Name: Gilbert Swain Palmer 
Rank/Branch: Colonel/US Air Force 
Unit: 14th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron 
Udorn Airfield, Thailand 

Date of Birth: 30 October 1930
Home of Record: Birmingham, AL
Date of Loss: 27 February 1968 
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 171000N 1055300E (XD134981)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps

Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 4
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: RF4C "Phantom II"
Other Personnel In Incident: Thomas T. Wright (missing) 


SYNOPSIS:  The McDonnell F4 Phantom was flown by Air Force, Navy and Marine air wings and 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.

The RF4 version is a reconnaissance aircraft outfitted for photographic and electronic reconnaissance missions. Other RF4s were equipped with infrared and side-looking radar (SLAR) that helped advance the technology of reconnaissance work during the war. They were also used to fly target detection and bomb damage assessment missions throughout Southeast Asia.

On 27 February 1968, then Lt. Col. Gilbert Palmer, pilot, and Capt. Thomas Wright, weapons systems officer, comprised the crew of an RF4C, call sign "Sumo," that was conducting a midday unarmed, solo photo reconnaissance mission to photograph a strip of terrain running southwest to northeast through the 17th parallel, which divided North and South Vietnam, approximately 20 miles northeast of Khe Son, Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. The target area to be photographed was a section of Route 137 running through the Ban Karai Pass. The briefed flight path for the photo run was from southwest in Laos to northeast in North Vietnam.

The Ban Karai Pass was considered one of two major gateways from North Vietnam into Laos and 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.

Weather conditions in the target area included an overcast cloud cover with tops at 2,000 to 3,000 feet MSL and bases at 1,000 to 1,500 feet MSL. Visibility was 2 to 3 nautical miles.

The intended flight path was from Udorn to the target and back to Udorn. Once in the target area, Lt. Col. Palmer established contact with the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) who controlled all air operations in this area of operation as well as with the onsite Forward Air Controller (FAC) responsible for directing their particular mission. The ABCCC immediately cleared Lt. Col. Palmer in to begin the photo run. The last contact with the FAC was shortly thereafter at 1405 hours when Lt. Col. Palmer notified the FAC that everything was normal.

The last known position of the Phantom was over extremely rugged and heavily wooded mountains southwest of the Ban Karai Pass, Savannakhet Province, Laos. The entire sector was heavily defended and equally heavily populated with communist military personnel. The location was just west of Route 912, 6 miles southwest of Ban Loboy, 10 miles northeast of the major junction of Routes 911 and 912, the same distance north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam and 12 miles southwest of the Ban Karai Pass. It was also 36 miles from Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. In addition to primary roads, the region was laced with a network of paths and trails that wove together to form an intricate labyrinth of passageways throughout this portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

When radio contact could not be established with the Phantom crew by the time its fuel would have been exhausted, a visual and electronic search was initiated. It continued over the target area until darkness fell. An aerial visual and electronic search continued for several days by all aircraft that flew over the tri-border area of North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Laos meet, but there was no sign of the RF4C or its crew. At the time the formal search effort was terminated, Gilbert Palmer and Thomas Wright were declared Missing in Action with the country of loss listed as Laos.

In 1970, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) received a report of a sight of an American POW being transported in a jeep outside the Hanoi Public Security Office. Due the related data provided by the source, this report was placed in Capt. Wright's casualty file.

In July 1971, another report was received by US intelligence from a People's Army of Vietnam (NVA) defector describing the sighting of four US POWs in Nghe An Province in July 1970 who were reportedly shot down between 1965 and 1967. The defector was given a polygraph test, and the examiner offered his view that he believed the report to be accurate. Further, DIA analysts believed the report might well correlate to Thomas Wright.

In 1973 after Operation Homecoming, all returned POWs were debriefed by US intelligence personnel to include information they acquired while in captivity about other Americans who were also held prisoner. One of the returnees reported seeing a black American in jungle fatigues at a temporary prison camp in Quang Binh Province in late May or early June 1968. His sighting of the individual was for approximately 30 seconds. When shown pre-capture photographs of POW/MIAs, the returnee selected a photo of Thomas Wright as one of several possible correlations.

Gilbert Palmer and Thomas Wright 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 Gilbert Palmer and Thomas Write 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 survived, there is little chance they could have avoided capture and their fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia 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.

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.