|Name:||Willie Ernest Stark|
|Rank/Branch:||Sergeant Major/US Army|
5th Special Forces Group,
1st Special Forces
|Date of Birth:||07 October 1932|
|Home of Record:||Omaha, NE|
|Date of Loss:||02 December 1966|
|Country of Loss:||Laos|
Click coordinates to view (4) maps
|Status in 1973:||Missing in Action|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Russell P. Bott; Irby Dyer III and Daniel A. Sulander; (missing)|
SYNOPSIS: 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.
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 American 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.
On 29 November 1966, then SFC Willie E. Stark, team leader; SSgt. Russell P. "Pete" Bott, assistant team leader; and four Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) "strikers" comprised a 6-man reconnaissance team, call sign "RT Viper." The team was to be inserted into the jungle covered mountains along the border in extreme western Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. Their mission was to gather intelligence concerning enemy troops and supplies being moved along one of several arteries of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. However, because of poor weather conditions at the time the team was inserted, it was inadvertently dropped into eastern Laos, far west of its intended landing zone (LZ). Weather conditions in the entire region did not improve until mid-December.
Shortly after being inserted, the team was ambushed by elements of the 325B NVA Division. Over the next two days a running gun battle ensued as RT Viper moved toward the northeast in an attempt to break contact. Late on the second day, Pete Bott made radio contact with Lt. John Flanagan, pilot; and Tommy Tucker, observer; who comprised the crew of the onsite Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft, call sign "Snake." SSgt. Bott reported he was down to one grenade and one magazine of ammunition. He also stated that several of the Vietnamese team members were dead or wounded, and that Willie Stark had sustained wounds to his chest and leg, but was alive. SSgt. Bott requested an immediate emergency extraction. At the same time Pete Bott stated he ordered the two surviving strikers to escape and evade (E&E), he was staying with SFC Stark and would destroy the radio since he believed capture was imminent.
The team's location was in heavily forested mountains located just south of a large populated valley laced with a variety of trails through the entire region. Further, this sector was also considered to be in the northern portion of Oscar Eight, approximately 2 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border, 2 miles east of Route 92, 4 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border, 11 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam, 20 miles northeast of Tchepone, Savannakhet Province, Laos. This location was also 25 miles northwest of Khe Sanh and 55 miles northwest of the A Shau Valley, South Vietnam.
At 1000 hours on 2 December 1966, seven UH-1D Huey helicopters had already been scrambled from the 281st Assault Helicopter Company stationed at Khe Sanh, for the extraction attempt and were orbiting nearby. All of the helicopters were assigned to the 281st Assault Helicopter Company. WO1 Daniel A. Sulander, aircraft commander; WO1 Donald Harrison, pilot; SP4 William J. Bodzick, crewchief; SP4 Lee J. Boudreaux, Jr., door gunner; comprised the crew of the lead extraction aircraft (serial # 65-10088). Sgt. Irby Dyer III, a Special Forces medic from Detachment B-52, was also onboard the lead helicopter to care for the wounded on the return flight.
.The Huey's aircrew located RT Viper near Route 1036 and initiated their approach. As the Huey neared the team's position, it came under intense ground fire. In spite of this, the Huey successfully landed in a small clearing near RT Viper's position. The crew of an accompanying gunship observed one of the Vietnamese strikers run toward the helicopter. As intense enemy ground fire drove the gunship off, the extraction helicopter took off toward the south-southwest, instantly go out of control, and descend in a nose-low attitude. They continued to watch in horror as it crashed into the village of Ban Taha roughly 250 meters away from RT Viper's position, burst into flames and continued to burn for approximately 15 minutes. An immediate search of the crash site was impossible because of the loss location and the intense NVA ground fire. In addition to the extraction helicopter being shot down, two gunships working the area sustained battle damage, but were able to return to base.
Concentrated and accurate hostile fire, along with bad weather, severely hampered rescue efforts until 10 December 1966. At that time a search and recovery (SAR) team was inserted into the battle site. They photographed the wreckage and the bodies of the crew, which had been horribly mutilated. The bodies also appeared to have been booby-trapped by the communists. It addition, numerous boot prints were seen around the aircraft wreckage. Only the helicopter's tail boom was recovered. At this time the SAR personnel concluded their mission, all five men on the Huey, including Irby Dyer and Daniel Sulander, were listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
On 11, 12 and 13 December 1966, the crash site was subjected to heavy American air strikes. On 15 December, another recovery team reached the crash site and retrieved all the partial remains that could be found and took them to a US mortuary for examination. Those remains were later identified as the Huey's pilot, crewchief and door gunner. Each man was returned to his family for burial.
Of the four South Vietnamese strikers assigned to RT Viper, two were killed and two successfully made their way back to American forces. The escaping strikers heard no shots emanating from the American's location as they continued to E&E NVA troops. However, both of the survivors reported clearly hearing North Vietnamese soldiers yell, "Here you are! We've been looking for you! Tie his hands, we'll take him this way."
Sometime afterward, SFC Norman Doney, the Operations Sergeant for B-52 headquarters at Khe Sanh, overheard the Intelligence Sergeant on the "52 Desk" reviewing recently collected intelligence about SSgt. Bott. SFC Doney states that it was reported that Pete Bott was seen with his arms tied behind his back being lead through a village 3 days after being captured. There was no mention of Willie Stark, or his fate, in this report. When the formal search effort was terminated for Willie Stark and Pete Bott, both men were reported as Missing in Action.
For every insertion like this one that was detected and stopped, dozens of others safely slipped past NVA lines to strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of reconnaissance missions conducted by Special Forces teams in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were part of the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence-gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history.
Willie Stark, Pete Bott, Irby Dyer and Daniel Sulander 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 Daniel Sulander and Irby Dyer died in the Huey's loss as reported, they have a right to have their remains returned to their families if at all possible. Likewise, if Willie Stark died of his wounds, he also has a right to be returned. For Pete Bott and Willie Stark, as well as for other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different. Either way there is no doubt the Vietnamese know what happened 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.
American military men 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.