Real Name: Col. Charles Ervin Shelton
Case: Lost Father
Date: April 29, 1965
Details: American Colonel Charles Shelton married his wife, Marian, in 1951. They had five children and had a happy marriage. In 1954, he joined the Air Force and moved rapidly through the ranks. In 1962, he was sent to Saigon to train Vietnamese pilots. Three years later, he began flying top-secret photo reconnaissance flights over Laos.
Charles was stationed at Okinawa, Japan, where his family joined him. However, he was often gone for weeks at a time. On April 26, 1965, he left and said goodbye to his family for the last time. On April 29, his plane was shot down over Laos; ironically, it was his thirty-third birthday. His family had a party for him even though he was not there. During it, Marian was informed that he had been shot down and that search parties were looking for him.
American planes made visual and radio contact with Charles, but before rescue helicopters could reach him, a change in the weather made it impossible for him to be picked up. He waited for several days before being captured the Pathet Lao, the communist forces being operated in the area. They carried him into a prison camp.
Marian was informed that Charles was a prisoner of war. She soon received his personal effects from the military. She also found his dog tags and military ID, which are normally carried by Air Force personnel at all times. A camera was also found; when developed, they found a picture of him wearing a sanitized uniform, devoid of any official insignia. According to his family, this meant that the government did not want people to know that the US was involved in a war in Laos.
Three months after Charles was shot down, his family returned to Kentucky. As the war continued, some soldiers came back with stories that seemed to suggest that he was still alive. One disturbing story claimed that he was being held in a shallow grave with bars over top of him. Other stories also claimed that he was being tortured.
Finally, on January 27, 1973, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States involvement in the war would end. He also announced that, within two months, all of the POWs would be released. There would be two lists released: one that listed the ones that would be coming home, and another that listed the ones that died in captivity. A few weeks later, the Sheltons learned that Charles was on the latter.
In April 1973, the Pentagon issued a statement, claiming that there were no POWs still alive in Southeast Asia. Marian, however, was convinced that Charles, along with other POWs, may still be alive and being held. In August 1973, she, along with reporter Leah Larkin, traveled to Laos. Her pilot and guide was an American operative, fluent in local dialects. They spoke to several locals who believed that they had seen Charles being held in a nearby cave. However, they found no concrete evidence that he was being held there.
Marian returned home empty-handed and broken hearted. Two years later, however, events in Southeast Asia led her to believe that Charles may still be there. On April 29, 1975, Saigon fell to communist forces. Coincidentally, it was ten years to the day after Charles had been shot down. Refugees fled the area and came to the United States. Many told stories of American pilots and POWs still being held prisoner in Southeast Asia, two years after the end of American involvement in the war. For unknown reasons, these stories were withheld in documents by the American government.
Eventually, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, Marian obtained several documents about Charles. Many credible sources stated that he was still alive, years after being captured. Some sources stated he was still alive in 1983, a full eighteen years later. Several reports talked about how he had attempted to escape multiple times.
One report mentioned how the Pathet Lao had turned Charles over to the North Vietnamese after being captured. They tried to interrogate him, but he refused to give up any information. Instead, he attacked and killed several of the North Vietnamese soldiers that had been holding him.
On October 7, 1980, Marian met with government officials and tried to convince them that Charles was still alive. She was upset that the government seemed to forget about the POWs that were probably still alive and being held in Southeast Asia. She gave evidence from the witness reports that seemed to show that he was still alive. However, the board determined that he should be considered "killed in action".
Four years later, however, Secretary of the Air Force, Vernon Orr, refused to accept the board's recommendation. In 1984, he upheld Charles' status of "prisoner of war", making him the only missing American serviceman from the war not to be listed as presumed dead.
Marian went on several television shows in the late 1980s, talking about Charles' case and how the government did not seem to care about the leftover POWs. She eventually resorted to alcohol due to the pain of not knowing what happened to him. She searched for twenty-five years for information about him until she committed suicide on October 4, 1990 by shooting herself in the head. Their children are now searching for information about him. They believe that he may still be alive.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the November 11, 1992 episode.
Results: Unresolved. In October 1994, at the request of Charles' children, the Air Force changed his status from "prisoner of war" to "killed in action". He is believed to have died from disease and malnutrition while in captivity. However, due to the passage of time, his remains are believed to be unrecoverable. A memorial service was held at Arlington National Cemetery, where Marian had been buried four years earlier.
- Charles Shelton on Wikipedia
- Charles Shelton on the POW Network
- Charles Shelton on the Arlington National Cemetery Website
- Charles Shelton and "Duck Soup" on MIA Facts
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- Wife of Only Man Still Listed as POW Kills Self
- Ghost of a Chance, but Still They Search
- POW pilots left in Laos, files suggest
- Children of the Last POW Close a Pain-Filled Chapter
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- Charles Shelton on Find a Grave