Loss Coordinates: 161919N
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Status in 1973: Prisoner of War, Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A4E “Skyhawk”
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing)
REMARKS: Landed alive — NVA approaching
SYNOPSIS: The Douglas A4 Skyhawk was a single-seat
light attack jet flown by both land-based and carrier squadrons,
and was the US Navy’s standard light attack aircraft at
the outset of the war. It was the only carrier-based aircraft
that did not have folding wings as well as the only one that required
a ladder for the pilot to enter/exit the cockpit. The Skyhawk
was used to fly a wide range of missions throughout Southeast
Asia including close air support to American troops on the ground
in South Vietnam. Flying from a carrier was dangerous and as many
aircraft were lost in “operational incidents” as in
On 9 June 1968, then 1st Lt. Walter R. Schmidt,
Jr. was the pilot of an A4E Skyhawk (serial # 151080), call sign
“Hellborne 215,” that was conducting a mid-morning
multiple aircraft direct combat support mission for US troops
fighting in the infamous A Shau Valley, Thua Thien Province, South
Vietnam. This area also included a primary gateway from the equally
notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail into strategic sections of northern
South Vietnam. 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.
At 1020 hours, after making a bombing run
on an enemy position, 1st Lt. Schmidt’s aircraft was struck
by ground fire. His aircraft continued to the northwest and crashed
in the densely forested mountains approximately 5 miles northwest
of the northern edge of the A Shau Valley, 2 miles northeast of
the South Vietnamese/Lao border and the same distance southwest
of a primary road leading from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This road
ran east/west from the border eastward to a point near the northern
tip of the A Shau Valley. It then turned south-southeast running
along the full length of the east side of the dense jungle covered
Walter Schmidt was seen to eject from his
crippled Skyhawk and descend safely to the ground. Other pilots
saw his parachute caught in trees and were able to immediately
establish voice contact with him. He reported to the other pilots
that he sustained a broken leg while ejecting and was unable to
move. Search and rescue (SAR) aircraft were immediately called
to pick up the downed pilot, and as they arrived on site, NVA
troops were observed approaching Walter Schmidt’s position.
US Coast Guard LT.
Jack C. Rittichier, pilot; and US Air Force Capt.
Richard C. Yeend, Jr., Co-pilot; SSgt.
Elmer L. Holden, flight engineer; and Sgt.
James D. Locker, Pararescueman; comprised the crew of a HH3E
helicopter (tail #67-14710), call sign “Jolly
Green 23,” that was assigned to the SAR mission to rescue
1st Lt. Schmidt.
As the Jolly Green Giant hovered over the
rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 9 miles northwest
of the A Shau Valley floor near the downed pilot, the helicopter
was struck by heavy enemy ground fire. It was seen to fall to
the ground in flames and disintegrate upon impact by the onsite
Forward Air Controller (FAC) just to the west of a primary road
used by the communists to infiltrate troops and supplies into
South Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The location of loss
was approximately 1300 meters northeast of the village of Ka Kou,
12 miles northwest of the village of A Luoi, 25 miles southeast
of Khe Sanh and 29 miles west-southwest of Hue. This location
was also 4 miles north of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, near
the border between Thua Thien and Hue Provinces.
Another aircraft flew over the wreckage, but
its crew saw no survivors and heard no emergency beeper signals.
Because of the intense enemy presence in the area, no ground search
was possible. At the time the formal SAR was terminated, Jack
Rittichier, Richard Yeend, Elmer Holden and James Locker were
immediately listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
At first light the next morning a ground team
was inserted into the area of loss. During their search in and
around the area where Walter Schmidt landed, no trace of the wounded
pilot or his parachute could be found. Further, all attempts to
re-establish radio contact with him proved futile. Under the circumstances,
at the time formal SAR efforts were terminated, Walter Schmidt
was listed Prisoner of War.
In early 1973, 591 American Prisoners of War
were released by the communists during Operation Homecoming. All
returnees were debriefed by US intelligence to include any information
each possessed about other Americans who were known or believed
to be prisoners and who were not released from captivity. According
to two returnees, one Navy jet pilot and one Army helicopter pilot,
who were released from one of the camps in Hanoi, Walter Schmidt
“had a difficult time adapting to capture. He was frequently
sick and always gave the guards a hard time.” The last time
the Army pilot heard him was in July-August 1971. At that time,
1st Lt. Schmidt was heard screaming, “Do not push me.”
That was followed by a gunshot.
In conjunction with Operation Homecoming,
the North Vietnamese released a list of American Prisoners of
War who they state died in captivity. Walter Schmidt is not included
in this list of Americans who died while under the control of
In April 1991 the US government released a
list of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action who were known
to be alive in enemy hands and for whom there is no evidence that
he or she died in captivity. This list, commonly referred to today
as the USG’s “Last Known Alive” list, includes
1st Lt. Schmidt.
Whether the North Vietnamese murdered Walter
Schmidt in 1971, or whether he survived this encounter with a
guard is unknown. However, either way there is no question the
Vietnamese could return him to his family, friends and country
any time they had the desire to do so.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over
21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted
for have been received by our government. Many of these reports
document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout
Southeast Asia TODAY.
Pilots in Vietnam were called upon to fight
in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be
wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them
that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.
The information here is courtesy of:
Task Force Omega,