Name: Charles Ervin Shelton 
Rank/Branch: Colonel/US Air Force 
Unit: 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron 
Udorn Airfield, Thailand 

Date of Birth: 29 April 1932 
Home of Record: Owensboro, KY 
Date of Loss: 29 April 1965 
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 202800N 1040200E (VH126571)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Prisoner of War 
Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: RF101C "Voodoo"
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing) 


SYNOPSIS:The first American combat aircraft in Vietnam were the single-seat McDonnell RF101 Voodoos of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron that arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport on 18 October 1961. That same day the Mekong River overflowed its banks flooding hundreds of square miles of countryside. The sleek, heavy, powerful Voodoos began photographing both the floods and the Viet Cong on 20 October. The community of men who flew the RF101 was small and its losses high. At one point a Voodoo squadron had more aircraft than pilots, yet kept up a daily schedule of two combat missions per aircraft daily. Most of their missions were up north and a disproportionate number of RF101 pilots were languishing in the Hanoi Hilton.

On 29 April 1965, then Capt. Charles E. Shelton was the pilot of the lead aircraft in a flight of two on a morning reconnaissance mission over Northern Laos. Due to bad weather in their primary target area, Capt. Shelton turned to the second target located near Sam Neua City. At 1158 hours, he was lining up on his target at an altitude of 3,000 feet when his aircraft was struck by hostile ground fire. Charles Shelton immediately ejected his crippled jet. He landed uninjured in populated, forested mountains laced with primary and secondary roads approximately 2 miles east of the major cave complex, 6 miles east of Sam Neua City and 16 miles west of the Lao/North Vietnamese border, Sam Neua Province, Laos. This location was also 115 miles west-northwest of Thanh Hoa and 117 miles southwest of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Shortly thereafter Capt. Shelton established radio contact with his wingman reporting he was in good condition.

The cave complex region of northern Laos in Sam Neua Province is extensive. It is also considered to be the birthplace of the communist Pathet Lao. The caves housed the Pathet Lao government, its military units, support elements, as well as facilities for American prisoners all of which rivaled a small city. The number of Americans held in these caves, hidden from surveillance, has been estimated by some US intelligence personnel to be in the hundreds. Further, during the "Secret War" waged in Laos; American spotter teams frequently photographed US POWs held in these caves.

Search and rescue (SAR) aircraft were enroute to rescue Capt. Shelton when a massive storm front moved in. The aircrews saw him moving from one location to another on the ground, but they were unable to achieve the pick up due to monsoon winds and rain. Because of the weather, no further recovery attempt was possible until 1 May. On 2-3 May, SAR efforts resumed, but this time the SAR aircraft were not able to get into his last known location due to intense enemy activity. However, a US controlled indigenous ground team was inserted into the area on 3 May. The team learned from a local villager who witnessed the crash that he saw the American hanging from his parachute in a tree. They also learned from other villagers that Pathet Lao forces captured the pilot. Later rallier reports also confirmed his capture. Similar indigenous teams, known as Controlled American Source (CAS) teams, continued to search for the Voodoo's pilot through February 1966.

At one point a rescue mission, code named "Duck Soup," was devised to recover Capt. Shelton using Royal Lao military personnel. According to US government intelligence documents that were declassified in 1976, the rescue team was disguised as a Pathet Lao patrol. They did succeed in securing control of Charles Shelton, and for 10 days they moved him by foot toward freedom through enemy controlled territory. Unfortunately, they ran into a much larger real Pathet Lao patrol and the Royal Lao troops were forced to relinquish control of the American or face annihilation.

From the time of his capture, and for years afterward, US intelligence tracked Charles Shelton through various cave complexes in the vicinity of Ban Nakay Teu and Ban Nakay Neua in northern Laos. Capt. Shelton and other POWs were also seen and photographed by US spotter teams while being held in these caves. Some times he was alone, other times Charles Shelton was being held with other well-documented POWs.

After his shoot down, Pathet Lao ralliers reported hearing about the capture of an American correlating to the capture of Charles Shelton. According to that hearsay information, he reportedly died in a cave in Vieng Xai, east of Sam Neua town, and near another confirmed POW, David Hrdlicka. However, a CIA report from 1968 indicates that the communists moved Capt. Shelton to a prison camp for "incorrigible prisoners" in either China or Hanoi, the exact location of that camp was not confirmed.

In September 1982, a Pathet Lao security official, Colonel Khamla, stated that Charles Shelton died in captivity in 1968 and was buried neat his place of imprisonment. The only other information the communist official provided was a statement that "his grave was obliterated by a US airstrike." A joint US/Lao team from Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) finally investigated this report in April 1992. The team was taken to the purported gravesite, but they were unable to locate any remains in or around the area.

It took the US military services from January 1973 to July 1982 to administratively change the status of all POW/MIAs, except Charles Shelton, from the LIVE categories of Prisoner of War and Missing in Action to the legally deceased category of Killed in Action under a Presumptive Finding of Death (KIA-PFOD). Charles Shelton remained "alive" as the "token POW" representing our government's continued support for a full accounting for all POW/MIAs. His status was changed on 19 September 1994 after his now grown children requested it. The memorial ceremony for Colonel Charles Erwin Shelton was held at Arlington National Cemetery on 4 October 1994 where he is symbolically "Buried."

Charles Shelton is one of 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.

There is no question that Charles Shelton was alive in enemy hands since he was such an extremely well documented Prisoner of War over a long period of time. If the reports of his death are accurate, he has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. If on the other hand, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated; his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for, 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 in Vietnam and Laos 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.

29 April 1965 was Charles Shelton's 33rd birthday. He was also on his 33rd mission during his 3rd tour of duty in Vietnam when he was shot down and captured.