The Aftermath

Air/Ground Search

On 22 December, 1972, friendly Royal Laotian forces were inserted into the area of the crash site on Royal Lao and Air America helicopters in order to search for survivors. They were unable to get close to the wreckage due to the intensity of the fires from the burning fuel and exploding ammunition. Additionally, the friendly forces began taking fire from the  Pathet Lao forces in the area and suffered one killed. The friendly forces did locate the partial remains of the Electronic Warfare Officer, Capt Joel Birch before they were forced to leave the area due to enemy fire. A 1-mile radius around the crash site was search by ground forces and a 10-mile radius was visually searched by an OV-10 Pave Nail FAC (Nail 51). After the recovery effort was completed, the crash site was napalmed in order to prevent any sensitive items from falling into enemy hands (this fact was verbally confirmed in a personal conversation that I had with one of the Ravens who operated out of Pakse and was flying over the crash site from 21 Dec 1972 until rescue operations were suspended). OV-10 Pave Nail FACs continued to search the area until all search and rescue activities were terminated at noon on 24 Dec 1972. Refer to the USAF Search and Rescue Reports for further details regarding the search and rescue activities that occurred during 21-23 Dec 1972..


A Pathet Lao soldier was captured the year following the downing of Spectre 17. According to the Pathet Lao soldier, there was a Pathet Lao battalion headquarters located approximately 3 km from the crash site. A number of Pathet Lao soldiers were sent to the crash site on the night of 21 December, 1972. They were unable to get very close due to the burning fuel and exploding ammunition, but they did locate 5 deployed parachute canopies, two which were charred. They returned on 22 December and located charred human remains from approximately 5-6 people which they buried in a single grave near the base of a large tree at the crash site. They also located two piles of “bloody bandages” in the area of the crash site. The source stated that they did not locate any survivors and that based on the degree of damage to the aircraft, it was unlikely that anyone survived the impact. The source stated that in his official capacity, he would have been notified if any airmen from the crash had been taken prisoner. Refer to the Defense Intelligence Agency messages regarding the debrief of the source. The first message details the crash site search by the Pathet Lao and the second details the prisoner protocol followed by the local Pathet Lao and their NVA advisors.


Between 1-5 January, 1973, US forces attempted to gain access to the crash site in order to recover additional remains. A 3-man Graves Registration (GR) element from Saigon traveled to Udorn RTAB and then continued to Pakse, Laos. The GR team was restricted from performing a ground search by the American Ambassador to Laos due to the tactical situation on the ground. It appears there was concern that the area around the crash site was too hostile based on the casualties sustained by the Royal Laotian Government forces on 22 December, 1972. On 2 January, 1973, the GR team was allowed to perform an aerial reconnaissance of the crash site. Refer to the GR team crash site survey for further. 


The Dig

In February, 1985, soldiers from the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) were allowed to return to the crash site in order to attempt to recover any remains. From 10-22 February 1985 CIL-HI personnel recovered teeth, small bone fragments, and dog tags from the crash site. Refer to the Crash Site Report for further on the recovery.


Time magazine wrote two articles documenting the crash site excavation. The first article, "Jungle Hunt for Missing Airmen", was written on February 25, 1985 and the second, "Laos Excavating the Recent Past", was written on March 4, 1985.


Identification Controversy

The excavation of the Spectre 17 crash site was one of the first excavations allowed by the Laotian government. The Army's Central Identification Laboratory - Hawaii (CIL-HI) was responsible for conducting the excavation and attempting to identify any remains. The remains that were recovered in Feb 1985 were very small pieces of bone, teeth, and some personal effects such as dog tags. These pieces of bone had been subjected to a violent impact with the ground, intense heat and explosions from the burning fuel and munitions, intense heat from napalm, and years spent buried in the jungle. The bones ranged from a few inches long to the size of a dime. Needless to say, identification would be difficult to impossible without the benefit of modern DNA testing.


In July1985, CIL-HI announced that it had identified 13 out of 13 crew members from the remains that were recovered. Even with today's technology, this seems highly improbable. Ann Hart, wife of Capt. Thomas Hart, contested the identification in federal court after learning that her husband identification was based on 5 pieces of bone no larger than a quarter.1 At one point, the government rescinded their positive identification of Capt. Hart and 2Lt. Macdonald. In 1990, a federal appeals court overturned the lower court ruling that rescinded the identification. The concerns of the Hart family and others have never been fully resolved. The controversy over the identification has continued to further the aura of conspiracy and mystery that surrounds the downing of Spectre 17.


1 Bill Hendon and Elizabeth Stewart, An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia (New York: 1st St. Martin's Griffin ed., 2007), 277.

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