WHEELER, EUGENE LACEY "GENE"

Name: Eugene Lacey "Gene" Wheeler 
Rank/Branch: Major/US Marine Corps
Unit: Marine Aircraft Group 11, 1st Marine Air Wing 
Date of Birth: 30 January 1937 (Walnut Township, OH)
Home of Record: Ashville, OH
Date of Loss: 21 April 1970 
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 152501N 1073127E (YC709059)
Click coordinates to view maps
Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: OV-10A "Bronco"
Other Personnel In Incident: Charles E Hatch (rescued) 

REMARKS:  VOICE CONTACT; IN SHOOTOUT

SYNOPSIS:  The North American (Rockwell) OV-10 Bronco was designed as the Counter Insurgency (COIN) aircraft of the mid-1960s, at a time when jets were not planned for brushfire wars such as Vietnam. With the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the US no longer voluntarily withheld its jets, and the OV-10 went into combat as the most powerful of the light Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. The Bronco was often as capable of destroying a target as it was of marking it.

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 21 April 1970, Major Eugene L. Wheeler, pilot; and Capt. Charles E. Hatch, co-pilot; comprised the crew of an OV-10A Bronco conducting a morning reconnaissance mission over Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. The mission included searching for NVA troops and supplies known to be infiltrating into South Vietnam through a major artery of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As soon as the Bronco entered the target area, Major Wheeler established radio contact with the onsite Forward Air Controller (FAC). The FAC provided the Bronco's crew updated information regarding enemy movements before directing them to begin their mission.

At 1125 hours, as the Bronco was flying low over the rugged jungle covered mountains along the border, it was struck by enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire. Major Wheeler and Capt. Hatch ejected their crippled aircraft and landed safely on the ground some distance apart. Both men established voice contact with the FAC who, in turn, requested a search and rescue (SAR) operation be initiated.

The area in which Gene Wheeler vanished was just east of the South Vietnamese/Laotian border approximately 17 miles west of Kham Duc. The mountains were covered in dense jungle dotted with small clearings, laced with trails and footpaths and heavily populated with a large number of communist troops.

As the SAR aircraft arrived onsite later that afternoon and approached the area of the downed aircrew, the SAR helicopter came under intense and accurate ground fire from concealed enemy positions. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter the area, SAR personnel determine they were not going to be able to evacuate the men before dark. The SAR commander radioed Major Wheeler and Capt. Hatch to find cover for the night and they would return in the morning at first light.

The next morning when the search aircraft returned to the area of loss, they reestablished voice contact with both downed crewmen. Major Wheeler told the rescue personnel to go after his co-pilot first because he was pinned down by enemy fire and he believed it was too dangerous for them to try to pick him up first. As the helicopter moved into position to recover Charles Hatch, Gene Wheeler reported that the enemy troops were moving in on his position. Subsequently, the helicopter successfully extracted Charles Hatch.

In his debriefing statement, Capt. Hatch reported that shortly before his rescue, he heard automatic weapons fire followed by the sound of pistol shots emanating from the general area of Major Wheeler. He had no further contact with Major Wheeler after that time. The SAR operation continued for the Bronco's pilot, but when no additional radio contact could be established, the search was terminated and Gene Wheeler was reported as Missing in Action.

In April 1991, US investigators in Vietnam located a member of the militia unit that claimed to have shot down Gene Wheeler's Bronco. The witness provided second hand information that VC forces had shot and killed the pilot who was resisting capture. The team, which was under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA), received additional hearsay information indicating the pilot was buried nearby, but the information did not appear to be credible. Team members also received information regarding the location of the crash site and confirmed its identity based on correlating the information from a data plate in the aircraft's wreckage with recorded data from Major Wheeler's casualty file.

Also in April 1991 the US government released a list of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action who were known to be alive in enemy hands and for whom there is no evidence that he or she died in captivity. This list, commonly referred to today as the USG's "Last Known Alive" list, included Gene Wheeler.

If Gene Wheeler died in a shootout with enemy soldiers as the hearsay information gleaned from local Vietnamese indicates, he has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if he survived, he most certainly would have been captured and his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way the Vietnamese could return him or his remains any time they had the desire to do so.

Since the end of the Vietnam War over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight under 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.

Gene Wheeler was several months into his third tour of duty in Vietnam at the time he was shot down.