MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan.— It’s Jan. 29, 1969. Maj. Campbell and Capt. Holton are flying in their F-4 Phantom II during an armed reconnaissance mission in Laos. After spotting an enemy supply truck, they roll in for the attack.
It’s suspected that the aircraft was hit by ground fire and crashed in the Lao jungle that day. No parachutes were seen, and no emergency signals were heard. A crew member on another aircraft attempted to make contact until low fuel forced him to leave the area, and the two F-4 pilots were labeled as missing in action.
According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency website, between 1994 and 2011, the Department of Defense conducted nine investigations and excavated a site in both Vietnam and Laos in its attempts to resolve this case.
Early last year, DPAA assembled a team to locate these missing Airmen, along with other MIAs assumed to be in the area. Among the recovery team was Tech. Sgt. Garrett Wright, 22nd Operations Support Squadron Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape and Personnel Recovery specialist.
After receiving nearly two weeks of training and mission briefings, the team traveled to Laos. Service members from all branches and many specialties split into smaller 15-20-person teams across three sites, and they soon got to work clearing the area and preparing their dig sites.
“Due to our survival skills, [SERE specialists] bring a very compatible mission set to that environment,” said Wright. “We had to set up screening stations, make shelters and do a lot of survival-oriented tasks because we were in the middle of the jungle. We cut down bamboo for a full day with axes. It was hard manual labor, and we needed someone who was somewhat skilled in the woods.”
Once the area was cleared, the team used metal detectors to locate objects. An archeologist then set up grid squares where the objects were found so the area could be systematically examined. Every shovelful of the hard, sunbaked soil was dumped into buckets and taken to screening stations, where locals broke it up with bamboo and closely inspected it.
Unfortunately, the first site Wright worked on didn’t yield solid evidence of the Airman they were looking for. After finishing work in that area, Wright and his team moved on to another site about 15 miles away that was already underway: the area where Campbell and Holton’s F-4 was thought to have crashed.
“We started helping the other team dig their recovery site,” Wright said. “They had been digging out a fighter plane, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there were aircraft parts sticking out of the side of the hole eight feet down in the ground.”
Wright spent the remainder of the trip at that site. The team members took turns between digging and monitoring the work that locals were performing at the screening stations.
“On the second to last day, I was at a screening station, and a woman who was taking her turn digging said she found something,” he explained. “We all looked over as she pulled dog tags from the ground, and we could read everything perfectly on them.”
They had found exactly what they were searching for.
“After digging and sifting dirt for almost 30 days and screening hundreds, if not thousands, of buckets of dirt and not finding anything, when she turned that shovel of dirt over and pulled that dog tag up, everything came together,” Wright said. “I remembered why I was there.”
After the digging was complete, the team prepared to return home, but first, they honored the fallen with a repatriation ceremony.
“One member from each branch represented their force on each corner of the box that held the remains,” said Wright. “After we performed the ceremony, we placed the box into the casket, draped a flag over it and ceremoniously marched it to the aircraft. The ceremony was really cool to be part of.”
The remains and personal effects were returned to DPAA headquarters, where they would be further analyzed to verify what the team found. For Wright, the trip was a learning experience that opened his eyes to this country’s dedication to its service members.
“In a lot of my lessons, I teach the code of conduct,” said Wright. “In article 6, it states that America will never forget about you, and you should never lose faith in your country. It was pretty remarkable to be on one of these missions and see the extent this country goes to recover individuals who perished 48 years ago.
“It gives every aircrew member the confidence to go out and do their mission, and they can know that regardless what happens, our country will never stop looking for them until they’ve been returned,” he continued. “No other country in the rest of the world does that. It reinforces everything.”