Summary: On 10 May 1973 a US reconnaissance drone operating over the Plain of
Jars in northern Laos photographed a group of letters and numbers in an area of tall
grass. A lot of misinformation has grown up around this
photograph. There are persistent claims that these symbols were stamped out by
Americans from a C-130 gunship, lost several months earlier. Instead, the best
available information suggests that the symbols were made by Thai Special Forces
personnel who were evading capture. This link
takes you to a view of the photograph containing the symbol.
The Paris Accords ending the Vietnam War were signed on 28 January 1973. A cease-fire was signed in Laos on 21 February 1973 and the US pledged to withdraw all air power from Laos the next day. Because of continuing case-fire violations by Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces, the US continued to fly combat missions over Laos until mid-Aril 1973. Reconnaissance missions continued for several months, flown by manned aircraft and by unmanned drones.
On one drone mission, flown in mid-May 1973, a photograph was taken that showed some letters and numbers in an area of tall grass at a location on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. The symbols were 1?73 TH ; the symbol indicated by the ? was either a 5 or a 9 -- most observers have concluded that this digit is a 9 -- looks like a 9 to me. When the photograph was taken, the drone was almost directly over the symbols, so they are quite clear; one is not clear because the grass in which the symbols were located was fairly tall -- about knee-high -- and that digit just did not appear clearly. Off to the edge of the photograph was something else stamped in the grass. This second symbol appears to be Thai script; it is not clear because of the obliquity of the photograph -- that is, the camera did not "look" to the side so the second symbol is skewed by the "corner of the eye" effect.
On 21 December 1972, an AC-130 gunship ( callsign SPECTRE 17 ) was shot down over southern Laos ( near the town of Paxse ) some 200 miles south of where the symbol was photographed in May 1973 -- six months after the gunship was downed. The gunship was hit by groundfire and suffered a catastrophic midair fuel and ammunition explosion. Two crewmembers were able to parachute -- they jumped and were blown out -- from the aircraft and were rescued. One missing crewmember on this gunship was USAF Captain Thomas T. Hart.
The crash site of SPECTRE 17 was excavated in February 1985. The combination of eyewitness accounts of the shoot-down, reconnaissance over the crash site by other aircrews, and the findings of the excavation, made it clear that no one survived the SPECTRE 17 loss (except for the two crewmembes who parachuted and were rescued).
No Bloody Bandages
One piece of mythology that has grown up around this loss is the claim that, the day after the shoot down, a reconnaissance team found bloody bandages at the crash site. This story comes from the interrogation of a Pathet Lao officer who claimed that a squad from his unit went to the crash site and found bloody bandages; it is a hearsay story and the individual telling the story was not especially convincing.
The facts are different. One of the members of the DIA Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs is a former Royal Laotian Army general officer, Soutchay Vongsavanh. Soutchay was a lieutenant in a Laotian paratroop battalion under the French. When the Communist took over Laos in 1975, they sentenced him to death. He and his family were able to escape with the help of a CIA chief of base.
The crash site of SPECTRE 17 was in Soutchay's area of operations and he dispatched a platoon to the site; they arrived the day after the crash. While searching the area for signs of survivors, they encountered a small Pathet Lao unit and a short firefight ensued; the PL troops withdrew. Soutchay's troops, who searched the area thoroughly, found no bloody bandages and no signs of survivors ( the two crewmembers who parachuted out were picked up by US SAR ).
Still, the "bloody bandages" story is repeated over and over as fact.
The "Tom Hart" Claim
The MIA "activist" community has combined the fact that CAPT Thomas Hart ( initials TH ) was missing on SPECTRE 17 , the "bloody bandages" story, and the 1?73 TH symbol to claim that Hart survived the shoot down, made his way over 200 miles north, and stamped out a distress signal in the grass. We did another analysis of the 1?73 TH symbol while I was chief of the DIA Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs. While Hart was considered, we did not consider him for long, given the circumstances of loss, the distance involved, and the results of the excavation.
The MacDonald Caper
One of the earliest scam artists operating on the fringe of the MIA issue was a Chicago pastor, Rev. Paul Lindstrom. Lindstrom had earlier formed a group called "Remember the Pueblo," seeking to raise funds to gain the release of the Pueblo crew from North Korea. Later, he solicited funds for his "Douglas MacArthur Brigade" -- a group of "ex-marines and European mercenaries" that he would assemble to rescue Americans from Lao POW camps.
In the fall of 1974, Lindstrom arranged a meeting in Mexico between Mrs. Jean MacDonald, the mother of one of the men missing on SPECTER 17, and two "Communist agents" who, Lindstrom claimed, had information proving that MacDonald was alive. The two men demanded payments ranging from $25,000 to $500,000. They showed Mrs. MacDonald a grainy photo, claiming it was a photo of her son, taken only a few months earlier in Laos. Mrs. MacDonald had no way of raising such a sum of money and, after a few more contacts, the two "agents" disappeared, leaving Mrs. MacDonald with nowhere to turn.
The February 1985 excavation recovered a number of burned and shattered bone fragments. Thirteen of the sixteen men on board were identified, most of them through distinctive dental work. The identifications made from this excavation have, in turn, led to more nonsense. There are charges that MacDonald was identified from a single tooth. In fact, a partial jawbone with teeth intact and several skull fragments were recovered from the location of MacDonald's seat in the aircraft. Hart was identified by distinctive dental work.
Mark Smith, Major, US Army ( retired ), himself a returned POW, has frequently commented on the SPECTRE 17 loss. His claims include the business of the "bloody bandages" but he adds a new twist. Smith claims that the excavation yielded Hart's jawbone "broken as in an interrogation." ( No kidding -- that's what he says. )
Well, as you see, there is a lot of foolishness surrounding SPECTRE 17 that has nothing to do with the 1?73 TH symbol. So, what about the symbol?
When I retired in March 1995, there had been no conclusion reached on the 1?73 TH symbol but we had what I believe was the answer. In fact, we were convinced that this was the answer, we just needed to nail down one more item.
Emmet Kay and the Recce Team
The last American captured in Laos was Mr. Emmet Kay. Kay was a pilot for the CIA-sponsored Continental Air Service, an air charter company that, for years, had been flying supplies to Royal Lao Army troops as well as flying special missions to insert indigenous reconnaissance teams. On 7 May, 1973, Kay was flying a Pilatus Porter, a short-take-off-and-landing aircraft used for missions in Laos and Vietnam. Kay's mission was to insert a six-man reconnaissance team of Hmong Lao and Thai, led by a Thai special forces major, Major Thao. Their mission was to monitor Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese military activity in one area of the Plain of Jars.
Kay was attempting to land and insert the team but ran into bad weather and was unable to land back at his home field. There are two slightly different versions of what happened next. Kay claims that he took a round through the engine and was forced to crashland into a hillside. Some of the Hmong were later interviewed and they claim that Kay ran out of fuel. Either way, Emmet Kay, the Hmong and Thai crashlanded into a hillside along a trail network that led directly to the main road in the area. The symbol was found between the crashed aircraft and the main road, along the trail network, at the junction of several trails.
When Kay told the Hmong that he was going to stay at the stricken aircraft, the Hmong
decided to leave the area and did so in a group of
Before Kay crashlanded the aircraft he was able to establish radio contact and ask for help. Major Thao, the Thai Special Forces officer, probably knew that search and rescue forces would be coming, and that he had to signal them in some manner - he might have made the symbol. The Hmong that returned to the aircraft was released after years in captivity, and was interviewed by US personnel. He stated that he knew nothing about the group making a symbol because he had returned to the aircraft. He did state that Maj Thao died in captivity.
DIA files contain an intercept of Lao communications in which a Lao military unit stated that it had captured Thai troops, and asked for instructions. This information suggests that there were other Thai personnel operating in the area who -- along with Major Thao -- are strong candidates for making the 1?73 TH markings in the grass.
Now, Lets' Tie It All Together
The 1?73 TH symbols were seen in the grassy area less than one mile from the site where Emmet Kay and his six passengers crashlanded and separated. When the photograph is examined, what you find is that the Emmet Kay aircraft came in on the side of a hill; there were trails leading off the top of the hill in several directions. Two of the trails ran directly to where the symbols were stamped out in the grass.
You Be the Analyst
The time has now come for you to be the analyst. Consider these facts:
Question: Who do you think made the 1?73 TH symbol and the Thai script?