Huntsville Times, AL
Honoring a warrior bound for final rest
Ceremony, motorcade to salute soldier killed in Laos
33 years ago
From Staff Reports
An airport ceremony in Huntsville and a motorcade will honor the return of the remains of Sgt. Maj. Billy Ray Laney, a member of the Army's Special Forces killed in combat 33 years ago in Laos. The airport ceremony will mark return of Sgt. Maj. Billy Ray Laney's remains Warrior giance led by Don Powers, state commander of the Order of the Purple Heart.
Gov. Don Siegelman has been invited to make remarks, which will be followed by a 21-gun salute by the honor guard and "Taps" played by Charlie Cain and Frank Kendeigh.
After the presentation of an MIA/POW flag to Mrs. Laney, the casket will be placed in a hearse for a procession that will cross Redstone Arsenal.
About 1,000 soldiers of the 832nd Ordnance Battalion are expected to line the starting point for the procession. It will exit from the Intermodal Center on to Wall-Triana highway and turn east on to Martin Road for the trip across Redstone Arsenal.
The casket will be taken to Nichols Funeral Home on U.S. 278 at Addison. The procession will turn north on Patton Road and ontinue on Jordan Road as it leaves the arsenal. The motorcade will turn west on Interstate 565, south on I-65 and west onto U.S. 278 at Exit 308 near Cullman.
The casket will be taken to Nichols Funeral Home on U.S. 278 at Addison. Visitation at the New Home Baptist Church in nearby Houston on Winston County Road 63 will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Oct. 7. Members of the 5th Special Forces will provide military honors at Laney's burial in the church cemetery.
SYNOPSIS: The Boeing-Vertol CH46 Sea Knight arrived in Southeast Asia on 8 March 1966 and served the Marine Corps throughout the rest of the war. With a crew of three or four depending on mission requirements, the tandem-rotor transport helicopter could carry 24 fully equipped troops or 4600 pounds of cargo and was instrumental in moving Marines throughout South Vietnam, then supplying them accordingly.
Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) was a joint service unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA) that provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed highly classified, deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the location and time frame, "Shining Brass," “Salem House,” “Daniel Boone” or "Prairie Fire" missions.
Oscar Eight was the code name given to a sector of eastern Laos located in rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 25 miles northwest of the infamous A Shau Valley, Saravane Province, Laos. The area encompassed the junction of Highway 92, which was a primary north-south artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Highway 922, which branched off and ran directly east where it crossed into South Vietnam at a strategic point near the northern edge of the A Shau Valley. Oscar Eight was also located at the southeastern end of a large and narrow jungle covered valley that had two primary roads running through it, one on each side of the valley. Highway 92 ran along the west side and Highway 919 along the east. A power line ran parallel to Highway 92 and sometimes crossed it. In addition to the roads and power line, the Hoi An River also flowed through the valley passing the road junction roughly 1 mile west of it.
More American aircraft were downed in this sector than any other place in Laos. This was because burrowed deep in the hills of Oscar Eight was North Vietnamese General Vo Bam's 559th Transportation Group's forward headquarters. It was also the Ho Chi Minh Trail's control center and contained the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam. Oscar Eight was defended by consecutive belts of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns of all sizes that were not only stationed on the ground, but also mounted on platforms in the trees and were expertly camouflaged. Oscar Eight also favored the enemy because the only suitable landing zones were located in a wide bowl surrounded by jungle covered high ground containing AAA guns and bunkered infantry.
A major raid on Oscar Eight began on 2 June 1967 with a dawn Arc Light mission by 9 B52 bombers. As the smoke cleared, 9 ARVN Kingbee and 5 Marine CH46 helicopters landed a Nung Hatchet Force company including the company's MACV-SOG advisors then SFC Billy R. Laney, SFC Ronald J. "Ron" Dexter and SFC Charles F. "Charlie" Wilklow. The raiders had barely landed when the 100-man force was surrounded and vastly outnumbered by NVA soldiers. They took cover in bomb craters, then called in gunships and tactical airstrikes dangerously close. Even though the raiders were armed with enough firepower to cut down any NVA assault, they did not have enough to launch an assault. The situation rapidly turned into a stalemate that lasted all afternoon and all night. Shortly after dawn on 3 June, helicopters supported by fighters took off from Khe Sanh to retrieve the Hatchet Force. Throughout the rescue mission, airstrikes by a wide variety of US and ARVN aircraft were employed. During these airstrikes 4 American aircraft were shot down - 1 A1E Skyraider, 1 F4 Phantom and 2 helicopter gunships. Only the pilot of the A1E, Lt. Col. Lewis M. Robinson, was not recovered. He was unable to eject before he crashed into a jungle covered valley roughly 5 miles south and slightly east of the battle site. Lewis Robinson was listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
Finally the first Marine CH46 Sea Knight was able to settle among the bomb craters while taking hits from enemy ground fire. It safely lifted away with almost a platoon of Nung strikers aboard including Mr. Ky, the commander. The crew of the second Sea Knight (serial #150955), call sign "Shark 03," to reach the LZ was comprised of Capt. Steven P. Hanson, pilot; 1st Lt. John G. Gardner, co-pilot; Sgt. Timothy R. "Tim" Bodden, crew chief; LCpl. Frank E. Cius, door gunner. After the first helicopter lifted off, it landed to pick up more survivors. Billy Laney, Ron Dexter, Charlie Wilklow and roughly two dozen Nungs leaped aboard as it lifted off the ground. NVA tracer rounds were seen focused on the aircraft. When one of the pilots was wounded the aircraft veered out of control, hit the trees, spun violently, fell 100 feet and broke in half landing approximately 350 meters from the LZ.
Dead and wounded Nung strikers were piled everywhere. Search and Rescue (SAR) aircrews located the bulk of the survivors of the crash in and near the wreckage, but could not evacuate them due to enemy activity nearby. Three of the Nung strikers exited the wreckage and made their way back to the LZ where they were extracted with the other survivors the next day. The only American to be rescued from Shark 03 was Charlie Wilklow. In is debriefing he provided the following information.
Immediately after the crash, he looked around and saw Billy Laney lying on the helicopter floor next to the Marine crewchief, Tim Bodden. SFC Laney had sustained a chest wound prior to boarding the aircraft and had a possible broken ankle while Sgt. Bodden had a broken back. Suddenly the Marine door gunner next to him, Frank Cius, was shot in the head and slumped over his machinegun. SFC Wilklow was shot in his right leg and rolled out of the helicopter. Capt. Hanson was outside the wreckage. He said he had to get something from the aircraft. SFC Wilklow crawled away, and as he did so, he became light-headed from the loss of blood. The gunfire abruptly stopped. With his strength gone, Charlie Wilklow collapsed. He looked up and for the first time saw an NVA soldier watching him from a 60-foot high platform next to a 12.7mm machinegun. Further, he realized there were gun emplacements all around him and he had crawled into the NVA's base camp. Enemy soldiers were everywhere. Charlie Wilklow expected to be seized, but NVA soldiers merely walked over, saw his condition and left him there. SFC Wilklow passed out. When he awoke, his web gear was gone and he'd been dragged a few yards into a clearing. An orange signal panel was laid out beside him and NVA gunners had their weapons trained on the clearing in the hope a rescue attempt would be made. As aircraft searched for the missing men, SFC Wilklow watched the NVA carry several American bodies away, decapitate them, than mount their heads on stakes like trophies. American POWs were also led past him, but he could not identify them. Lack of food and water kept his mind hazy and he slipped in and out of consciousness.
On the second day he saw two Caucasians in civilian clothes watching him from a distance. NVA officers were escorting them and he believed they were Russian advisors. The third day it rained for hours. On the fourth day he squirmed when he saw maggots crawling in his open wound. Barely clinging to life, the NVA no longer even watched him. That night SFC Wilklow found the strength to move and he crawled away from the enemy camp. The pain helped keep him lucid. By sunrise he had crawled and dragged himself nearly two miles. The sun was high when Charlie Wilklow heard a plane overhead. He found a signal panel the NVA missed and waved it before passing out. When he awoke, a shadowy figure was shaking his shoulders. It was SSgt. Lester Pace who had just repelled in to the area in response to the signal. Within minutes an ARVN helicopter appeared to pick them up.
Of the other men on board the Sea Night when it crashed, Capt. Steven Hanson was out of the helicopter, but returned to it to retrieve his weapon. The condition of 1st Lt. John Gardner was unknown. Sgt. Tim Bodden sustained a broken back, but was alive. LCpl. Frank Cius had been shot in the head and was lying over his machinegun. SFC Billy Laney was seen lying on the floor of the aircraft with a chest wound, and a possible broken ankle. SFC Ron Dexter left the wreckage uninjured. When last seen by Mr. Ky, the Nung Commander who was being evacuated by helicopter, Ron Dexter and several Nung strikers were in a large bomb crater firing red star clusters from a flare gun as a signal to rescue aircraft. At the time the rescue effort was terminated, Tim Bodden, Ron Dexter, John Gardner, Billy Laney, Frank Cius, Charlie Wilklow and Stephen Hanson were listed Missing in Action.
LCpl. Frank Cius was taken prisoner, moved immediately from Laos to North Vietnam and released from Hanoi on 5 March 1973. The US did not know that LCpl. Cius had been captured when the NVA reached the wreckage of the CH46A until he was released during Operation Homecoming. During his debriefing, he confirmed the fact he was the door gunner who sustained a head wound during the fight. According to Frank Cius, SFC Ronald Dexter was also captured, but died in captivity on 29 July 1967. While the Marine Corps believes Steven Hanson died of wounds received when the aircraft was overrun, his wife positively identified her husband in a widely distributed Vietnamese propaganda photograph of a pilot being captured.
In 1996, a team from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Saravane Province to investigate this incident. Local Lao took them to a crash site where the team conducted a survey and dug a test pit from which they recovered fragments of bone and teeth. They also recovered a dogtag baring the name Steven Hanson. In February 1999, a recovery team returned to the surveyed site to excavate it. In addition to aircraft wreckage, they recovered crew-related items, more teeth and bone fragments. The team again returned to the site in June 1999 to complete the excavation and again recovered additional possible human remains. Shortly thereafter the combined remains were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination.
On 14 August 1999, those remains were identified in this manner: For Steven Hanson, a single unrestored tooth consistent with his dental records yielded enough material for a mt-DNA match to family samples. For John Gardner a single restored molar matched dental records. For Billy Laney 6 restored teeth matched his dental records and mt-DNA taken from a fragment of the ulna (forearm) matched the family sample. For Tim Bodden there was no individual identification. According to the official record, his "identification was made through circumstantial evidence." Some of the bone fragments yielded mt-DNA sequences that did not match the missing Americans and it was assumed they were Nung. Shortly thereafter the remains were returned to the families for burial. On 29 September 2000, the small amount of fragmented remains recovered from this crash site were interred as a group burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
For Billy Laney, Steven Hanson, Tim Bodden and John Gardner their fate is finally resolved and their families and friends have the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies. For Ron Dexter, who was a confirmed Prisoner of War, and other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fates could be quite different.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam and Laos were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.