An End to the Myths
Summary. Another enduring myth from the war in Vietnam is that surrounding the loss of Baron 52, a C-47 configured as an electronic intercept aircraft that was lost over Laos in February 1973. The mythology holds that several of the crewmembers were captured and never released. Read this article for the facts. Caution: This article is long and detailed.
The most detailed and accurate analysis done of the loss of Baron 52 was that done by Mr. Robert Destatte and posted to the soc.history.war.vietnam newsgroup in November 1997. Mr. Destatte's analysis is quoted in its entirety below.
Baron 52 was the radio call sign for an EC-47 intelligence gathering aircraft with a crew of eight Americans that crashed in southern Laos during the night of 4-5 February 1973. For those readers not familiar with this aircraft, it is a transport plane derived from the Douglas DC-3. It first flew in December 1935, and became famous during World War II. It is a two-engine, propeller-driven plane. Its has a cruising speed of 185 mph (160 knots), and maximum speed of 229 mph (200 knots) at 8,500 feet and a range of about 1,500 miles. The electronic version, or EC-47, patrolled southern Laos, the western borders of South Vietnam, and the coastal waters off southern North Vietnam picking up enemy radio signals. Operators on board these planes obtained bearings to transmitters and, by means of triangulation, intelligence specialists determined the location of the headquarters where the transmissions originated. On electronic missions the aircraft normally flew at speeds between 120 and 150 knots (138-173 mph), at altitudes of approximately 10,000 feet above sea level (about 5,000 feet above the mountains in Southern Laos). These missions provided valuable information for the planning of strikes by tactical fighters or B-52s. (You can find a description of the aircraft and mission, and photos of the aircraft on pp. 50-53, "An Illustrated Guide to the Air War Over Vietnam," by Bernard C. Nalty, et al, published by Arco Publishing, Inc., NY.)
The crew of the Baron 52 aircraft included members of the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (the men who flew the aircraft), and members of the 6994th Security Squadron U.S. Air Force Security Service (radio operators and intelligence specialists who sat in the back end (fuselage) of the aircraft). The crew's mission on the night of 4-5 February 1973 was to search for People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) tanks moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail en route to Kontum and Pleiku Provinces in South Vietnam, in an area of southern Laos we designated "Area 10G." Baron 52 departed its base in Thailand at approximately 2305 hours local time, 4 February 1973 (1605 GMT, 4 February).
The flight crew was required to report its position every 30 minutes, on the hour and half-hour, and report all unusual occurrences (e.g., mechanical failures, enemy anti-aircraft fire) immediately.
There was an airborne command-and-control center aircraft (Moonbeam ABCCC), another Baron aircraft (Baron 62), a "Spectre" AC-130 gunship (Spectre 20), three F4 aircraft, and perhaps other aircraft in the air over southern Laos during Baron 52's mission.
At 0010 hours local time 5 February (1710 GMT, 4 February), the commander of Baron 52 spoke by radio with the commander of Spectre 20 and agreed that Baron 52 would fly in the southern portion of Area 10G and Spectre 20 would fly in the northern sector.
At 0039 hours local time 5 February, an American ground radar station in Thailand recorded its last radar plot of Baron 52 a few nautical miles west-northwest of Attapu, Laos. Baron 52 flew beyond the range of ground radar stations at about this point.
At 0125 hours local time 5 February, Baron 52 informed Moonbeam ABCCC that several rounds of anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA) were fired at, but missed, Baron 52 at a location about 17 nautical miles north-northeast of Attapu.
At 0130 hours local time, 5 February, Baron 52 reported operations normal to Moonbeam ABCCC.
At 0140 hours local time 5 February, Baron 52 reported it had been fired on by radar controlled AAA guns at a location about 60 nautical miles northeast of Attapu. At this point, Baron 52 was almost directly over the main north-south corridor on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near its junction with an east-west corridor between the main cooridor and northern Kontum Province, South Vietnam. This was the last position the Baron 52 crew reported.
At 0200 hours local time 5 February, Baron 52 failed to make its scheduled report to Moonbeam ABCCC. Two ground stations, Moonbeam ABCCC, and other aircraft tried unsuccessfully to contact Baron 52 on guard frequencies and other radio channels.
At 0210 hours local time 5 February, Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts began. Within 20 minutes, three F4s, Spectre 20, and Baron 62 had been diverted to help Moonbeam ABCCC and the ground stations conduct visual and communication searches for Baron 52 and its crew. Other aircraft joined the search later. The searchers failed to find any sign of Baron 52 and its crew until 7 February 1973.
In view of the distance between the last reported position and the wreckage, and the normal speed of the aircraft, it appears that Baron 52 went down shortly before it was scheduled to make its routine radio check at the top of the hour - 0200 hours local. Remember, there were two crews on the Baron 52 aircraft. The flight crew from the 361st TEWS that flew the aircraft, and the electronics specialists from the 6994th SS who operated the equipment in the back end of the plane. The flight crew had at least two radios, one for routine communications and one on guard frequency. The electronics specialists had at least one radio, which they used to transmit and receive operational data related to their mission. Both crews were well-trained in emergency procedures and, as we have seen, both crews' radios were functioning properly. In an emergency, one or more members of the two crews certainly would have transmitted a distress signal unless the aircraft suffered a catastrophic event that rendered them incapable of doing so. It would have taken only a few seconds to transmit a distress signal.
In order for four persons to have successfully bailed out of this aircraft, the aircraft would had to have remained in relatively stable flight for a minute or longer after the emergency occurred - ample time for the crew to have transmitted a distress signal. This pre-World War II aircraft was not equipped with ejection systems. The electronics specialists in the back of the plane did not wear parachutes while seated at their work stations. The parachutes were too bulky and hindered the men's ability to operate their equipment. In the event of an in-flight emergency that required them to bail out, they first had to don their parachutes. At least one crew member would have been responsible for releasing the door near the rear of the fuselage. Next, one at a time, each man would have to make his way back to the door and jump out. Meanwhile, the pilot and co-pilot would have remained at the controls trying to keep the aircraft in stable flight long enough for the back-enders to get out.
Indeed, in a series of letters written between February and April 1973, the Wing Commander of the flight crew described the several types of communication radios on the aircraft and described the capabilities of the radios. He noted that Baron 52 had frequent radio contact with other aircraft until minutes before it became missing. He noted that the crew members received intensive training for emergencies. He wrote that he believed that in case of an emergency at least one crew member would have instinctively used one of the many radios to transmit a distress call to lead rescue forces to the downed aircraft and crew, unless the aircraft suffered a catastrophic event that immediately and completely incapacitated the crew members.
It is not difficult to imagine what might have caused such a catastrophic event. This slow, relatively low-flying aircraft was vulnerable to modern air defense weapons. The crew of Baron 52 reported two incidents in which it received fire from large caliber AAA guns. In the second incident, the crew specifically noted the AAA guns were radar controlled.
Four days later, the search team that examined the wreckage and recovered partial remains of one crew member received both AAA and surface-to-air (SAM) missile fire en route to the crash site. As noted earlier, searchers found the wreckage of Baron 52 on 7 February. The SAR team found no indication that the aircraft had attempted a controlled crash landing. The position of the wreckage and other features of the crash site (for example, the absence of skid marks) indicated the aircraft had plunged nearly vertically to earth, bounced once, landed upside down and burned. Portions of both wings were broken off and lie some distance from the main wreckage. What appeared to be a portion of the tail also lie at least 100 yards from the main wreckage.
On 9 February a SAR force lowered three pararescue specialists (PJs) from the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) and a radioman from the 6994th SS down to the main wreckage. Their mission was to look for signs of survivors, rescue survivors if there were any, recover bodies if possible, and to determine whether the special communications equipment and documents in the back end were destroyed. Approximately 40 minutes passed between the time the first PJ was lowered to the ground and the time the last man was lifted back to the SAR helicopters. One PJ and the radioman inspected the wreckage, while the other two PJs principally provided security.
The two men who inspected the wreckage spent about 15-20 minutes on the ground. Much of that time was devoted to extracting a part of the badly decomposed body of one of the flight crew from the wreckage, placing it in a body bag, and rigging it to be lifted by a cable and hoist to a hovering helicopter. The radioman reported that he saw three bodies; two in the pilot and copilot seats and one in the engineer's compartment behind the pilot's cabin. One of the PJs thought he saw a fourth body near the engineer's compartment.
The search team did not enter the fuselage of the Baron 52 wreckage. Reasons included concern for possible booby traps and uncertainty about the structural soundness of the wreckage. The PJs contemplated tying a sling from the SAR helicopter around the fuselage and using the SAR helicopter to lift the wreckage and search for additional bodies, but finally decided that the structure of the wreck would not stand the strain because it was too weakened by fire (the aircraft had more than five hours of fuel still on board when it crashed).
One frequently reads or hears accounts by persons who imply that the SAR team found the back end empty, thus "proving" that the four men in the back bailed out. Those accounts are not accurate. The SAR team was not able to examine the interior of the fuselage where the electronics specialists' work stations were located. The SAR team believed that the bodies of the men in the back were pinned inside the wreckage. The PJs noted the bodies of the flight crew were still strapped in their seats. They concluded that it appeared that the men on board Baron 52 were NOT preparing to bail out when the plane crashed.
The SAR team concluded that all members of the Baron 52 crew perished in the crash.
The Wing Commander of the flight crew and Air Force authorities concluded that the facts concerning this incident constituted compelling evidence that the entire crew of Baron 52 perished in the crash.
The notion that four men bailed out of the aircraft originated with the flawed analysis of a very brief item of information contained in a voice radio transmission that a radio operator on another electronics aircraft flying off the coast of North Vietnam intercepted about 5 and a half hours after Baron 52 was reported missing. That message was destined to become the center of much of the controversy about the Baron 52 incident.
There are two versions of this single intercept. The first version was a quick summary transmitted in the form of a spot report within minutes after the information was intercepted. The unclassified text of this summary is: Group 217 is holding four pilots captive and the Group is requesting orders concerning what to do with them...
The second version was prepared many hours later, after the aircraft returned to its home base. The linguist who prepared the second version was able to listen to a recording of the transmission, transcribe a verbatim text of the message, and transmit the verbatim text as a follow up and clarification to the summary contained in the spot report. The unclassified text of the latter version is: Presently Group 210 has four pirates; they are going... from 44 to 93... (Tapes were routinely recycled after information was transcribed.)
Between 5 February and early May 1973, an US Air Force analyst named Jerry Mooney, who was working at Fort Meade, MD, attempted to correlate this intercept to the Baron 52 incident. (Mooney acknowledged this in a sworn affidavit submitted in support of a court action against the US Government; [Mark] Smith and McIntire v. Reagon, et al, 85-119-CIV-3). In his analyses Mooney treated the spot report and follow up report that clarified it as separate intercepts, added details that didn't appear in any intercept, ignored important details that did appear in the field reports, and presented arbitrary unsubstantiated speculations as if they were fact.
Mooney, who is not a Vietnamese linguist, attempted to reconcile the discrepancy concerning the identity of the unit holding the four "pilots" or "pirates." In his final analysis he wrote that the captives were being held by a Group 210 or 210B. In the spoken Vietnamese language, 210B is phonetically similar to 217. Apparently, he was never able to resolve this question.
As for the numbers 44 and 93 (the four pirates are going...from 44 to 93...), he speculated that these were kilometer markers. He apparently was undaunted by the fact that every land route that was at least 44 and 93 kilometers long had a kilometer marker 44 and 93, and the intercept did not give any clue as to which route these two markers might lie on - if they were kilometer markers. He apparently was also undaunted by the indications that the unit in question was located in the general vicinity of Vinh city, more than 400 kilometers by road north of the crash site.
Mooney arbitrarily chose the kilometer marker 44 that was closest to, and north of the crash site. He then chose the kilometer marker 93 that was closest to, and north of the kilometer marker 44 he had chosen. Apparently, he was undaunted by several other factors that other analysts might have considered significant. The kilometer markers he chose were on two different routes. A mountain range separated the two routes. The kilometer marker 93 he chose was located on a route used almost exclusively for southbound traffic. The kilometer marker 44 he chose was approximately 120 kilometers north of the crash site. Etc. Mooney's analysis asks that we believe that the four electronics specialists bailed out of the aircraft, one at a time, and landed at separate locations in densely forested rugged mountains at night. His analysis asks us to believe that each of the four men decided to not activate his emergency radio. (Each man was equipped with an emergency radio that could transmit a silent radio signal that search aircraft could home in on. He could also use the radio to communicate by voice with SAR forces.) Mooney's analysis asks that we believe that PAVN troops hunted down and captured each of the four men - in rugged mountains covered with thick forest, at night, when presumably none of the four men were eager to be found. Mooney's analysis also asks that we believe that the PAVN captors marched the four men to the nearest road - a distance of about 10-14 kilometers through forests and over rugged mountain terrain. PAVN troops then placed them on a vehicle or vehicles - few of us would believe these men walked 120 kilometers that night, and began moving them north.
At this point, it might be useful to provide an overview of movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. PAVN divided the trail into several segments. Each segment was controlled by a military station, called a Binh Tram. By the 1970s each binh tram controlled a segment approximately 50-80 kilometers long, so that a vehicle could traverse the distance in one night - depending on weather, US air operations, etc. Each binh tram, in turn, controlled several commo-liaison stations - each located about a one night foot march from the other.
The Baron 52 aircraft crashed about 10-14 kilometers east of the center of the route segment controlled by Binh Tram 35. The next segment to the north was controlled by Binh Tram 34. North of that was the segment controlled by Binh Tram 33. And north of that, Binh Tram 32.
The kilometer marker 44 that Mooney chose was located near the boundary between Binh Tram 33 and Binh Tram 32. This was a distance of approximately 13 nights foot march, and two and a half nights drive by vehicle. Mooney's analysis asks that we believe that PAVN troops hunted the four men down, captured them, marched them 10-14 kilometers to the nearest road, placed them on vehicles, and moved them 120 kilometers through three Binh Trams - at night and in the span of 5 and a half hours.
On 22 February 1973, after reviewing all the available facts associated with this incident, including the information intercepted on 5 February, the Wing commander responsible for the Baron 52 aircraft and crew reported to the USAF Military Personnel Center that "there is no reasonable doubt that all members of the crew of Baron 52 were killed in the crash."
Nevertheless, a small number of persons have persisted to encourage the families of the Baron 52 crew and the American public to believe that the four men in the back of the aircraft survived, were captured, and were taken to North Vietnam. Frequently they cite Mooney's flawed analysis of the 5 February intercept as a key piece of "evidence."
One of the more bizarre misrepresentations of facts about Baron 52 took place during an interview that was broadcast in a segment of the "20/20" program on 11 September 1992. The audience was shown a photograph of four American POWs. A former USAF colleague of Mooney's -- Tod Minarcin -- tearfully identified two of the POWs as electronics technicians from the Baron 52 crew. In fact, the Defense Intelligence Agency first received this photograph in 1968 - nearly five years before Baron 52 went down. All four men returned home alive in 1973. Each positively identified himself and the other persons in the photo in 1973.
During January and February 1993 a team of Americans from the Pacific Command's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and the US Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (USACILHI), and Lao specialists excavated the Baron 52 crash site. They recovered more than 20 bone fragments, including a tooth of one of the electronics technicians, dog tags for two of the technicians, "V" rings for eight parachutes, etc. In short, the team recovered compelling evidence that all eight men on board Baron 52 perished in the crash.
Unfortunately, 20 years of exposure to the elements left fewer remains than we or the families might have hoped for. More unfortunately, some persons have seized on this fact of nature and implied that the paucity of remains and other evidence at the site suggests that Lao authorities planted the evidence the excavation team did find.
Faced with compelling evidence that none of the Baron 52 crew survived, other persons have began trying to find a new case they can attach the 5 February 1973 intercept to; to find another set of families to victimize. The four persons mentioned in the intercept are not Americans. They could be four Lao irregulars picked up by one of the PAVN units involved in a major operation against Lao irregulars that threatened PAVN lines of communication along Highway 8 and related corridors in Bolikhamxai Province, Laos, during late 1972 and early 1973.
The 5 February 1973 intercept consists of a single sentence spoken in the Vietnamese language. The translator who prepared the spot report that summarized the intercept reported that "Group 217 is holding four PILOTS... and is requesting orders concerning what to do with them." The translator who prepared the second translation reported that "Group 210 has four PIRATES, they are going... from 44 to 93..." The first translator had only a few minutes to prepare the spot report, but he knew that another linguist would review the recording of the transmission and, if necessary, publish a corrected or expanded translation. The second translator had the time and facilities to listen to the recording as many times as he felt necessary, before he issued the second translation. We can assume, therefore, that the second translation is more accurate. PAVN referred to Lao irregulars as "bon phi (VN telegraphic code: bonj phir);" i.e., "bandits" or "border pirates." The four persons mentioned in the message probably were four Lao irregulars that a PAVN unit picked up in the Highway 8 corridor in Laos and turned over to the 44th Provincial Infantry Battalion of Ha Tinh Province.
The 44th was responsible for security of the Highway 8 corridor from Bolikhamxai Province, Laos, to Vinh City on the coast of North Vietnam. In late 1972 and early 1973, the 44th was operating in Bolikhamxai Province against Lao irregulars. The Ministry of Public Security was responsible for border security and countering operations by Lao irregulars and US-sponsored reconnaissance teams in the border regions. The 93rd Border Defense Post, located at the Keo Nua (Na Pe) Pass, was subordinate to the Ministry of Public Security and shared with the 44th Battalion responsibility for security of the Highway 8 corridor. If the 44th had custody of four Lao irregulars in the border region, it probably would have turned them over to the 93rd Border Defense Post for detention.
There was never a genuine mystery about the fate of the servicemen on the Baron 52 aircraft. Their fellow servicemen began searching for them immediately after the crew failed to make its scheduled radio check at 0200 local time, 5 February 1973. Within a few days they located the wreckage and inserted a SAR team to search for survivors and bodies. The circumstances of the incident and the observations of the SAR team left no doubt that all eight crew members perished in the crash. The US government pressed the Lao for information and permission to excavate the site for many years. In 1993 American specialists excavated the site and recovered compelling evidence that all eight men perished in the crash. One of the many unfortunate aspects of this incident, as with the POW/MIA issue in general, is that those who know the facts and remain silent unwittingly assist those who create the false mysteries.
-- -- Regards, Robert J. Destatte