POW/MIA: “We Will Never Forget”

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Magidson
  • 17th Logistics Readiness Squadron
On March 29, 1969, First Lieutenant Frederick W. Hess was the "back-seater" in aircraft tail number 66-8809, purchased from McDonnell Douglas the same year Lt. Hess was commissioned through the Air Force Academy. A Kansas City native, ironically, both Lt. Hess and his aircraft were made in Missouri. His pilot was Captain W. J. Popendorf. That day, the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron "Wild Boars" were tasked to take off from Da Nang, Vietnam and fly a three-ship of F-4s near the Ban Karai Pass over Laos. 

On Aug. 15, 1973, the United States halted Operation Freedom Deal, marking the end of bombing targets in Cambodia. Over the years, the Vietnam War followed the Ho Chi Minh trail, spreading well beyond the Vietnamese borders and into Cambodia and Laos. Proxy forces fought on the ground and the Air Force fought in the air. America and South Vietnam spent significant resources performing interdiction, close air support, as well as search and rescue missions. Interdiction strategy involved bombing the trail itself along with the many supporting command and control facilities, supply bunkers, barracks, and area bases along the trail. In response, the Vietcong Motor Groups made the most of natural and man-made concealment and camouflage to protect operations from aerial observation and interdiction. 

The United States Air Force has always met operational challenges with innovation, and this challenge was no exception; it spawned three well-known initiatives: First, Project Popeye attempted to lengthen the monsoon season indefinitely by seeding clouds with silver iodide smoke, therefore reducing the trail's logistics capacity. Overall, cloud seeding was about 85 percent successful and ran from 1968 to 1972. 

The second was Commando Lava; even less successful than its predecessor. "Make mud, not war," was their battle cry. The intent was to airdrop chemicals when activated by rain and would turn regular soil into runny mud, so the roads would wash away. This was far less effective than the cloud seeding. By the second mission, hundreds of enemy personnel rushed in and removed the chemical before it could be activated by rainfall. Also, they nearly shot down one of the aircrafts, rendering the plane a potential total loss. There was no third Commando Lava mission. The third innovation, Operation Ranch Hand, involved a fresh approach to defoliation.

 Although Operation Ranch Hand had been defoliating the region since 1962, in 1969 tacticians decided slow-moving UC-123 aircraft were too vulnerable, so the AF experimented with using F-4D Phantom II aircraft to deliver the herbicides. This too was short lived. The F-4Ds carried under-wing tanks modified to hold and spray herbicides and were able to fly from 100 to 200 feet above ground level around 575 miles per hour in a "V" formation. The goal was for each pass to exfoliate a 300-foot wide, 10-mile long strip in less than a minute. 

Unfortunately, there was a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunner school near the pass. On the last mission, tragedy struck when Capt Popendorf's and Lt Hess' Phantom was hit by ground fire. As Capt Popendorf forced the Phantom into a climb, the plane began an uncontrollable roll. At that low altitude, the crew had no choice but to immediately execute a high-speed, low-altitude ejection before the plane smashed into a hillside. Miraculously, Capt Popendorf not only survived the bailing of an uncontrollable aircraft hurtling just above triple canopy jungle, at more than half the speed of sound, but he also succeeded evading the enemy patrols for three hours. He was recovered by search and rescue forces. 

However, no trace of Lt. Hess was ever found, despite a ten-hour search and rescue effort. The Air Force declared him Missing in Action when the search effort formally terminated. On May 22, 1979, the Air Force declared Frederick Hess Killed in Action and posthumously promoted him to major. He was survived by his 24 year-old wife, Bahar, and their one and a half year-old daughter, Christine. Mrs. Hess admits that her most difficult time was when more than 500 prisoners were repatriated in 1973 and her husband's name was not on the list.

 Although over 600 servicemen were reported missing in Laos, no Americans held by the Lao have ever been released alive. However, in recent years, Laos has cooperated with the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command's efforts to find and repatriate American remains. When interviewed by American Forces Press Service in March 2000, Mrs. Hess expressed concern that the American public is losing interest in our unaccounted-for servicemen. She said, "Every day I'm hopeful that I'm going to find out what happened to my husband. I never had an unmarked grave for him, because it's very difficult to deal with. I would like to have a place where I can go and say this is where he's buried." There are still numerous personnel that are unaccounted for as POW's/MIA's like Maj Hess. 

By wearing an MIA/POW bracelet, you can ensure we never forget and can honor and show your appreciation for the ultimate sacrifices made by those who have defended our freedom. It also reveals your support for surviving family members and their cause. This involves taking an unspoken pledge to wear the bracelet "until he comes home," meaning for however many years or decades it takes until the remains are found and returned to the family. 

If your POW/MIA's bracelet remains are returned to America, it is encouraged that you send the family a letter, but keep wearing the bracelet until they all come home. You can also have a jeweler engrave a star on the bracelet to show that the remains were recovered. You can find sources for the bracelets on the Internet. To those, past and present, who defend freedom, thank you for your service.