It was June 6, 1964, and Navy Lt. Charles Klusmann took off from the USS Kitty Hawk in an RF-8 Crusader jet on a reconnaissance mission over Laos. Suddenly, the pilot felt what he remembers as “a big thud.” He’d been hit by ground fire several times before on flights, but this time, he thought he might be in trouble, and he was. Red lights started flashing on his instrument panel—first one, then another. “Eventually all the red lights started to come on,” he later recalled. “Too many red lights and you’re out of airplane.”
Klusmann was forced to parachute from the stricken aircraft, and a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency search-and-rescue team zoomed in an effort to pick him up. But when they got close, they came under heavy fire from the ground, and Klusmann, fearing for their safety, bravely waved them off. Instead, the pilot, who had injured his hip and knee when he landed, found himself surrounded and held at gunpoint by communist Pathet Lao guerrillas. They put a rope around his neck, tied his hands and led him back to their camp.
Klusmann became the first U.S. pilot to be shot down and captured during the Vietnam War. Even more remarkably, not quite three months later, he also became first to escape from a POW camp and make it back alive.
But why was Klusmann flying over Laos, and what was that country’s connection to the Vietnam War? Who were his captors, and how did he escape from them? Here is some basic context for understanding Klusman’s story, and its aftermath.
When we remember the Vietnam War today, it’s easy to forget that the conflict spilled over into other countries in southeast Asia as well. One of those countries was Laos, a sparsely populated, mountainous nation that had a long eastern border that in 1964 that abutted both sides of the Vietnamese civil war—the communist North and U.S.-backed South. The Annam Cordillera mountain range and the Mekong River stretch through both countries, and Laos’ Plain of Jars was a traditional crossroads for trade. Those connections made Laos strategically important. Though the country, which was ruled by a monarchy, ostensibly was neutral, both sides secretly operated there. The North Vietnamese forces, with the support of homegrown communist guerillas called the Pathet Lao, used Laos as route to move troops and supplies and stage attacks on South Vietnam. The U.S., in turn, had clandestinely organized an army of 10,000 Laotian Hmong tribesmen to fight the communists. The CIA even operated a fake airline, Air America, which it used as a cover for a clandestine air force.
By the June of 1964, that conflict had intensified, and President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. Navy and Air Force pilots to fly surveillance missions over Laos as well, as a show of strength against the communists. It was on one of those flights that Klusmann was shot down.
Since the U.S. military didn’t have a search-and-rescue capability in the area, the CIA’s Air America got the dangerous job of trying to retrieve Klusmann. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t able to pull off that feat, but the agency did later rescue other military pilots shot down in Laos.
The Pathet Lao, the guerilla force that captured Klusmann and held him captive, had extensive ties to the North Vietnamese military, according to a 1969 RAND Corporation report on the movement. The North Vietnamese provided arms to the Pathet Lao and brought its soldiers back to North Vietnam for training, and North Vietnamese advisors helped plan its military operations and even fought alongside the Pathet Lao to “stiffen” its forces, according to RAND.
As Klusmann recounted in a 2014 newspaper interview, his captors held him in a woven bamboo hut, plastered with mud. The space that the pilot was confined was small, just 20 feet in length, which he calculated by walking back and forth it for exercise. “I would figure out how many times I would have to walk across to go a mile, and put a mark on the wall,” he recalled. During his time there, he estimated that he walked 263 miles in his cell. The pilot also found that he could chip through the mud walls and see outside, and also get some fresh air.
While Klusmann’s captors did feed him, the portions were so small that in the course of his three months of captivity, he lost 40 pounds. The menu often consisted of turnip soup. “I never did like turnips,” he recalled. “I still don’t.”
Klusmann gradually developed a plan to escape. On days that he and captured Royal Laotian Army soldiers who were also held in the camp were allowed outside to do their laundry, he gradually loosened nails in a section of the prison’s barbed wire fence. Finally, in late August, he and two Laotian POWs opened the fence and ran off. The escapees managed to evade capture for three-and-a-half days as they crossed rice paddies and ducked into clumps of tall grass to hide. After covering 25 miles, they reached an outpost of friendly forces.
After his escape, Klusmann left southeast Asia but continued to fly and serve in the Navy for another 15 years before retiring as a captain in 1980. In that time, he also led a humanitarian effort to purchase food, clothing, and educational supplies for Laotian children.
The Pathet Lao finally succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a communist state in 1975. By the late 1980s, however, the county had begun a gradual, limited return to private free enterprise and was allowing foreign investment. According to a BBC News profile, despite economic reforms, the nation remains poor and heavily dependent upon foreign aid.