Airmen Missing In Vietnam War Are Identified: Spectre 13

It is perhaps fitting the day after Memorial Day that we learn of more former MIA’s whose remains have since been identified and returned to their loved ones. Hence, today’s story of some of crew of the AC-130A Spectre named ‘Prometheus’ – callsign Spectre 13… – SJS

Spectre 13

Prometheus (c/s Spectre 13)

The official release:
Airmen MIA From Vietnam War are Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of four 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.

Maj Young SSgt CanifordLtCol Brauner

They are Maj. Barclay B. Young, of Hartford, Conn.; and Senior Master Sgt. James K. Caniford, of Brunswick, Md. The names of the two others are being withheld at the request of their families. All men were U.S. Air Force. Caniford will be buried May 28 in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., and Young’s burial date is being set by his family.

Remains that could not be individually identified are included in a group which will be buried together in Arlington. Among the group remains is Air Force Lt. Col. Henry P. Brauner of Franklin Park, N.J., whose identification tag was recovered at the crash site.

On March 29, 1972, 14 men were aboard an AC-130A Spectre gunship that took off from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, on an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos. The aircraft was struck by an enemy surface-to-air missile and crashed. Search and rescue efforts were stopped after a few days due to heavy enemy activity in the area.

In 1986, joint U.S.- Lao People’s Democratic Republic teams, lead by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), surveyed and excavated the crash site in Savannakhet Province, Laos. The team recovered human remains and other evidence including two identification tags, life support items and aircraft wreckage. From 1986 to 1988, the remains were identified as those of nine men from this crew.

And now the rest of the story:

(sources: Task Force Omega and POWNET)


SYNOPSIS: The Lockheed AC130A Spectre gunship first made its trial appearance in Vietnam in late 1967. Because it was highly maneuverable at low speeds and could spend hours in an operational area while delivering a precisely placed stream of withering fire on a target, it immediately proved its worth in combat. By early 1969, seven AC130A gunships were deployed to SEA. These originally deployed AC130A were armed with four M61 Vulcan 20mm cannons mounted in the first half of the fuselage. Each was capable of delivering a maximum of 2,500 shots per minute. Further, each Spectre also had four 7.62mm miniguns that could fire 3,000 or 6,000 shots per minute. In 1969-1970, two of the miniguns and two of the 20mm cannons were removed to make room for the addition of a pair of 40mm Bofors cannons that were mounted in the aft section of the aircraft. While capable of delivering 110 shots per minute, they were generally used to fire 3 to 4 round bursts of fire one gun at a time. The second generation AC130E/H models arrived in 1972 armed with two Vulcan 20mm cannons, one 40mm Bofors cannon and a 105mm Howitzer. This modification, along with a sophisticated fire control system, made the gunship an extremely affective tank killer as well as an equally effective weapon for interdicting enemy traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

On 29 March 1972, Major Irving B. Ramsower II, aircraft commander; Capt. Curtis D. Miller, pilot; 1st Lt. Charles J. Wanzel III, pilot; then Major Henry P. Brauner, navigator; Capt. Richard Castillo, infrared sensor operator; Major Howard D. Stephenson, electronic warfare officer; Capt. Barclay B. Young, fire control officer; Capt. Richard C. Halpin, low light TV senior operator; SSgt. James K. Caniford, illuminator operator; SSgt. Merlyn Paulson, flight engineer; SSgt. Edward D. Smith, Jr., aerial gunner; SSgt. Edwin Pearce, aerial gunner; AFC William A. Todd, aerial gunner and AFC Robert E. Simmons, aerial gunner; comprised the crew of an AC130A gunship named “Prometheus,” tail number 55-0044, and call sign “Spectre 13.” They departed Ubon Airbase, Thailand on an armed reconnaissance mission with an F4D fighter escort over Laos to interdict North Vietnamese supplies moving south into the acknowledged war zone, then return to Ubon.

Ho Chi Minh Trail segmentThis area of 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.

SA-2's Being LaunchedAt 0300 hours, the F4D’s aircrew saw a surface to air missile (SAM) lift off the ground. Before the gunship could take evasive action, the SAM hit Specter 13. A few seconds later the AC130A impacted the ground on the east side of a jungle covered mountain followed by secondary explosions. A north/south running power transmission line ran along a ridgeline just east of the crash site and approximately 1 mile to the east ran a long somewhat pear shaped jungle covered valley through which major arteries of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran. The communist stronghold in and around the town of Tchepone lay across the valley. As one of the F4D escort aircraft flew low over the burning wreckage, he was Spectre 13 Crash Siteunable see any sign of survivors. However, several minutes later as he was departing the area he clearly heard multiple emergency beepers. Another AC130A gunship operating nearby, call sign “Spectre 10,” and his F4 escort also heard the beeper signals. In the darkness, no parachutes were seen and no voice contact could be established with any of the downed aircrew. The wreckage of Prometheus was located in the jungle-covered mountains approximately 12 miles south of Ban Namm, 21 miles west of Tchepone, 56 miles east of the city of Savannakhet and 32 miles west of the Lao/Vietnamese border, Savannakhet Province, Laos; and 45 miles due west of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.

At 0350 hours, a Forward Air Controller (FAC), call sign “Nail,” arrived on station to cover the crash site area and FAC O-1Acontrol the search and rescue (SAR) efforts that were immediately initiated. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived on site, he was unable to hear the emergency beepers. Likewise, in the darkness he was unable to locate any signs of survivors. Formal electronic surveillance efforts continued both day and night. In addition, all aircraft flying near the loss area listened for possible signals or mayday’s from the downed crew members. All SAR efforts were terminated at 1830 hours on 30 March 1972 when no trace of the downed crew was found. Because of the heavy enemy activity in the area including numerous anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile SAM sites, as well as a large concentration of NVA forces, it was believed any surviving crewmen would have undoubtedly been captured by then. All 14 crewmen were listed Missing in Action.

During the 1970s and early 1980s various reports pertaining to crew members of Spectre 13 were received by the US government. These reports ranged from crash site/grave site data to multiple live siting reports. One of these reports was provided by a communist rallier who stated his unit was at an outpost near “38th MIL station Savannakhet” when a NVA convoy of some 130 trucks moved through his area between 35th to 38th MIL stations. The convoy was attacked by one C130 aircraft and two F4 fighters. According to the source, he observed the aircraft making several passes on the convoy destroying parts of it on each pass. When the Americans made their fifth pass, the C130 was hit and crashed approximately 10 kilometers south of his location. Most of the personnel from the 38th station rushed to the crash site. When they returned, they told the source who stayed at the station, that nine of the American crewmen had been rescued by Laotian civilians living near the crash site.

In 1984, remains reportedly belonging to William Todd were provided by a Lao refugee to US officials. Those remains consisted of 5 small bone fragments that were forwarded to the Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii (CIL-HI) on 20 November 1984. Subsequently, they were determined to be portions from the distal portions of a radius or a fibula. These remains were insufficient in quantity to determine race, sex or identity. Along with the bone fragments, identification media data in the form of a dog tag bearing AFC Todd’s name and information was also forwarded with the remains to the laboratory.

Also in 1984, Curtis Miller was the subject of a first-hand live sighting refugee report wherein “the prisoner with a ring on his finger” was still alive and held captive. That wedding ring became another piece of material evidence supporting the fact that some of the crew successfully bailed out of their crippled gunship. This ring, inscribed on the inside “Forever Sue,” was returned to Capt. Miller’s family by the reporter who recovered it while visiting Laos. Interestingly, the ring was not burned or damaged in any way. That fact strongly supports the belief he was one of the men who bailed out before it impacted the ground.

A May 1985 article appearing in a Thai newspaper stated that the bodies of Robert Simmons and Charles Wanzel were among 5 bodies brought to the base camp of Lao Liberation forces. No names were associated with the other 3 sets of partial remains, and while the article named 2 names, it did not provide any information of when or how the men died. The same article reported a group of 21 Americans still alive and being held in a prison camp in Khammouane Province, Laos.

A joint US/Lao team excavated Spectre 13’s crash site in February 1986. They recovered a very limited number of human bone fragments, personal effects and large pieces of aircraft wreckage that were turned over to the appropriate agency for evaluation on 1 March 1986. That portion of recovered remains associated with Robert Simmons consisted of only the #14 tooth – the upper left first molar. According to his dental records, that tooth is the only one he had extracted before going to Vietnam! His family categorically rejects that tooth as Robert Simmons mortal remains. Likewise, only one tooth, along with a dog tag that was recovered in Thailand a year earlier, was identified as the total mortal remains of Edwin Pearce. His family also rejects the US government considering him to be remains returned based on one tooth.

Likewise, based on claims made by CIL-HI’s forensic personnel, Richard Halpin, Richard Castillo, Irving Ramsower, Charles Wanzel, Merlyn Paulson, and Edward Smith were identified and remains accepted by their families. CIL-HI personnel added the 5 bone fragments and dog tag that were previously turned over to US representatives to those recovered from the crash site excavation to account for William Todd as being remains returned/recovered. His family also accepted the government’s identification.

Henry Brauner, Barclay Young, Curtis Miller, Howard Stephenson, James Caniford, Edwin Pearce and Robert Simmons are among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding “tens of tens” of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords which ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

And this from POWNET:

A clandestine Pathet Lao news agency release stated:

“The U.S. imperialists on the night of March 30 sent aircraft to attack the liberated zone in Savannakhet Province, Southern Laos. An L.P.L.A. antiaircraft unit shot down on the sopt a U.S. AC-130 in addition to another American AC-130 which had been shattered over the same province early morning on March 29. Many U.S. crewmen aboard these planes were killed.”

The Air Force reviewed this release and stated that no AC-130 had been shot down on March 30; however, one had been lost at that location on March 31, but the crew had all been rescued. The report, although distorted, was believed to relate to the Young aircraft.

Several years later, the inscribed wedding band of Curtis Miller was recovered by a reporter and returned to Miller’s family. The existence of the ring suggests to Miller’s mother that the plane did not burn, and gives her hope that he survived.

A May 1985 article appearing in a Thai newspaper stated that the bodies of Simmons and Wanzel were among 5 bodies brought to the base camp of Lao Liberation forces. The same article reported a group of 21 Americans still alive, held prisoner at a camp in Khammouane Province, Laos.

The U.S. and Laos excavated this aircraft’s crash site in February 1986. The teams recovered a limited number of human bone fragments, personal effects and large pieces of plane wreckage. It was later announced by the U.S. Government that the remains of Castillo, Halpin, Ramsower, Simmons, Todd, Paulson, Pearce, Wanzel and Smith had been positively identified.

In a previous excavation at Pakse, Laos in 1985, remains recovered were positively identified as the 13 crew members, although independent examiners later proved that only 2 of those identifications were scientifically possible. The U.S. Government has acknowledged the errors made in identification on two of the men, but these two individuals are still considered “accounted for”.

Because of the identification problems of the first excavation, the families of the Savannakhet AC130 have carefully considered the information given them about their loved ones. The families of Robert Simmons and Edwin Pearce have actively resisted the U.S. Government’s identification, which is in both cases based on a single tooth. These families do not know if their men are alive or dead, but will insist that the books are kept open until proof dictates that there is no longer any hope for their survival.

Nearly 600 Americans were lost in Laos during the Vietnam war, and many were known to have survived their loss incident. However, the U.S. did not negotiate with Laos for these men, and consequently, not one American held in Laos has ever been released.

Barclay B. Young was promoted to the rank of Major during the period he was maintained Missing in Action.

Welcome home and may you now rest in peace

AC-130A Sunset

See also:

Spectre Association


  1. James F. Horvath

    In fact, one Spectre was lost with all rescued, one was lost with all killed within a two day period. Conflicting reports at home. My wife had to wait for the mail to find out that I was not on either. Reports from witnesses in other planes in the area indicate that the plane exploded in mid air and it did not seem that anyone could have gotten out, tho there WERE reports of beepers shortly after the crash. I was there.

    • I can confirm James Horvath’s account that 2 planes were lost within a 2 day period in March of 1972. I was stationed at Ubon on the AC-130E models and some of my friends were lost for over a week. They were members of the crew shot down on the 31st. All of them made it back eventually. God Bless the ones who didn’t and may God rest their souls.
      James let’s make contact. Look me up on Facebook.

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