Forty five years ago today, the war in Laos was booming (pun intended). The Pathet Lao were advancing on General Vang Pao’s Long Tieng redoubt, Lima Site 20 Alternate. The week before, on Valentine’s day, they’d had to call in an air strike on the base itself to drive out the attackers. Unlike the Army, we didn’t have a true perimeter. The limestone Karst mountains, which were virtually impassible, were our natural defenses there. Since all the local Meo (Hmong) tribesmen were our allies, sneaking up on us was virtually impossible.
I had come down with hepatitis on January 11th, and was at an Air America contract hospital in northwest Thailand. I would be discharged two days later on February 24th to housebound status for several weeks. I would find out about this January 9th, 2008 when I began my search for Lt. Engle. I was hoping to get a buddy letter for my hepatitis claim. I was flying with him when I was wounded back in September- several months earlier. The Seattle VA rater had suggested it to help me prove my claim. I had no military records showing my GSW and subsequent transfusion.
Chuck was due to DEROS in several weeks. I knew that because I had run into him at the Class VI store at Udorn stocking up on Scotch in December. He’d been shot through the foot recently and was down at the 432nd Combat Support Hospital getting it looked at. He was on crutches. We talked briefly and that was the last I saw of him. I presumed his luck had held and he’d made it home. Thirty seven years later I would find out he hadn’t.
Chuck, like me, was ostensibly stationed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base but that is deceiving. Many of us who were in places that didn’t exist on maps were listed as being stationed at Udorn. He flew with the Ravens. They were Detachment 1, 56th Special Operations Wing. Their official “headquarters” were over in the Air America Complex where they did all the maintenance on the aircraft. The true TOC was up in Long Tieng- or Alternate as we called it- at the Air Operations Center. I was listed as Operating Location “C”, 1973rd Comm. Sq. -again, stationed in Udorn but physically 413 klics due west as the crow flies. Nothing was ever as it seemed over there. O/L Charlie, like Alternate, didn’t exist. It was marked T-11 on the old French air maps left over from WW2 so we called it Tango 11.
I have very little knowledge of how Chuck augered in. I have variously heard that he was down on the deck cutting elephant grass in his O-1 when he crashed. I do know he was breaking in his replacement for Raven duty as a FAC but little else. By this time, Alternate was becoming untenable due to the repeated attacks by the Pathet Lao and I had heard through the grapevine the pilots were all commuting daily from Wattay (L-108) down in Vientiane or out of Udorn. Based on this, I’d assume he was returning there.
We had horrible luck with aircraft maintenance and the AvGas always had a lot of particulate from the red clay that was constantly stirred up by propwash and choppers. This caused big problems with the carburetors and we usually ran the engines way too rich to compensate. It also makes the engines run hot. I doubt we’ll ever know the how or why of what happened but Chuck was an expert pilot in small aircraft and I doubt it was pilot error. Using your prop to cut elephant grass is airicide in my book but Chuck was not your average by-the-book conservative aviator.
Today dawns again forty five years later with that same realization recently gained, that 1st Lieutenant Charles Edwin Engle (posthumously promoted to Captain) will not be with us. His bravery was never in dispute. He was awarded the Air Force Cross as a substitute for a Medal of Honor for his actions several months earlier. Being in Laos meant being off the books back then. Nixon could not very well award him a CMOH posthumously for actions above and beyond the call of duty in a neutral country. I note that since I discovered his passing he has subsequently been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star. They keep adding to his medals on the Virtual Wall. I hope they eventually will award him his oak leaf cluster to his Purple Heart. I suppose you could say in a roundabout way that dying in an airplane crash constitutes a “wound” even if it’s terminal.
I was lucky enough to find his sister Roxanne and locate his gravesite up in Indiana in 2009. Cupcake and I went back to pay our respects in 2013 when I was well enough to travel again. “Welcome Home!” rings hollow in these cases but it is all I have to offer. And that’s all I have to say about that. What happened in Laos stays in Laos.