(from the DoD press release):

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of two U.S. servicemen, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to their families for burial with full military honors.
They are Lt. Col. James H. Ayres, of Pampa, Texas, and Lt. Col. Charles W. Stratton, of Dallas, Texas, both U.S.Air Force.
On Jan. 3, 1971, these men crewed an F-4E Phantom II aircraft departing Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base on a nighttime strike mission of enemy targets in Savannakhet Province, Laos.Shortly after Ayres initiated a target run, the crew of other aircraft in the flight observed a large explosion.No one witnessed an ejection or heard beeper signals, and communication was lost with the aircraft.Hostile activity in the area prevented search and rescue attempts.
In 2001, a joint U.S./Lao People’s Democratic Republic (L.P.D.R.) team, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), traveled to Savannakhet Province and interviewed Laotian citizens about their knowledge of aircraft crash sites. One of the men led the team to what was believed to be the Ayres and Stratton crash site.
Later that year, another U.S./L.P.D.R team began excavating the site.The team recovered human remains and aircrew-related items.Between 2002 and 2005, joint teams visited the site six more times to complete the excavation, recovering more human remains and crew-related items.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA in the identification of the remains.
Of course, there is much more – so here is the rest of the story:

The pilot, Lt Col James H Ayres, USAF (then a Major and a native of Pampa, Texas) and nav/WSO, Lt. Col. Charles W. Stratton (then a Captain and a native of Dallas, Texas) were assigned to the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) which was administratively assigned to the 347th TFW based in Yokota, JN, but was operationally attached to the 388th TFW at Korat AB, Thailand. At that time, the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron had been based at Korat for a number of years and up until the summer of 1969 had flown the F-105 Thunderchief. In May 1969 they transitioned in place to the F-4E.

Missions out of Korat were flown into not only North Vietnam (officially), but also into Laos and Cambodia on a secret basis for a number of years. These missions operated under several code names, but the mission the crew of “Rancho 01” departed on was in support of Operation Commando Hunt:

Operation Commando Hunt was a covert U.S. Seventh Air Force and U.S. Navy Task Force 77 aerial interdiction campaign that took place during the Vietnam War. The operation began on 15 November 1968 and ended on 29 March 1972. The objective of the campaign was to prevent the transit of People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) personnel and supplies on the logistical corridor known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Truong Son Road to the North Vietnamese) that ran from the southwestern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) through the southeastern portion of the Kingdom of Laos and into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

During Commando Hunt V (10 October 1970 to 30 April 1971) Air Force intelligence claimed 16,266 trucks destroyed and another 7,700 damaged during the dry season offensive. The Seventh Air Force headquarters in Saigon, chagrined by the enormity of the figures, recomputed them and lowered the estimate to 11,000 destroyed and 8,000 damaged. In fact, there were only 2,500-3,000 PAVN trucks operating on the trail during 1970-1971, each carrying approximately four tons of materiel.

77,000 combat sorties were flown during the offensive while the number of communist anti-aircraft weapons defending it reached 1,500. Although only 11 aircraft were brought down by air defense fire during the dry season, this lower level of destroyed aircraft was not the result of any U.S. countermeasures. The lower figures were attributed to the fact that many PAVN air defense units had been moved to the Tchepone area to support the counteroffensive against the South Vietnamese Operation Lam Son 719.

During the year the North Vietnamese transported or stored 60,000 tons of supplies with a net loss rate of 2.07 percent. During the same period, 195,000 PAVN replacements moved through the system to the southern battlefields. As during the previous year, PAVN continued to expand the system. By the end of May the North Vietnamese had occupied Muong Phalane, Ban Houei Sai, and Paksong. They also retook Attopeu, Saravane, and Ban Thateng, cementing their hold on the strategic Bolovens Plateau of south central Laos.

On 3 January 1971, Major Ayres and Captain Stratton departed Korat Airbase as the lead aircraft (an F-4E[1], call sign “Rancho 01″) in flight of two on a Commando Hunt V night strike mission to interdict an enemy truck convoy traveling through the dense jungle covered mountains and passes of the region with trees ranging from 100 feet to 200 feet in height.

Mind you, this was 1971, well before the sophisticated NVG and low-vis/night targeting pods we take for granted on today’s strike aircraft.
This area of eastern Laos was considered a major artery of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

When Rancho flight arrived in the target area, they began orbiting while receiving a standard target briefing from the on-site Forward Air Controller (FAC). At 2235 hours, Rancho 01 broke from orbit to begin their first pass; however, they did not drop their ordnance. 30 seconds later Major Ayres radioed a status report from south of target stating they were not set up correctly for an attack on the first pass. Roughly 1 minute later he made his last radio contact when he called in from north of target. Approximately 30 seconds later the aircrew’s of both the FAC and Rancho 02 saw a large explosion on the ground which they believed was caused by the lead aircraft impacting the ground. Prior to the explosion, no one saw enemy ground fire aimed at the lead aircraft. All attempts to contact James Ayres and Charles Stratton on UHF, Discrete and Guard channels were to no avail. Likewise, no ejection or parachutes were seen and no emergency beepers heard in the darkness.

No normal search and rescue (SAR) operation was initiated due to the intense hostile presence in the area. However, Rancho 02 stayed in the area for 30 minutes monitoring for any sign of Major Ayres and Capt. Stratton and the FAC stayed for 2 ½ hours searching for any sign of the downed aircrew. Additional electronic searches were ordered along with photo reconnaissance of the crash site and surrounding area. All searches met with negative results. The incident occurred approximately 8 miles southeast of Ban Muong Sen, 28 miles northwest of Tchepone and 2 kilometers southwest of Ban Namalou, Laos. At the time all search efforts were terminated, James Ayres and Charles Stratton were declared Missing in Action.
Ayres and Stratton are among nearly 600 Americans lost in Laos. In 1988, in exchange for US assistance in humanitarian projects (including construction of clinics) the Laotian government agreed to excavate crash sites on a regular basis. The joint expedition to the Savannakhet Province in 2001 was part of this project.

Lt. Col. Ayres will be buried Aug. 10 in Pampa.

Lt. Col. Stratton’s burial date is being set by his family.

Welcome home Rancho 01, now rest in peace…

Sources:
The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (http://www.virtualwall.org)
Wikipedia (Operation Commando Hunt) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Commando_Hunt#1971)
[1] Ed. Believe the AF serial number for this F-4E was AF 67-0359. It is the only F-4E that is recorded as stricken from the records in this timeframe (listed as “w/o January 2, 1971” w/o presumed to be “written off” and 2 January corresponding to the date on the CONUS side of the International Dateline for the mission. Given the nature of the mission it was probable that this was the likely method at the time to account for losses on these type of missions. Later losses were shown as over Laos or Cambodia, but that was subsequent to the exposure of the secret ops and/or the incursion of US forces into Cambodia.

2 Comments

  1. Cypert Whitfill

    I knew Jim Ayres at Texas Tech. I am glad to know that his remains have been recovered and that his mother lived to see that resolution. He was a great guy, a real friend and a super pilot. May his soul rest in peace.

  2. John Boykin

    I wore Lt Col Ayres MIA band in High School in the 80’s. Glad to hear that he finally made it home. I only wish I still had the band. After a few years of wearing, it literally fell apart and the pieces ended up who knows where over the years.

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