SMITH, PHILLIP ELDON
SMITH, PHILLIP ELDON
Name: Phillip Eldon Smith
Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 435th TFS
Date of Birth: (ca 1935)
Home City of Record: Roodhouse IL
Date of Loss: 20 September 1965
Country of Loss: China
Loss Coordinates: 190000N 1093000E (DN302116)
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Note: Only USAF pilot held captive and returned from China
Other Personnel in Incident: From F105D's: Dean A. Pogreba (missing); Bruce
G. Seeber (released POW); from USAF F4 near Pogreba/Seeber aircraft: James
O. Hivner; Thomas J. Barrett (both released POWs)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 June 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.
REMARKS: 730315 RELEASED BY CHINA
SYNOPSIS: On September 20, 1965 an American pilot named Capt. Phillip E.
Smith was shot down over the Chinese island of Hai Nan Tao. The case of
Capt. Smith ultimately became entwined with those of other American pilots
lost in North Vietnam the following month. Capt. Smith was flying an Air
Force F104C and his loss over Hai Nan island is perplexing.
The Lockheed F104 Starfighter was an unusual aircraft created in the
mid-1950's to fill a need for a more maneuverable, faster fighter aircraft.
The result was a Mach 2-speed aircraft thrust into a combat-aircraft world
of Mach 1 and below. The aircraft itself is spared looking like a rocket by
its thin and extremely short wings set far back on the long fuselage, and a
comparatively large tailplane carried almost at the top of an equally
enormous fin. One less apparent peculiarity was an ejection seat which shot
the pilot out downwards from under the fuselage rather than out the canopy
of the cockpit. The Starfighter was primarily a low-level attack aircraft
capable of flying all-weather electronically-guided missions at supersonic
Why Capt. Smith was flying a strike aircraft over 40 miles inland in Chinese
territory is a matter for speculation. While the flight path to certain
Pacific points from Vietnam may take a pilot in the general vicinity of the
island, China was denied territory. According to one pilot, "Hai Nan was on
the way to nowhere we were supposed to be, and on the way back from the same
place." Either Smith was unbelievably lost or was on a mission whose purpose
will never see the light of day. Capt. Smith was captured by the Chinese.
Lieutenant Colonel Dean A. Pogreba was an F105D pilot attached to the 49th
Tactical Fighter Squadron at Yakota, Japan. In the fall of 1965, Pogreba was
given a temporary duty assignment to fly combat missions out of Takhli (Ta
Khli) Airbase, Thailand.
The aircraft flown by Pogreba, the F105 Thunderchief ("Thud") flew more
missions against North Vietnam than any other U.S. aircraft. It also
suffered more losses, partially due to its vulnerability, which caused the
aircraft to be constantly under revision.
On October 5, 1965, Pogreba departed Takhli as part of a five-plane combat
section on a bridge strike mission north of Hanoi in North Vietnam. Capt.
Bruce G. Seeber was Pogreba's wingman on the mission. At a point near the
borders of Lang Son and Ha Bac provinces, both Seeber's and Pogreba's
aircraft were hit by enemy fire and crashed. The location of loss given by
the Defense Department is approximately 40 miles southwest of the city of
Dong Dang, which sits on the border of North Vietnam and China. The area was
"hot" with MiGs, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and anti-aircraft fire.
On the same day, an Air Force F4C Phantom fighter/bomber was shot down
approximately 5 miles from the city of Kep, and about 10 miles south of the
official loss location of Pogreba and Seeber. The crew of this aircraft
consisted of Major James O. Hivner and 1Lt. Thomas J. Barrett.
Curiously, Radio Peking announced the capture of an American pilot that day,
giving the pilot's name and serial number. It was Dean Pogreba that had been
captured. The U.S. never received separate confirmation of the capture,
however, and Pogreba was listed Missing in Action.
Gradually, it became known that the crew of the F4, Barrett and Hivner had
been captured by the North Vietnamese. Likewise, Bruce Seeber was also
identified as a prisoner of war of the Vietnamese. Dean Pogreba's fate was
When American involvement in Vietnam ended, 591 Americans were released from
prisoner of war camps in Southeast Asia. Among them were Hivner, Barrett,
Seeber and Smith. Smith was released by the Chinese. Pogreba was still
missing. None of the returnees had any information regarding his fate, and
all believed he had died in the crash of his plane.
Reports of an American POW held in China that had fueled hopes for the
Pogreba family were correlated to Phillip Smith upon his release. The
Pogreba family thought this was hastily and summarily done. According to
others in the flight with Pogreba, Dean's plane had actually strayed into
Chinese territory. Although no information at all was forthcoming from the
Chinese, the Pogrebas still believed there was a good chance Dean had been
Years passed, and no word of Pogreba was heard. Under the Carter
Administration, most of the men still listed prisoner, missing or
unaccounted for were administratively declared dead because of the lack of
specific information that they were alive. The Pogrebas, although haunted by
the mystery of Dean's disappearance, finally resigned themselves to the fact
that he was most probably dead, and went on with their lives. Dean's wife,
Maxine, with children to raise alone, ultimately remarried.
Then in 1989, Maxine Pogreba Barrell received some shocking news. Through an
acquaintance, she learned of a "high-ranking friend" of Dean's who claimed
to have visited Vietnam and spoken with her former husband. When she
contacted this retired Air Force Brigadier General, he told her a story
quite different from the official account given to Dean's family.
According to the General, Dean had indeed been shot down in China, but had
been brought back across the border into North Vietnam in 1965 by
"friendlies." Several attempts to rescue him had failed; two helicopters had
crashed in the effort. Then food and supplies were dropped to Dean and his
rescuers; recovery efforts were deemed impractical because of the hostile
The General stated that he had never given up on Dean, and had made it his
mission to find the "gray-haired colonel" which he claimed he did in 1988
and 1989, traveling to Vietnam on a diplomatic passport. He told Dean's
family that Dean was alive and well and had adjusted to his "situation,"
which was a solitary life in a village. Dean, he said, leaves the village
daily to work.
Mrs. Barrell does not know how much credence to give the story. On one hand,
she says, the General asked nothing from them. He did not seek them out. On
the contrary, she and her family sought him out. Shortly after they spoke,
the man told her that he was in "trouble" with the U.S. Government and would
not speak with her again.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no way Dean's family can verify or
discount the General's story. A family, at relative peace for over a decade,
is once again suffering the uncertainty that comes with not knowing. The
U.S. Government simply isn't talking to them about it. One cannot simply fly
to Hanoi and beg permission to visit one's relative when Hanoi denies he
Unfortunately, the Pogreba story is not an aberration. Many cases of
Americans missing in Southeast Asia are fraught with inconsistencies, some
to the point of outright deception. Still others are hidden under the cloak
of "national security" classification; some cannot be revealed until after
the year 2000. These families will have to wait almost half a century to
know the truth about what happened to their men.
Since the war ended, U.S. intelligence agencies have conducted over 250,000
interviews and perused "several million documents" related to Americans
still missing, prisoner or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Many
authorities, including a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency,
having reviewed this largely classified information, have concluded that
scores of Americans are still alive in captivity today.
As long as even one American remains held against his will, we must do
everything in our power to bring him home. How can we afford to abandon our
The following article ran in an unknown newspaper in March 1973.
China releases U.S. fliers John T. Downey. a CIA agent shot down over China
in 1952, arrived in New Britain, Conn. March 12 after he had been released
by Chinese authorities that day.
Three days later, two U.S. airmen imprisoned in China after being shot down
during missions in the Indochina war were released. They were Lt. Cmdr.
Robert J. Flynn, 35, of Colorado Springs, Colo., shot down Aug. 21, 1967
aboard an A-6 in southern China and Major Philip E. Smith. 38, of Roodhouse,
Ill., shot down Sept. 20, 1965 over Hainan Island near the Gulf of Tonkin
when his F-104 veered off course. Flynn and Smith crossed the border into
Hong Kong and were flown to Clark Air Force.
Downey had been flown via Clark Air Force in the Philippines and Elmendorf
Air Force Base in Alaska in order to be with his mother, who was suffering
from a stroke in a New Britain hospital. His impending release had been
announced March 9 by Ronald L. Ziegler, White House press Secretary, who
said Premier Chou En-lai had agreed to free Downey earlier than planned
after being informed by the U.S. of his mothers illness. Ziegler also said
China would Flynn and Smith March 15.
At a March 13 news conference in New Britain, Downey said he looked on his
20-year imprisonment as "to a large extent wasted," adding: "I don't see
that it benefited anybody."
Downey noted that during his first eight or nine months in jail he was
questioned closely by his captors and that he "revealed about every bit of
information I had."
Asked about the Chinese people, be said be felt sympathy for them in some
respects" and they were "more behind their government than I dreamed would
SOURCE: WE CAME HOME copyright 1977
Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor
P.O.W. Publications, 10250 Moorpark St., Toluca Lake, CA 91602
Text is reproduced as found in the original publication (including date and
PHILIP E. SMITH
Lieutenant Colonel - United States Air Force
Shot Down: September 20, 1965
Released: March 15, 1973
I was born and raised on a farm in central Illinois, the youngest of six
children. My parents worked hard and instilled in us, at an early age, the
importance of honoring God and Country, which later proved to be of great
As long as I can remember, the desire to become a pilot had always been very
strong. After high school, I completed a special two year curriculum at the
Institute of Aviation, University of Illinois. There, the urge to continue
flying was further increased, which resulted in my entry into the US Air
Force. In June 1957, I graduated from Air Force Pilot Training after flying
the T-34, T-28, and T-33. Later, I was fortunate to have the pleasure of
flying three of the Finest jet fighter aircraft; the F-86F, the F-100 and the
spirited F-104 Starfighter.
As the conflict in Vietnam intensified, I volunteered for combat duty and was
stationed at Da Nang AB, South Vietnam. On 20 September 1965, while flying an
F-104 over the Tonkin Gulf, I was shot down and captured by the Chinese
Communists. Intensive interrogation was conducted at Canton, Southern China
(near Hong Kong) and later I was transferred northward to Peking, the capital.
The seven and one half years of imprisonment by the Chinese Communists, of
which nearly all was in solitary confinement, proved to be a difficult and
trying experience. Fortunately, however, my faith in God and Country along
with the desire to stand up for what is right gave me the needed stamina to
endure such hardships. At the time, I felt sure there must be many concerned
Americans back home who were giving their full support for our cause and were
doing all they could in behalf of the POWs and MlAs. This also provided the
source of tremendous encouragement and strength.
While I was held as prisoner in Peking, President Nixon made his historic
visit to the same city. Although my release was not secured at that time,
positive results were achieved that directly affected my situation. The same
prison authorities and guards who were once dealing out harsh conditions and
cruel treatment were then directed to adopt more humanitarian practices. The
marked improvement in in relations between the United States and China
resulting from the actions of President Nixon played a decisive role in my
release. Even with the war ended, I would probably still be in prison if
relations between the US and China had not improved.
After my release on 15 March 1973, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous welcome
extended from all parts of the country. It was amazing to observe the genuine
interest, concern, and support of so many Americans who wore bracelets, sent
messages, letters, and gifts and exerted so much effort in many ways in our
behalf. All this proved to be most inspiring and heartwarming, to say the
least. I would very much like to express my thanks for this to all concerned.
It is wonderful to be back in the good "ole" USA and to visit again with
relatives and friends. However, during this time of joy, it is altogether
fitting and proper to remember those brave men who did not return. We are all
deeply indebted to them and will never let them be forgotten. I would like to
extend my deepest sympathy and concern to their friends and loved ones. I feel
confident that the children of those who did not return will grow into find
men and women, fully cognizant and appreciative of their glorious American
Phillip Smith retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel. He and
his wife Peggy reside in California.
Associated Press Newswires
Thursday, April 5, 2001
Nixon sought release of Americans in China before historic trip
WASHINGTON (AP) - R.... Chou was noncommittal, but noted that a reduction of a
Among the detainees was John T. Downey, who was shot down during the
The Press-Enterprise Riverside, CA
Tuesday, April 3, 2001
Ex-POW recalls Hainan Island The former Inland man, a pilot during the
News of the emergency landing of a U.S. spy plane on China's Hainan
Illinois POW Honored
Reported by: Charles Vance/WCIA 3
Business Insider 12/14/2014
During the US campaign in Vietnam, over a thousand service members were classified as prisoners or war (POW) or missing in action (MIA).
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