|Name:||Gary Russell LaBohn|
|Rank/Branch:||Sergeant First Class/US Army|
Assistance Command Vietnam,
Studies and Observation Group,
Command & Control North, 5th Special Forces,
1st Special Forces DaNang, South Vietnam
|Date of Birth:||28 December 1942 (Madison, WI)|
|Home of Record:||Wixon, MI|
|Date of Loss:||30 November 1968|
|Country of Loss:||Laos|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Missing in Action|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Michael H. Mein; Klaus D. Scholz; Raymond Stacks; Samuel K. Toomey; Arthur E. Bader and Richard A. Fitts (missing)|
SYNOPSIS: One of the earliest helicopters employed in Southeast Asia, and the primary Marine Corps helicopter used during the early years of the war, was the Sikorsky UH34D Seahorse. This aircraft was already quite old when they arrived in the battle zone. However, both the US and South Vietnamese military found them to be extremely effective throughout the war.
Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) was a joint service high command unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA) that provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed highly classified, deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the time frame, "Daniel Boone," "Salem House," "Shining Brass" or "Prairie Fire" missions.
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 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, were expertly camouflaged and manned by bunkered infantry.
Small reconnaissance teams clandestinely operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail frequently found large caches of enemy ammunition that was impossible to carry away or destroy on the spot. General Jack Singlaub, Chief of Operations for MACV-SOG, devised a plan to sabotage these caches. Codenamed "Project Eldest Son," "Italian Green" or "Pole Bean" depending on timeframe, cleverly sabotaged AK-47 and mortar rounds that would blow up in weapons killing or wounding enemy troops when fired was inserted into the caches. Eldest Son 82mm mortar ammo usually came in heavy crates of four rounds each, which made it too heavy to routinely transport during ground operations. The bulk of Eldest Son ammunition was disseminated through the construction of false caches in areas known to contain real ones.
On 30 November 1968, Major Samuel K. Toomey, 1st Lt. Raymond C. Stacks, Sgt. Richard A. Fitts, Sgt. Arthur E. Bader, then Cpl. Gary R. LaBohn, SSgt. Klaus D. Scholz, and Cpl. Michael H. Mein comprised a seven-man, all-US reconnaissance team who were passengers aboard a South Vietnamese Air Force CH34 helicopter (tail #14-4653), call sign "King Bee." The team was being inserted into Oscar Eight on a mid-day Project Eldest Son mission to build a false ammunition cache. In addition to the special operations team, the helicopter was crewed by an allied pilot and co-pilot, and carried a dozen cases of 82mm mortar ammunition.
The insertion helicopter was part of a larger flight of aircraft that included attack helicopters as escorts. Major Toomey, the team leader, was assigned to Armor Headquarters, MACV while the rest of the team members were assigned to MACV-SOG, Command and Control North (CCN).
At approximately 1200 hours, the King Bee helicopter was flying at roughly 4,000 feet when it was struck by a single 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) round fired from a concealed NVA AAA battery. Other flight members watched in horror as the transport helicopter caught fire, went into a spin, crashed and exploded into the dense jungle on the south side of a rugged mountain just north of Route 9, a main infiltration route used by the NVA. According to one witness, "There wasn't anything bigger than a cigarette butt that hit the ground. It just went off like a nuke."
The crash site was located in heavy jungle that was densely populated with NVA troops and civilian villages near a stream that separated the mountain range to the north and a long narrow valley to the south roughly 10 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border and 13 miles southeast of Tchepone, Saravane Province, Laos. The crash site was also 24 miles due west of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam and 26 miles south of the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam.
In spite of the witness' graphic description of the King Bee's shoot down, later an aerial visual inspection of the crash site documented that the aircraft did not disintegrate at altitude and fall to the ground. Search and rescue (SAR) personnel saw that the pilot's door was open and his in tact undamaged helmet was seen 25-30 feet from the helicopter's reasonably in tact, burned wreckage. SAR personnel visually searched in and around the crash site for signs of survivors, but found none. No ground search of the crash site was possible due to the location being deep within enemy-held territory. At the time the aerial search was terminated, all seven Americans were listed Missing in Action.
In March 1988, a joint team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Saravane Province to excavate the King Bee's wreckage. Early in the excavation process, the team confirmed the site was that of the Seahorse when they recovered a dogtag bearing the name and related data of Major Samuel Toomey. In addition to aircraft wreckage and personal equipment, the JTFFA team recovered 17 teeth/parts of teeth and 147 small bone fragments, none measuring more than 2 inches in length.
After examination by the Vietnamese Office Seeking Missing Persons personnel, the bone and teeth fragments were turned over to US control and transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI). After completing its examination, CIL-HI staff was able to positively identify only two teeth as belonging to Dick Fitts. On 3 January 1990, US officials formally announced his remains were positively identified. The remaining 15 teeth/tooth chips and 147 fragments were individually unidentifiable. In spite of that fact, on 8 February 1990, the Defense Department announced that the remaining six Americans were also positively identified.
On 13 January 1990, the two teeth positively identified as Dick Fitts were buried with full military honors in Mount Vernon Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts. On 23 March 1990, the remaining 15 teeth and bone fragments site were interred as a group burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The families of Arthur Bader, Michael Mein, Raymond Stacks, Samuel Toomey Gary LaBohn and Klaus Scholz accepted the US government's premise that the recovered material constituted the recoverable remains of their loved ones, along with the remains of the Vietnamese aircrew, and agreed to the group burial. This acceptance was accompanied by a degree of uncertainty and many unanswered/unanswerable questions. SSgt. Fitts name was included, but the names of the Vietnamese pilot and co-pilot were not included, on the Arlington headstone since CIL-HI believed some of the co-mingled remains were his.
Seven months after the burial, on 29 October 1990, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Interim Report was publicly released. After reading this well-footnoted document; Lou Ann LaBohn, SFC LaBohn's sister and Primary Next of Kin, realized she had made a mistake by accepting the government's premise that her brother was "remains recovered" based solely on the positive identification of only one team member. She immediately notified the Department of the Army of her decision and requested that her brother's name be removed from the headstone in Arlington National Cemetery.
In January 1991, the Department of the Army answered her request stating that his name could not be removed without defacing the stone. She was informed "if she wanted a new marker erected without her brother's name, she would have to pay $1,810.25 for it." The letter added, "irregardless of whether his name remained on the stone or not, as far as the Army was concerned, her brother had been accounted for." In February, copies of all the correspondence between Lou Ann LaBohn and the Department of the Army concerning the removal of Gary LaBohn's name from the headstone were sent to US Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Bob Smith (R-NH). Two months later, she received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs informing her that "a new headstone without her brother's name would be erected at no cost to her." On 12 July 1991, 16 months after the mass burial, the original headstone was removed and the new one installed.
In June 1991, a formal ceremony was scheduled to change the cross, the symbol denoting a POW/MIA to a diamond, the symbol denoting one who was Killed in Action/Body Recovered and Body Not Recovered on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC for men now considered accounted for including Gary LaBohn.
Once again his sister made telephone calls and wrote letters of protest to various officials requesting that her brother's cross not be changed to a diamond. Military and government officials acknowledged the wisdom in her words, "This does not mean that I believe he is alive, it just means that proof of his death has never been found. To allow this change to take place would open the doors for future alterations that may not be based in fact" and left his cross unchanged.
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, at least one North Vietnamese radio message was intercepted and correlated to this incident. The NSA synopsis states: "On 30 Nov 68, one US helicopter was downed while delivering food to troops in the area of Sam Neua, Laos." The intercepted communiqué did not comment on the fate of those on board the aircraft.
For Dick Fitts, Arthur Bader, Michael Mein, Raymond Stacks, Samuel Toomey and Klaus Scholz, their fate is considered resolved and their families and friends have some peace of mind in knowing where their loved ones lie. For the family of Gary LaBohn, there is no peace of mind. Lou Ann LaBohn succinctly stated her message to families facing similar identifications of unidentifiable remains, "I want to let other families know they can do something about this. They don't have to be railroaded into accepting an ID when one really can't be made."
For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fates could be quite different. 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.
Military men in Vietnam and Laos were called 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. While the USG considers Gary LaBohn to be "remains returned," his family does not. They ask that Americans continue to wear his POW/MIA bracelets and help them fight for an honorable accounting of him.