Heroes of 'Secret War' finally fly home
Map of VO-67 crash site
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer
|Crew 2 of VO-67 returns from a successful mission over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Photos courtesy of Bob Reynolds
On Jan. 11, 1968, Navy Cmdr. Delbert Olson and eight crewmen aboard a Neptune OP-2E aircraft were flying vulnerably low and slow in a place Americans ostensibly weren't supposed to be during the Vietnam War.
The Navy plane was 20 miles inside Laos, a neutral country, on a top-secret mission to drop a series of listening devices along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when it probably took ground fire and nose-dived into a remote jungle peak, killing all aboard.
Thirty-three years later, the crew is coming home. And the story of Observation Squadron 67, declassified in 1998, finally is being told.
A repatriation ceremony is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday at Hickam Air Force Base.
The eavesdropping network on which Observation Squadron 67 was working was dubbed "McNamara's Line" after then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He devised the plan to monitor North Vietnam's troop and materiel movements into the South over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and trails.
Observation Squadron 67, or VO-67, made regular flights over the trail, but the Jan. 11 flight was the last for Olson and Crew 2.
As he dropped down through low cloud cover, Olson's last transmitted words were that he saw an opening, and he was going through to see whether he could accomplish the drop.
The routes flown by VO-67 over sites like Tchepone and Ban Laboy Ford were among some of the most heavily defended in the region.
Retired Air Force Col. Jimmie H. Butler recalled he never flew the corridors at less than 5,000 feet, and not more than 10 seconds in a straight line.
But the sensor drops required the hybrid aircraft with two props and two jet engines to fly straight and level at 500 feet, making them easy prey. Observation Squadron 67 lost three planes and 20 crewmen during six weeks in 1968.
For decades to come, however, Pentagon silence over the "Secret War" in Laos would obscure the squadron's bravery from family and history as completely as the monsoon clouds that often blanketed the region.
Following Tuesday's repatriation ceremony the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory-Hawai'i, which took part in the March recovery, will undertake identification, a process that could take up to a year.
Olson's son David, who was 7 when his father disappeared in the region the airmen called "Steel Tiger North," will be at Hickam on Tuesday. So will about a half dozen other VO-67 family members.
For the younger Olson, getting his father's remains back on American soil will be a milestone, as was finding out what really happened to Crew 2. Seeing his father buried at Arlington National Cemetery is his next goal.
|Cmdr. Delbert Olson, top row, second from right, is pictured with other crew members from Crew 2 of Observation Squadron 67.
Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds
The family found out within a few months that the crash site was in Laos, but little more for years.
"I remember thinking that was weird why was he in Laos?" recalls David Olson, who lives in Kansas City. "They wouldn't say what he was doing flying an OP-2E over the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 30 years after the mission."
Fighting in Laos lasted from 1961 to 1975, but both the United States and North Vietnam refused to acknowledge the combat taking place in the officially neutral country.
The last time David Olson saw his father, a career Navy officer who met his mother in 1957 and had been a public affairs officer with the Blue Angels, was when Delbert Olson came back from Southeast Asia in November 1967 and took the family to Disneyland.
When the Laos mission was declassified in 1998, family members from VO-67 started linking up using the Internet. They held a first reunion in Las Vegas in 1999.
"I knew my father was piloting the aircraft that went down with eight men, and those eight men had families," Olson, 41, said. "It was frustrating mainly not getting to know the crew and their families, and basically grieve with their families. We had nothing to tell us who these people were."
Records had been destroyed after the unit was disbanded in June 1968. For three decades the secret mission and sacrifices of VO-67 were known to few outside the squadron and air units that supported it.
"It was like it never happened until these guys started getting together in '99," said Butler, who flew forward air control with the missions in 1967.
In addition to the loss of Crew 2 in January of 1968, two more OP-2Es were downed by enemy gunners the following month, Butler said.
The 20 VO-67 crewmen lost in early 1968 compares to 20 Air Force pilots downed from Butler's squadron between January 1966 and the mid-1970s, when it flew some of the most dangerous missions over Laos and Cambodia.
Those who volunteered for the missions, flown out of a remote airbase at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand along the Mekong River, knew going in the odds weren't good.
Butler, who now lives in Colorado Springs, recalls being told VO-67 was expected to take losses of 60 to 75 percent.
Butler flew unarmed Cessnas over the heavily-defended Ho Chi Minh Trail at 5,000 feet, looking for truck convoys and directing air strikes against them. When VO-67 arrived, a typical mission involved three Cessna O-2 Super Skymasters as spotters and two to four F-4 Phantom fighters providing missiles and bombs.
While the other aircraft swerved back and forth, the OP-2Es had to fly in a straight line at 500 feet to accurately drop the 3-foot-long cylindrical sensors, some of which were designed to hang up in trees and pick up sound, while others embedded in the ground and listened for the rumble of trucks.
"We dropped hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those things," recalls Bob Reynolds, who flew with Crew 5 and now lives in San Jose, Calif. Reynolds received an air medal for his involvement with VO-67 33 years after the fact.
"I remember being so low you could see the bad guys' eyeballs down there," Reynolds said.
The sensors were rigged so acid was released to destroy the electronics inside if the casing was opened. One sensor was trucked to Hanoi for study, and monitors listened to the enemy troops' conversation during the trip before sending in an air strike to destroy it.
Following the Crew 2 crash, search aircraft pinpointed the location on the upper slopes of 4,583-foot Phoulouang Mountain. The squadron's dog, Snoopy, lay by the body of a crewman.
In 1996 the first recovery mission was mounted by the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, and Olson was given his father's dog tags, but the site was deemed too dangerous to proceed with the task.
There were poisonous snakes, falling rocks and a 35-degree mountain slope to deal with. But the VO-67 family refused to take no for an answer, and the group mounted a campaign that resulted in President Clinton, congressional representatives, and military officials getting a barrage of letters saying "it is time to bring these men home."
Brig. Gen. Harry Axson, who took over command of the Joint Task Force in 1999, flew over the crash site last December and ordered in an assessment team in January. The conclusion was that risks were manageable.
With a specialized team that included recovery experts from the central identification lab and Army mountaineering soldiers, the task force went back to Phoulouang Mountain in March.
Army Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, public affairs officer for the Hawai'i-based Joint Task Force, said ropes and ascenders had to be used to reach ledges across which the plane wreckage had spilled. Because of its inaccessibility and remoteness, the site had not been disturbed.
"It was incredible," Childress said. "As you were flying up there, it was like something out of Indiana Jones." A 1,000-foot waterfall spilled below the wreckage site. At the site itself, Childress spotted a fire extinguisher here, a gauge over there. A mini-gun jutted from a rock pile.
"You couldn't tell it was a fuselage," he said. "It was more like a wreckage field."
Crew 2's remains are among 17 sets from Vietnam, Laos and North Korea arriving at Hickam on Tuesday. An all-service honor guard is planned at the 15th Air Base Wing Operations Building.
"Having (my father) brought back off that mountain in Laos is a big load off my mind," Olson said. "To have him brought home to the U.S. with his crew is 80 percent of the closure to bringing him home."
He plans on bringing his family to Hawai'i when the identification is complete, to escort his father's body home for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He just wishes it could have been sooner.
"When you fight for your country, you shouldn't be stuck on the side of a mountain or in a creek or in a jungle," Olson said. "Your remains should be brought back home."
You can reach William Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8033.