America's Last Vietnam War POW
And there are no happy endings.
On April 29, 1965, his 33rd birthday, USAF Col. (then Captain) Charles Shelton's plane was shot down while on a photo reconissance mission over an isolated section of Laos. He safely parachuted to the ground, and reported his position by radio, but bad weather conditions delayed his rescue mission for two days. When the search was finally launched, he could not be found.
Reports from the area later made public under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that he had been captured and was held for more than three years in the caves nearby. He had earned the label of a man who who would not betray America. He would not submit, going so far as to injure and kill several of his captors during interrogation, beating them to death with a metal chair, and overturnng a table to which he was handcuffed.
At that time, the American government was denying all military missions in Laos. The United States could not acknowledge Captain Shelton's presence as a prisoner there, because to do so would be an admission that military activity was underway in Laos. His family was told little beyond that he had been shot down, and listed as "Missing in Action/believed captured." Several weeks later, his official status was changed to "Prisoner of War."
Several rescue missions were attempted. At one point Shelton and another American prisoner, Capt. David Hrdlicka, were liberated by CIA and Special Forces operatives working undercover. Tragically, the group unexpectedly came across a party of North Vietnamese. Capt. Shelton and Capt. Hrdlicka insisted that they be turned over to the North Vietnamese, rather than endanger the rescuers by exposing their undercover status. They did this with the knowledge that they may have been sacrificing their lives as well as their freedom.
Marian Shelton and her children continued their search for information on the fate of her husband. Although there were several unofficial reports of his status stretching into the 80's, the official record on Capt. Shelton ends with a notation of his tranfer to a Hanoi prison. A representative of the Laotian government later told his family he had been "eaten by a tiger."
In the years since his capture, Charles Shelton was promoted to the rank of Colonel. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan ordered that Col. Shelton remain the nation's official representative of its missing servicemen in Southeast Asia.
On October 4, 1990, a few days after what would have been her 38th wedding anniversary, Marian Shelton took her own life. She was buried next to her husband's empty casket in Arlington National Cemetary.
Exactly four years later, acting upon the family's request, a military panel changed Col. Shelton's official status to "Presumptive Finding of Death." A spokesman for his children said the emotional drain brought about by the family's 29-year long hunt for their father's fate had become too much and they wanted to put a close to their involvement. The Rev. Charles E. Shelton Jr., told the Riverside, CA. Press-Enterprise, "We no longer had the emotional resources to pursue the POW-MIA issue because of the stress... Our family has sacrificed enough."
For more information on Col. Shelton:
FROM THE CONGRESSIONAL RECORD :
RON LEWIS, UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMEMORATING THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DISAPPEARANCE OF COL. CHARLES SHELTON (House of Representatives - May 01, 1995)
[Page: H4437] GPO's PDF(Mr. LEWIS of Kentucky asked and was given permission to address the House for 1 minute and to revise and extend his remarks.)
Mr. LEWIS of Kentucky. Madam Speaker, I rise today to honor an American hero who disappeared 30 years ago.
Charles Shelton was an Owensboro, KY native who was shot down over Laos April 29, 1965--his 33d birthday.
His Air Force plane crash-landed, and he even made radio contact with friendly forces before being captured. Several reports describe Colonel Shelton's escape and recapture--as well as other sightings--well into the 1980's.
Last year, after his children petitioned the Pentagon, Colonel Shelton's status was changed to presumed dead. He was the last American POW of the Vietnam war.
Last year Charles Shelton was eulogized at the grave site of his wife, Mariam, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Saturday, his friends and family began work on a memorial on the lawn of the Daviess County Courthouse. It is a fitting honor for an American hero.
I rise today to remind my colleagues and the American people of the bravery of Charles Shelton--and to ask that the sacrifices of the Shelton family and so many others not be forgotten.