On Thursday night, 23 August, I had the honor of attending the rededication ceremony of the Charles E Shelton Memorial in Owensboro, KY at Smothers Park along the Ohio River. Charlie is officially listed as the last Prisoner of War from Vietnam and I would like to tell you a bit about his story and how I know of him.
Capt. Charles Ervin Shelton was shot down over Laos on his 33rd birthday, 29 April 1965. He was the pilot on a Voodoo aircraft which departed Udorn Airbase in a flight of two aircraft on a photo-reconnaissance mission. The target was near Sam Neua, Laos. The Sam Neua area was a communist headquarters, with command facilities, training centers, communication equipment and personnel in the mountains and river caves.
At 11:59 a.m. his plane was hit. The wingman saw the canopy of Shelton's plane fly off and watched as he parachuted to the ground. A few hours later, two rescue planes spotted Shelton and his parachute. He was contacted by radio and informed 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, but the rescue was delayed due to adverse weather.
The weather cleared and after over 148 missions to locate Capt. Shelton the search was called off on 5 May, 1965. Shelton was listed as "Missing in Action”, and believed captured. Local villagers confirmed that they had witnessed the capture and his status was changed to “Prisoner of War”. Documentation states that Capt. Shelton was held prisoner in caves for the next 3 ½ years. The documents describe multiple attempts to escape, resistance and killing three interrogators. Other American POW’s, tell of seeing him in chains, shot attempting escape and held in a shallow ditch over the next 3 years of captivity.
During this time I was in high school and heard the stories from my father who was Charlie’s best friend. In fact, my father lived with the Shelton family for a brief moment while he was finishing high school. I knew his wife and his 5 kids from summer visits to Owensboro and wore his POW bracelet in hope of his return. I had my father; they did not.
Years passed as stories surfaced about a rescue operation code-named Duck Soup. The accounts state that Shelton and another POW were rescued by a Hmong team in Operation Duck Soup and held for about 10 days, and then returned to their captors. Scenarios for this rescue say the POWs were either returned to gather more intelligence information, returned to protect the cover of the rescuers, or that the two Americans were recaptured after an attack. I would love to hear from anyone who was involved or has further documentation on this operation.
Evidence of Shelton still being alive and held captive from 1981 – 1985 in Camp 214 near Tchepone, Laos are documented. Over the years many accounts surfaced about his location in several camps. His health was suffering but he continued to survive. Capt. Shelton was promoted to the rank of Col. and in 1990 his wife, Marian, committed suicide in San Diego, CA. Marian is buried in Arlington Cemetery next to Charlie’s empty grave. Col. Shelton’s status was changed to KIA in 1994 per the family’s request as they exhausted attempts to locate him.
The last 5 years of my father’s life was dedicated to raising funds for a memorial to Charlie and all the other POW’s, so they are not forgotten. The task was accomplished in 1999 and the dedication ceremony held just a few days after my father, Gordon Lawson, passed away. I KNOW he was there and believe he and his best friend were smiling as they felt the love and respect of all who attended.
Fast forward … the downtown riverfront of Owensboro, KY is under redevelopment so the memorial has been in storage the last 5 years. I was able to attend the rededication ceremony last week and catch up with several of the Shelton family members in attendance. This photo is of daughter Joan, her two children and son Charles Jr. The loss of their father and grandfather has taken a toll and I pray that we will all remember the sacrifice of the “Last Vietnam-Era POW,” until they all come home.
Susan Lawson is the Business Development Manager for Guedes Constructionand the Community Network Coordinator for the non-profit organization Soldiers’ Angels. She can be reached via email for Guedes at firstname.lastname@example.org or for volunteering and information on how to support our military through Soldiers’ Angels email Susan at email@example.com.