KLUSMANN, CHARLES FREDERIC
Name: Charles Frederic Klusmann
Rank/Branch: O3/US Navy
Unit: VFP 63, USS KITTY HAWK (CVA 63)
Date of birth: September 7, 1933
Place of Birth: San Diego, California
Home City of Record: San Diego CA
Date of Loss: 07 June 1964
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 192800N 1031500E
Status (in 1973): Escapee
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 May 1990 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2014.
REMARKS: 640831 ESCAPED
SYNOPSIS: In the spring of 1964, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces launched attacks against Neutralist forces on the Plain of Jars in Xiangkhoang Province, Laos, prompting Neutralist General Kong Le to warn the Royal Lao Government that without air support the situation was hopeless, mostly because the troops of the Royal Lao Army had fled. (Neutralist, in the military sense, refers to the soldiers who followed Kong Le, who sought to remove foreign influence and foreigners from the country. Earlier circumstances had forced him into an alliance with the Communist Pathet Lao, but he broke with them when he came to understand they were serving their Vietnamese masters in the way the Royal Lao Army was serving the United States. Later his troops fought against the Communists, but to complicate matters, a splinter group of leftist Neutralists fought with the Communists.)
Air Force and Navy photoreconnaissance jets were authorized in May 1964 to begin gathering intelligence information supporting T-28 bombing raids against North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops in Laos. Navy participation began on May 21 with a flight of two RF8A Crusader photoreconnaissance planes from the decks of the USS KITTY HAWK (CVA 63). During one of these early Navy missions, LT Charles F. Klusmann, from VFP 63 onboard the KITTY HAWK flew over Laos and was hit by ground fire. Although the aircraft burned for twenty minutes en route back to the carrier, Klusmann was able to bring his Crusader back safely.
The United States charged the Pathet Lao with "an outright attempt to destroy by violence what the whole structure of the Geneva Accords was intended to preserve (neutrality of Laos)". There was ample evidence to support this claim. Navy and Air Force reconnaissance planes had come back with photos showing the Plain of Jars bristling with newly installed anti-aircraft guns--sixteen sites in all, housing guns capable of firing 150 rounds a minutes, effective to a ceiling of 15,000 feet.
Ambassador Leonard Unger obtained approval from the Johnson Administration to release the fuses on previously delivered U.S. bombs, for use by the Royal Lao Air Force. Prince Souvanna Phouma also authorized the use of U.S. fighters to accompany the unarmed reconnaissance jets over Laotian territory, and these missions became code-named Yankee Team.
Once again, LT Klusmann launched in his RF8A as a Navy Yankee Team aircraft on June 7. Again his aircraft was hit by ground fire. This time, the damage was so severe that Klusmann had to eject near communist troops. The Pathet Lao forces immediately set out to capture him, firing on an Air America rescue chopper sent to pick him up. The helicopter was finally forced to abandon Klusmann who, to make matters worse, had twisted his ankle during his parachute landing. Another Air America helicopter was hit when it attempted to make a recovery three hours after the plane went down. The Pathet Lao had set up a flak trap (where the downed pilot was kept alive and allowed to call for help while enemy gunners lay in wait for the arrival of vulnerable helicopters).
The two Air America helicopters abandoned their rescue effort when two crew members were critically wounded in the heavy fire. LT Klusmann, was captured by the Pathet Lao. Happily, Charles F. Klusmann was able to escape captivity with several Lao prisoners in late August, 1964. After two days of hiding in the jungle from his captors, he was able to reach a government camp and was eventually rescued. He is one of only a handful who ever escaped captivity in Southeast Asia.
The events on the Plain of Jars in June 1964 and in subsequent weeks were released by New China News Agency in Peking, and ultimately reached U.S. media sources. The situation raised a howl of outrage from the U.S. media. The lid was blown on the entire Yankee Team operation. From this point on, U.S. operations in Laos were fully classified and kept ultra-secret. The U.S. Government was not to acknowledge more than "armed reconnaissance" flights in northern Laos until March 1970. One of the proposed articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon would deal with his treatment of the secret war in Laos.
Nearly 600 Americans would be lost in Laos before the war ended. Although the Pathet Lao stated publicly that they held "tens of tens" of American prisoners, the U.S. did not negotiate their release. Consequently, not one American held in Laos was ever released.
Since the war ended, nearly 10,000 reports relating to Americans missing in Southeast Asia have been received by the U.S. Government. Many authorities believe there are hundreds still alive, held captive by our long-ago enemies. Charles Klusmann was exceedingly fortunate. Nearly 600 of his comrades were abandoned in Laos. It's time we found a way to get them home.
Charles Klusmann retired from the United States Navy as a Captain. He and his wife Ellen reside in Florida.
ROBERT MCMAMARA AND THE EXPENDABLE PILOT
The following is a condensed version of an article that appeared in the July issue of Proceedings, journal of the US Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland as printed in Air Force Magazine, October 1999. It was written by Commander Glenn Tierney, a retired US Navy fighter pilot.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Hawaii on 5 June 1964. . . .I was the assistant current air operations (Navy, J-3116) on the staff of the commander in chief, Pacific (CinCPac). Admiral Harry D. Felt. . . . My four-digit designator put me well down on the totem pole. As one of the few Navy pilots on the staff with any recent fleet experience, however, I wound up in the middle of things when the air war in Southeast Asia expanded. .
After many months of indecision, on 23 May 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) finally authorized the Navy to conduct low-altitude photographic reconnaissance flights over the Plaine des Jarres [in Laos]. Within days, Photographic Squadron (VFP)-63 pilots began flying missions from the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), which was operating from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Along with the authorization came orders that the RF-8 Crusader photo planes were to operate without armed escorts--even though the practice hand been standard operating procedure since World War II. . . . The potential problems with the flights were their frequency and Times Over Target (TOT), which were specified by the Secretary of Defense. For these missions, the TOTs were specified as every other day a 1 p.m. (Laotian time). Anyone could see that such a pattern created a built-in opportunity for the Pathet Lao to spring an ambush. . . . The telephone in my quarters rang late on that Sunday afternoon: "You asked me to call you whenever we had a problem with one of your projects [meaning overt and covert aerial reconnaissance]. We have a bad one," said Army Master Sergeant Duncan, in charge of communications in the CinCPac Command Center. . . . I automatically assumed that we had lost a Navy photo plane and pilot in the Plaine des Jarres; that day's TOT had been about an hour earlier. Duncan confirmed my fears: The pilot had been shot down and the escort pilot had seen him moving about. The Rescue Combat Air Patrol (ResCAP) from the ship had launched, he added quickly, but had been recalled because the "word" had come down that there was to be "No round-eye" [American] effort to rescue the pilot. I could not believe it. We had two Air America helicopters stationed on a hill about 20 miles away, on alert for just this purpose. . . .The ridiculous aspect of the order was that there were no other forces available. . . . For all practical purposes, at this point the photo pilot had been abandoned by the government that had sent him in harm's way. I called the JCS on the secure telephone and spoke with the Army brigadier general who was the duty flag officer. He confirmed the order. When I literally demanded to know who had issued such an order, he said he was not sure. I respectfully suggested that he find out as soon as possible and we would be calling him back, also ASAP. As I dropped the secure phone, I called my immediate boss, Marine Brigadier General George Bowman, our J-3/operations officer, but he was not at home. To hell with this, I said to myself, and I called Admiral Felt on his private line at his quarters in Makalapa, just down the hill; I was bypassing at least three other senior flag officers. The line was not secure, so I told him briefly that we had a serious problem in the PDJ.. . . 'I'm on the way," he replied. Less than 10 minutes later, the JCS brigadier general was telling the admiral that the order had come from the Secretary of Defense himself. (Before he called the JCS< Admiral Felt had instructed me to pick up a second secure phone and admonished me: "You listen; you do not speak.") . . . Admiral Felt spoke quietly: "General, get me the Secretary of Defense on this line immediately." . . . Several minutes later, sounding very wide awake, and almost jovial, Robert McNamara came on the line and asked Admiral Felt the reason for the call. Admiral Felt was never one to mince words. "Mr. Secretary, I have been told that you are aware that we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down in the Plaine des Jarres and that an order had been issued by your office that there was to be no 'round-eye' effort to rescue the pilot. Is that correct?" "That is correct, Admiral," McNamara answered. At this point Admiral Felt interrupted him: "May I ask by whose authority this order was issued?" "The recommendation came from State," McNamara replied, "and the Secretary of State and I discussed it and agreed that this is the best course of action." . . . Admiral Felt turned slightly to look at me. . . . He spoke again, very quietly but in a short clipped tone that I had never heard him use before. "Mr. Secretary, that is not a decision that can be made by the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. The decision to rescue this pilot or not to rescue him can be made only by the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces, and I am asking you to put me through to the Commander in Chief--now, sir." . . . After a few seconds, McNamara started almost mumbling; he didn't argue the point, or refuse the request, but he made a big point that it was very late and that the President had just retired after a long evening. . . . Again, Admiral Felt quietly repeated his previous statement word for word. . . McNamara, without another word on the subject, said, "All right, I will ring the President." Within 30 seconds President Johnson came on the line. . . . "Good morning, Admiral Felt, what can I do for you?" "Mr. President, we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down over the Plain des Jarres in northern Laos, but the Navy and Air America rescue effort has been called off by the Secretary of Defense as recommended by the Secretary of State. I just spoke to the Secretary of Defense and told him that this is a critical military decision that cannot be made by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State, but one that can be made only by the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces, and I am asking your permission to go in and rescue this pilot." Without hesitation, President Johnson came back, "Well, I'll be damned. Of course, go in and get him--and let me know how it comes out." Note: The unfortunate Navy photo pilot was Lt. Charles F. Klusmann. He was not rescued but was captured. It was several hours before Air America helicopter crews reached the scene. Heavy ground fire drove off the lead aircraft; Klusmann waved off the second helo because it, too, was flying into an ambush. The Kitty Hawk's ResCAP never did show up; they had been recalled. The author writes that, in all probability, they would have neutralized the area by the time the helicopters arrived and the Air America crews would have been able to make the pickup.
Klusmann, captured on June 6, escaped from his captors on August 31. He is now a retired US Navy captain living in Pensacola, Florida.
[NETWORK NOTE - USG files differ from the article on loss date]
August 31, 2014A Pensacolian's escape from Laos
December 14, 2014