Remains of Air Force pilot shot down over Laos in 1969 to be returned home for burial
BY ANDY TAYLOR
The wait is over for the family of a Montgomery County native who was shot down on a secret military mission over Laos 48 years ago.
The remains of Major William E. Campbell, who died on that mission on Jan. 29, 1969, have been positively identified through the assistance of scientific forensic evidence.
His remains will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on May 18.
Decades of agonizing . . . no more. Hours of praying, questioning, and worrying . . . things of the past. Bitterness toward an enemy they did not know and a government that withheld vital information about their missing loved one . . . forgiveness can now prevail.
For Cindy Stephenson of Independence, the nearly half-century of waiting and wondering will finally conclude at the nation’s most revered and hallowed cemetery. A proper and fitting burial for a high-ranking military officer who died in battle will end the final chapter of a compelling story that has beset a local family since 1969.
“It will definitely bring closure for all of us,” said Stephenson, one of four children of Major William Campbell.
And, just what was the evidence that finally gave military officials enough confidence to say William E. Campbell was deceased? It was a single tooth — presumably plucked from the Laotian jungles — that guaranteed the closure needed for the Campbell family.
It’s still not known exactly where the tooth was found, but Stephenson said a Laotian villager many years ago notified military officers in that southeast Asian country of the discovery of several human teeth and bones, all of which were taken to a U.S. military forensics laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, for processing.
U.S. military scientists have spent the past two years using DNA analysis to connect the tooth to the Campbell family. That positive identification was made in December 2016, she said.
While that positive identification brought closure to Stephenson’s family, it also reopened the history books to the era of the Vietnam conflict — a war that was mired in controversy and, in the case of Campbell’s death, military secrecy.
It also has reopened some memories of heartache for a family that, until recently, had scant leads as to the whereabouts of the downed Air Force pilot.
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What is now known about Major William E. Campbell’s final flight was that he was flying his F-4D fighter jet over the Mu Gia Pass of Laos on a mission to bomb a Viet Cong convoy. The Mu Gia Pass was part of an area of southeast Asia that was given the nickname “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” as it connected North Vietnam to its fighting forces in South Vietnam. The most direct channel between North Vietnam and its Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam was through Laos, which bordered both warring nations.
However, the U.S. military never made it known that it was bombing or fighting Viet Cong convoys along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. After all, America in late 1968 and early 1969 was going through transition. President Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency was stung by the stalemate in Vietnam, was leaving office. He halted all aerial raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in October 1968. Incoming President Richard Nixon was elected on a platform to bring some peaceful resolution to the war in southeast Asia.
However, when Nixon came into office on Jan. 20, 1969, raids continued — albeit secretly. U.S. airplanes stationed in Thailand made the aerial treks to its Laotian targets — buried deep in the mountainous, jungle terrain.
Nine days after Nixon’s inauguration, Campbell was assigned on a daylight mission with Capt. Robert E. Holton. Such a daylight mission was rare for Campbell, who flew in a squadron that had been given the monicker “Nite Owls” for their nighttime bombing raids on enemy territory in North Vietnam. In a letter to his family the day before the mission, Campbell noted that his upcoming flight was hampered for several reasons, including that he had been feeling ill, the mission was to be flown during the day rather than the customary night routine, and that he was assigned another co-pilot who was not his regular flight partner.
Upon attempting to bomb a Viet Cong convoy, Campbell’s F-4D aircraft was hit by a ground-to-air missile. A wingman assigned on the mission witnessed Campbell’s airplane exploding when it hit the ground. There was no eyewitness account of Campbell or Horton parachuting to safety, or if either man survived the crash impact.
The U.S. military could not confirm or deny the mission to members of Campbell’s family. His wife, Claretta (White) Campbell, and their four children were living in Independence in 1968 and 1969 while William was stationed in Thailand on what William believed was his final battle assignment. William Campbell had let his family know that after the completion of his tour in 1969, he would be offered a promotion and assume a logistics position in Hawaii. The only bit information that the U.S. military would provide to the Campbell family upon learning of William’s failed mission was that William Campbell was missing in action.
“We were always told to be aware of the blue car that would show up at your driveway,” said Cindy, regarding the official military vehicle that would carry military personnel to alert family members about the death of a soldier, sailor or airman. “And, when the military officials came to our front door, the only thing they told us was that Daddy was missing in action.”
Thus, the waiting began. And, that agonizing wait would take the form of years . . . many years.
Stephenson said her family held hope that her father may have been alive, perhaps as prisoner of war. But, after America’s prisoners of war returned home in February 1973, they learned that William E. Cambell was not among the prisoners.
Their thoughts turned to the inevitable — that William E. Campbell was likely dead.
However, Claretta Campbell, William’s high school sweetheart from Caney who became his wife in 1951, refused to let her children speak of William E. Campbell in the past tense.
Instead, there was always hope that Campbell would someday come home.
“That’s how she always spoke around us and others,” said Cindy. “We never spoke as if he were deceased.”
It was not until 1978 that the U.S. military finally changed Campbell’s status from “missing in action” to “killed in action/body never recovered.” The military did provide some temporary closure for the family — via a funeral ceremony in Las Vegas, Nev., where Claretta Campbell was living at that time.
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However, there was still something missing — William E. Campbell was still somewhere in southeast Asia, likely dead. Or, perhaps, there could be a remote possibility that Campbell could be an aging prisoner of war in a far-off location.
The U.S. military would provide updates to the family. However, those updates would be countered with other letters discounting previous accounts of located crash sites, discovery of rusted fragments of F-4D jets in Laos, or disputed eyewitness testimony of Laotian villagers about American prisoners of war taken from crash scenes.
“Our family had enough of the U.S. government’s letters, and we finally told the military to not notify us unless there was some positive identification of Daddy,” said Cindy. “I could not even re-read the letters that my dad had sent me prior to 1969. I still have them today . . . but I have never re-read them since I read them the first time.”
Firm proof of Campbell’s whereabouts would not be forthcoming until 1989, when Campbell’s college ring from Texas A&M University (Campbell graduated there in 1952) would be located in a store in Thailand. After two years of negotiations between the U.S. military and the store’s owner, the U.S. government acquired the ring, which eventually found its way to Claretta Campbell. Claretta would wear that ring until her untimely death in 1995 at the age of 64.
After Claretta died, the Campbells’ four children agreed to donate that ring to their father’s alma mater, where it was formally presented at Texas A&M’s “Ring of Honor” in 2002.
How the ring found its way to the Thailand store . . . or where it was found . . . remains unknown to this very day for the Campbell children.
Also during those years when the Campbell family was awaiting word of their father’s remains or whereabouts, they received photographs showing William E. Campbell’s service revolver. It was on display in the Hanoi Air Defense Museum as a war trophy of the Viet Cong’s fight against the American-led South Vietnam forces. The revolver bore the serial number of the one issued to Major William E. Campbell.
The fact that Campbell’s ring and gun were found — even if at different times and different situations — led some members of the family to believe that William E. Cambell might have survived when his airplane went down in the Laotian jungle.
“For a time, we would get information from the military, but it was just too much to accept because it never gave us confirmation of anything, other than a fragment was found, or his ring was found,” said Cindy. “Finally, when my siblings were told in December that the tooth led to a DNA match, then it brought some relief. But, it also brought back memories of the pain we went through. It all started all over again — including the memories of the blue car showing up in our driveway in 1969.”
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The U.S. military has used the highest forms of forensic science to identify remains of deceased personnel throughout the world. Technological advances in DNA science — the genetic fingerprint that links generations to generations — are used to positively identify a person’s remains.
However, scientific advances also have allowed military experts to peel back the history on the actual remains themselves. Even something as solitary as a tooth fragment, in the Campbell case, a mandibular molar, can tell a story about how a person lived, what he ate, or even perished.
What the U.S. Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency has determined — just by examining the condition of that tooth — is that William E. Campbell died of “multiple injuries due to aircraft mishap.” The manner of death is certified as “homicide” due to enemy action.
That information, as difficult as it is to read in a lengthy report prepared by the POW/MIA Accounting Agency, brings to close one chapter in the life of William E. Campbell and his family.
However, another chapter has yet to have its final page written.
Just last week, Cindy Stephenson and her siblings met with military officials to begin the process of bringing William E. Campbell home. What is bringing comfort to Stephenson and her families is how the U.S. Air Force plans to treat their family at his final burial. A full military escort will arrive at an airport near Washington, D.C., on May 17 and follow Campbell’s coffin to Arlington National Cemetery the following day. At the cemetery, the ceremony will include the horse-drawn caisson bearing the coffin, a military band, the playing of “Taps”, a gun salute, and the presentation of the coffin flag in its signature triangle shape to the family.
“It is going to be a moving experience for everyone,” said Cindy.
The U.S. Air Force also is working to have the Missing Man Formation provided at the funeral. The Missing Man Formation is an aerial flypast of four aircraft at a funeral for a fallen pilot.
Ironically, a tombstone for William E. Campbell already exists at Arlington National Cemetery . . . because his body was never recovered at the time the marker was erected.
His inscription will carry Campbell’s final rank: colonel. That’s because Major Campbell was notified prior to his final flight that he had been notified of a promotion. An official promotion ceremony was never held.
A final resting place will be established at the national cemetery for Col. William E. Campbell’s remains, as will be the cremains of Claretta Campbell, who, as a spouse of a military officer, was inurned at Arlington following her death in 1995. Cindy Stephenson said her parents will be buried together — the first time they have been together in almost a half century.
“Dad got to come home to Independence for Christmas 1968 and then left for Thailand shortly thereafter,” said Cindy. “That was the last time we ever saw him.”
William and Claretta Campbell were graduates of Caney High School
William and Claretta Campbell had connections to the Caney community. William and Claretta graduated from Caney High School in 1948.
William lived in Caney during his high school years with an uncle and aunt, Howard “Doc” Lambdin and his wife Helen Lambdin. “Dad talked about growing up in the Lambdin house on South High Street,” said Cindy Stephenson, Campbell’s daughter.
William Campbell also is a descendant of W.S. Brown, who was one of Caney’s earliest pioneers and also a member of the Osage tribe.