth American survived the crash, was wounded, captured and died while being transported to an NVA hospital. Other reports state that all personnel who were aboard Chalk 05 died in the wreckage and were buried in a nearby NVA cemetery with markers indicating which graves contained the bodies of the Americans.

In October 1992 and again in August 1993, elements from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) investigated the loss of Chalk 05. During the first Joint Field Activities (JFA), team members traveled to Ban Houayson village. Residents provided information, then led the team to a crashsite that based on an evaluation of wreckage found was determined to be from an operational loss.

On the second JFA to investigate this loss, team members traveled to the villages of Ban Kadap and Ban Chakiphin, Xepon District, Savannakhet Province. At the second village, residents claimed they discovered a crashsite in 1973 while preparing the area for farming. According to witnesses, they discovered remains, including a skull and many other bones scattered around the wreckage. A surface search of the site yielded numerous small pieces of wreckage that were consistant with a helicopter crash, but no sign of human remains. Based on alleged remains, general location and probable aircraft type, this site was correlated to Chalk 05 and was recommended for future excavation.

Reginald Cleve, Donald Knutsen, Walter Hall and John Traver 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 Walter Hall, John Traver, Reginald Cleve and Donald Knutsen 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 by some miracle any of the crew and passengers survived, 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, the communists know their fate and 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.

Pilots and aircrews 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.