SHELTON, CHARLES ERVIN
Name: Charles Ervin Shelton
Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 5th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
Date of Birth: 29 April 1932
Home City of Record: Owensboro, KY (family in CA)
Date of Loss: 29 April 1965
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 202800N 1040200E (VH126571)
Status (in 1973): Prisoner of War
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing)
REMARKS: CNTC N GND-RPT DIED AS PW-J
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from the following:
raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with Mrs. Marian
Shelton, published sources, including a series of articles appearing in the
Riverside Press-Enterprise (CA), written by David E. Hendrix. Updated by the
P.O.W. NETWORK 2020
SYNOPSIS: At about 11 a.m. on April 29, 1965, Capt. Charles E. Shelton's
RF101C "Voodoo" aircraft departed Udorn Airbase, Thailand, as the lead plane
in a flight of two aircraft on a photo-reconnaissance mission over northern
Laos. (The second aircraft, flown by Capt. Richard L. Bilheimer, is thought
to be an F105 serving armed escort.) Shelton was serving his second
Southeast Asia tour of duty. Based in Okinawa, he served 30-day rotations at
Udorn after which he returned to Okinawa. His family was preparing to
celebrate his 33rd birthday that night when he returned.
Bad weather aborted attempts to photograph the first target. Shelton and
Bilheimer continued to their second target near Sam Neua, Laos, less than 50
miles from the Lao/North Vietnam border and less than 100 miles from China's
Yunan Province. The Sam Neua area was the communist Pathet Lao headquarters,
with command facilities, training centers, communication equipment and
personnel quartered in a jumble of mountain and river caves.
Shelton and his wingman descended to 3,000 feet above ground level as they
neared the target. Shelton was just lining up for his first photo at 11:59
a.m. when fire erupted from the center of his plane. Shelton asked his
wingman if he had been hit.
"Roger. You are on fire," was the reply.
The wingman saw the canopy of Shelton's plane fly off and watched as Shelton
ejected and parachuted to the ground.
A few hours later, two rescue planes spotted Shelton and his parachute on a
tree-covered ridge. They talked to him by radio and told him a helicopter
would pick him up in a half-hour. Shelton indicated that he was in good
condition, and used his radio to direct rescue forces.
In Okinawa, the wing commander came to tell Marian Shelton that her husband
had been shot down, was OK and evading capture, and that he should be picked
up by midnight, Okinawa time.
Before Shelton had left Okinawa, he had detailed with his wife all the
things she should do if he were killed. He told her about their finances,
advised her on what kind of car and house to buy. The greatest threat was
death, although Laos was considered a "safe" flight. Neither of them had
heard of Americans being captured in Southeast Asia.
Rescue helicopters approached to pick Shelton up, but because of adverse
weather closing in, rescue was delayed. After the sun went down, Shelton
removed his parachute from a tree, buried it and hid while Pathet Lao forces
searched for him. With the shroud of low clouds and approaching darkness, it
was impossible for rescue crews to see Shelton, but radio contact indicated
that he was OK and still evading. Rescue efforts were suspended until first
light on April 30.
Again, bad weather and enemy fire thwarted the rescue. When the weather
finally broke on May 2, Shelton was nowhere to be found. The search was
finally called off on May 5, and Shelton was listed as "Missing in Action,
believed captured." The search for Shelton had involved 148 missions by
military aircraft flying a combined total of more than 360 hours. Not
included in this figure are the missions flown by Air America -- the CIA's
airline -- whose brave pilots flew countless rescue missions over Laos.
One search mission, according to a 1966 Air Force document, involved a CAS
(Controlled American Source) ground search team. The team was inserted by
Air America aircraft. The team, according to the document, included
Shelton's wingman, Capt. Richard L. Bilheimer, who was on hand to pinpoint
the location Shelton was last seen. The pilot's participation in the search
was unprecedented, and Air Force later claimed to have no record of
Bilheimer's participation in the search. The ground search was unsuccessful.
Shelton had evaded the enemy for three days, but was finally captured by two
platoons of Pathet Lao militia. A villager later reported that witnessing
Shelton's capture, and his status was changed to Prisoner of War.
Rallier reports also confirmed his capture, as did reports by special
indigenous rescue team members. U.S. Intelligence indicate Col. Shelton was
held in caves in the vicinity of Ban Nakay Teu and Ban Nakay Neua in Tham
Sue Cave (VH193564) in northeast Laos with another POW who is thought to be
David Hrdlicka. These were the very caves he was trying to photograph, and
intelligence sources indicate he was held here for at least the next 3 1/2
Shelton was an uncooperative prisoner from the start and is infamous for his
many escape attempts as described by a contual flow of intelligence over the
years since he was captured. The reports are summaries of interviews with
villagers, informants, defecting Pathet Lao soldiers and refugees. The
documents tell of escapes, resistance, recsue attempts and possibly the last
straw: killing three interrogators.
Shelton was first taken to the Sam Neua city jail and escaped twice, only to
be recaptured. On his first trip to prison he refused to walk and was
carried there by soldiers, according to some reports.
He was then taken to the Pathet Lao Supreme Command headquarters cave and
interrogated. He reportedly gave no information.
Tony Weisgarber, Shelton's squadron operations officer, recalled Shelton as
being "a solid citizen...he was very solid, very reliable. Physically, he
was a very solid person. He was built like a tree stump."
Shelton was joined by other American POWs, most unidentified in reports.
After spending an unknown period in the caves near Sam Neua, they were moved
to a new Pathet Lao complex of caves along a river.
Shelton allegedly tried to escape again. Reports over the next three years
tell of three to eleven caucasian prisoners in the area, one of them in
chains or manacles. The prisoner in irons was believed to be Shelton. He was
by this time considered "incorrigible" by the Pathet Lao and some reports
described him held in a shallow ditch or pit with bars over the top.
Marian Shelton knew nothing of these events except that her husband was
still alive and rescue attempts were being made. She was told to not to talk
about her husband's incident. The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos cabled
officials in Washington D.C. with warnings to be prepared with a story or
keep silent about the shoot-down. Laos was still denied territory, and a
credible story had to be devised explaining the presence of American
aircraft in Laos.
Ironically, Shelton's mission did not count toward the 100 missions needed
to rotate him back to the U.S. The flight was considered a "non-counter"
because Laos was considered safe territory.
Only after the war ended did Marian Shelton get other information or see
copies of reports when she began using the Freedom of Information Act to
gain some knowledge of her husband's fate.
Defense Department records indicate that Shelton's photograph appeared in a
Soviet newspaper and he was named in a broadcast tape recording.
A May 13, 1967 photo which appeared in the Vietnam Courier bearing the
caption, "An American airman captured in Laos," is in Shelton's casualty
report file. The face of the airman is blacked out by the U.S. Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA), but the presence of the photo in the file seems
to indicate that the airman is Shelton.
State Department and CIA records show that at least four teams were inserted
into the Sam Neua area to look for Shelton after he was a known captive. At
least one attempt was planned and vetoed. Richard Secord, the retired Air
Force general accused of conspiring to illegally divert proceeds from the
U.S./Iran arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels, has said that he planned a 1967
rescue attempt on behalf of Shelton and Hrdlicka, but his CIA superiors
vetoed the plan in favor of an alternative effort that did not work.
Ernie Meis, a retired phonto reconnaissance pilot, said he took aerial
photos of a prison cave in August 1968 for a planned Shelton rescue mission.
He was briefed that Shelton was being held there in a shallow grave with
bars on the top because of his numerous escape attempts. He was told there
was a guard standing over Shelton with a hand grenade and a couple of other
guards with bayonets who would poke him and keep him awake. Meis was told
there was going to be a rescue attempt. Meis flew the mission and took a lot
of ground fire, but photographed the cave. Meis was never told if the rescue
attempt took place.
In 1983, Meis was told by an ex-CIA agent of an attempt to rescue Shelton.
This dramatic account details an operation code-named "Duck Soup." Sources
differ as to the timeframe, which was first thought to be late fall of 1965,
and later believed to be in 1971. The most detailed versions relating to
1971 include two American POWs -- Shelton and Hrdlicka.
According to multiple sources, including former military personnel, Shelton
and Hrdlicka were returned to northern Laos in 1971. Vietnam and the U.S.
were negotiating about POWs but there were no direct negotiations with the
Pathet Lao. By then the two POWs had spent almost six years in the Pathet
Lao-North Vietnamese prison system, including time in the Laotian communist
headquarters complex in Sam Neua.
A small team of CIA-supported Hmong tribesmen was assigned the task of
entering the prison area and leading the prisoners out. A Chinese man
coordinated the identification of the specific prisoners and the designated
Rosemary Conway, a CIA operative who was captured in Laos in 1975, adds that
her guards told her a story about a famed American POW named Charles
Shelton. They said he had killed three Vietnamese interrogators, beating
them to death with a metal chair. When Conway was expelled from Laos later
in 1975, she returned to Chicago and began working with Hmong refugees
arriving in the U.S.
In 1976, two former Hmong intelligence officers told Conway that Shelton and
Hrdlicka had been rescued by a Hmong team and turned over to an American
team of "CIA agents and Army Special Forces."
The multi-source account states that Shelton and Hrdlicka were rescued in
Operation Duck Soup and held for about 10 days, and then returned to their
captors. Scenarios for this rescue-return say the POWs were either returned
to gather more intelligence information about the communist Pathet Lao
headquarters where they were being held, returned to protect the cover of
the rescuers, or that the party had been attacked and the two Americans were
recaptured. One version says the rescuers, posing as communists, showed off
the highly conspicuous Americans as prisoners they had captured. The ploy
worked until they came to a village where a North Vietnamese Army company
had set up shop.
Supposedly, the NVA commander reminded them of the policy to turn American
POWs over to them and the rescue team, not wanting to blow their cover,
relinquished "custody" of the Americans. Some versions state that there was
a heated argument among the "captors" as to whether they should turn the
prisoners over to the enemy, but ultimately they did, and Hrdlicka and
Shelton concurred with the decision.
A Medal of Honor recipient related to David Hendrix that he was a friend of
one of the Special Forces members of the team and confirmed the Duck Soup
report, adding that his friend, to his knowledge, was the only team member
left alive. The friend, still on active duty, would not confirm the story
because activities in Laos were considered very sensitive and he was
obligated to protect such information.
The U.S. Ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan stated that Duck Soup "rang
a bell in his mind, but (he) couldn't remember what it was." He added that
he believed it had to do with a rescue of a POW who was returned to enemy
hands because of the death of the liberator.
One of the last documents released by CIA about Shelton was a two-page
report dated January 5, 1969. The report states, "On 10 June 1968 two of
four American pilots held prisoner in Tham Sua cave...south of Ban Nakay
Neua...in Houa Phan Province, Laos, were sent to Hanoi, one of the American
pilots, described as an older man, killed three North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
soldiers when they attempted to interrogate him. The elder pilot refused to
answer the NVA officers' questions and instructed the other pilots not to
cooperate as well.
"The killings occurred when the North Vietnamese attempted to chain the
pilot to a desk -- he overturned the desk on his captors and beat three of
them to death with the chain before guards overpowered him. Following the
incident, the older pilot and one of the younger pilots (believed to be
Hrdlicka) were sent to Hanoi. The reason given for the transfer was that the
two pilots were considered to be incorribible cases by the Pathet Lao and
Shelton's official record ends with the move to Hanoi, but the search
continued for his wife. Having raised five children alone, ranging from age
one to age thirteen, she also determinedly tracked down information on her
husband. In her efforts, she has received many incredible responses which
she relates with her characteristic wry humor. Marian says she has received
so many conflicting reports that some have "Charles buried next to himself."
U.S. officials have discounted some reports saying they relate to "albino
Laotians," not Americans. In Laos, Soth Petrasi jokingly told her her
husband had been "eaten by a tiger."
The Pathet Lao, when pressed for further information, claimed that both
Shelton and Hrdlicka had died in captivity, but that American bombing had
destroyed their graves and their bones had been scattered. Mrs. Shelton
discounted this information, because DIA told her on April 9, 1982 that it
knew where her husband was being held.
Between 1981 and 1985, Shelton allegedly was in Camp 214 near Tchepone,
Laos. Information given Shelton's family by an alleged former terrorist
stated that Shelton was called "Shaker" and was balding, had no teeth, and
"was not in great shape."
In 1984, then-Secretary of the Air Force Vern Orr said Shelton would be
retained in active POW status until the fate of every American missing from
Southeast Asia was known. The decision was made despite an Air Force review
board recommendation four years earlier that Shelton be declared presumed
A former American intelligence agent said that in August 1986 he was told by
U.S. intelligence analysts that Shelton was again moved to Vietnam in April
1985, this time to an island prison known as Ho Thach Bai, northwest of
Hanoi. The island prison, under triple-canopy jungle and accessible only by
boat, is in the northwest corner of a man-made reservoir northeast of En Bai
and is the Alcatraz of Vietnam. A large prison at En Bai (Yen Bai) was
well-known during the war, but the island prison was created especially for
post-war POWs of major stature, according to the agent. U.S. POWs were in
this category, he said.
Reports in November 1986 suggest that Shelton was teaching in a
high-security military prison in the Haiphong area of Vietnam.
Capt. Shelton has been promoted to the rank of Colonel since he was first
captured. He remains the only Prisoner of War who has not been arbitrarily
declared dead by his government. He is one of nearly 600 Americans lost in
Laos. Because the U.S. did not formally recognize the communist government
of Laos, it refused to negotiate with the Pathet Lao for the "tens of tens"
of Americans the Lao publicly stated they held. Consequently, neither
Charles Shelton nor any Americans held by the Lao have ever been released.
Former DIA chief LtGen. Eugene Tighe says that Vietnam, not Laos, holds the
key to missing Americans: "It's naive to call Laos an independent nation"
because of Vietnam's military presence and influence in Laos.
Vietnam spokesman Tran Trong Khanh said in New York, "Without our
cooperation the issue cannot be solved. We have the information."
In August 1987 AP news stories reported that Lao officials had agreed to
account for three Americans known to be prisoners in their country. Among
them was Charles Shelton. No accounting has been made since that report.
In protest of the major party presidential candidates' silence on the
POW/MIA issue, a campaign was launched in late 1987 to put Charles Shelton
on the ballot for the office of President of the United States.
His wife once said, "This will always be with me, if it takes 10 years, 20
years, whatever. I will hold on. Someone, somewhere knows where my husband
is." It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Charles Shelton saw his
wife and family. Isn't it time we did whatever it takes to bring him home?
On October 4, 1990, Dorothy Marian Vollman Shelton took her own life in San
Diego, California. She married Charles E. Shelton in 1952 at age 17. Her
brother was Missing in Action from World War II and has not been heard from
since. Marian Shelton is a casualty of the Vietnam War and the continued
government policy of abandonment of American servicemen. She was buried next
to her husband's empty grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Those of us
that had the honor to know her and call her friend, will never forget her
passion nor her courage. She was "Charlie's Angel," and an inspiration to us
The P.O.W. NETWORK
By AMANDA COVARRUBIAS
Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Col. Charles E. Shelton, the last officially designated
Vietnam-era prisoner of war, was declared killed in action 29 years after he
was shot down over Laos.
His wife, Dorothy Marian Shelton, struggled for 25 years to find out what
had happened to her husband, and whether he might be alive. She eventually
gave up hope. In 1990, she committed suicide......
Associated Press Newswires
Monday, July 26, 1999
Work on memorial plaza for POW to begin this week
OWENSBORO, Ky. (AP) - A monument honoring Air Force Col. Charles E.
Shelton, who was shot down over Laos in 1965, will begin taking shape soon
in downtown Owensboro.
Workers from Hagan Construction will begin digging the foundation and
pouring the concrete floor for the 34-foot-wide granite-and-limestone plaza
in Smothers Park this week......
From - Wed Aug 18 15:08:22 1999
At 6pm Saturday, September 18, 1999, The Colonel Charles E. Shelton Freedom
Memorial will be dedicated in Owensboro, Kentucky. The $250,000 granite and
limestone memorial is being erected overlooking the Ohio River in a downtown
Owensboro city park. It has taken us five years to raised the mostly
private funds (In fact we have not yet raised it all) but we are extremely
pround of the results.
Colonel Shelton, who was offically a prisoner of war for 29 years, will be
honored in his hometown with a long overdue memorial to him, and to American
POW/MIA of all wars. It will also recognize his wife, Marian, who fought so
courageously for twenty-five years to learn the fate of her husband and
other American service men and women who were not returned home. Charles'
plane was shot down over Laos on his 33rd birthday, April 29, 1965. Because
of his resistance to his captors and his legandary attempts to escape, and
because Marian refused to allow Charles to be listed as dead until the
government proved he was not alive, Shelton became known as "the last
p.o.w." Anyone and everyone is welcomed and encouraged to join us for the
dedication. Owensboro is a city of 55,000, 100 miles downstream from
Louisville and 40 miles upstream from Evansville, Indiana. It can he
reached from Saint Louis and Louisville via Interstate 64, taking the U-S
231 exit to Rockport, Indiana. Owensboro is accessible from Nashville,
Tennessee, by way of I-65 North to Bowling Green, Kentucky, exiting west
onto the William H. Natcher Parkway to Owensboro.
Any questions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Denney, Chairman
http://www.lastpow.org/ Charles Shelton Freedom Memorial
includes full dedication transcript.
Family misses Vietnam soldier
Owensboro, KY April 3 --- ....But information about their loved ones is often hard to come by.
The sister of an Owensboro man taken prisoner during the Vietnam War shared
Allegany Vietnam veteran to join son in biking to Washington, D.C.
I'm going to ride in honor of those POW/MIAs for (you).” Then Dick Anderson surprised his son right back, telling him he'd meet him in St. Louis and ...
To the family of Colonel Charles Erwin Shelton,
I have been attached to Col. Shelton since I graduated Air Force Basic Training in 1994 when his name caught my attention. His bracelet has been part of my uniform since then, and still is now that I have retired. I pray that one day all of our missing will be returned to us all. I long for the day all prayers have been answered.
With my deepest regards and respect,
TSgt (ret.) USAF
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