The Brookline Connection
- Ensign James Charles Wonn
James Charles Wonn, of 753 Mayville Avenue, had a rather typical background that was very similar to thousands of boys from Brookline. He attended Resurrection Elementary School (Class of 1958), was a member of Our Lady of Loreto parish and graduated from South Hills Catholic High School (Class of 1962). Jim attended Duquesne University and enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1965. It was his desire to become an airline pilot. Since Navy pilots were highly sought by the airlines, this was the route he chose.
After Jim received his commission as a Navy officer and was awarded his pilot's gold wings, he transferred to the Pacific Fleet. He was acting as a classroom instructor at Miramar Naval Air Station (the future home of the Top Gun School) while he awaited a fleet assignment.
At about that time the Navy was tasked with a very difficult, very secretive, and very dangerous mission in Vietnam and Laos. They were looking for volunteers for aircrew duty. Jim and several other single pilots volunteered so that the married pilots, many of whom had children, would not have to go to Vietnam. These men formed a new squadron (VO-67) to help stem the tide of enemy infiltration into South Vietnam.
The Lockheed P2 "Neptune"
The Lockheed P2 "Neptune" was originally designed for submarine searching, using magnetic detection gear or acoustic buoys. Besides flying maritime reconnaissance, the plane served as an experimental night attack aircraft in the attempt to interdict the movement of enemy truck convoys. Another model, the OP2E, dropped electronic sensors to detect truck movements along the supply route through southeastern Laos known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail".
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was used by the North Vietnamese for transporting weapons, supplies and troops. Hundreds of American pilots were shot down trying to stop this communist traffic to South Vietnam. Many of them went down along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the passes through the border mountains between Laos and Vietnam. Nearly 600 of these servicemen were not rescued.
The Neptune had precise navigational equipment and an accurate optical bombsight. Radar was housed in a well on the nose underside of the aircraft, and radar technicians felt especially vulnerable working in this "glass bubble" nosed aircraft. It was believed that the aircraft could place the seismic or acoustic device within a few yards of the desired point. To do so, however, the OP2E had to fly low and level, making it an easy target for the enemy's anti-aircraft guns that were increasing in number along the trail.
Navy Observation Squadron VO-67
Operation Igloo White, originally known as Operation Muscle Shoals, was a covert United States Air Force electronic warfare operation conducted in southeastern Laos from late January 1968 until February 1973. This state-of-the-art operation utilized electronic sensors, computers, and communications relay aircraft in an attempt to automate intelligence collection. This system assisted in the direction of strike aircraft to their targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Naval Observation Squadron VO-67 borrowed technology from the submarine service to help track enemy troop and supply movements. The Ho Chi Minh supply trail running from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through southeatern Laos was hidden by a "triple canopy" of jungle growth. This new squadron dropped sensors along the trail to detect magnetic anomalies (trucks and tanks) and acoustic anomalies (troops).
Because the suspected location of the trail was so wide - in some places more than a mile wide - the best places to find concentrations of enemy soldiers and equipment was in deep gorges between mountains where the supply route snaked south. Here, the enemy could not fan out over a broad hidden path. They were closely concentrated and the sensors could pinpoint their positions. So, the aircrews in VO-67 had to fly their planes into these gorges and drop the sensors, typically from an altitude of only 500 feet.
When signals were picked up of enemy presence, U.S. Air Force bombers would flatten the area, requiring VO-67 to install new sensors the next day. The North Vietnamese put defensive anti-aircraft guns along these mountain sides. Soon, VO-67 airmen were flying through a hailstorm of anti-aircraft fire on a daily basis at extreme low altitudes.
During the Battle of Khe Sanh, the operational focus of Muscle Shoals switched to the besieged Marines at the fire support base. On January 22, 1968, the first sensor drops took place. By the end of the month, 316 acoustic and seismic sensors had been dropped in forty-four strings. The aircrews of VO-67 flew many missions in defense of Khe Sanh (sensor implants and ground attack). The Marines at Khe Sanh credited forty percent of intelligence available to their fire support coordination center to the actions of VO-67.
Operational Mission Over Laos
On February 17, 1968, an OP2E from Squadron VO-67 departed Thailand in a flight of four aircraft on an operational mission over Laos. The crew of the aircraft included Commander Glenn M. Hayden, pilot; Lt.Jg. James S. Kravitz, flight officer; Lt. Curtis F. Thurman, co-pilot; Ensign James C. Wonn, navigator; AO2 Clayborn W. Ashby Jr, ordnance; ADJ2 Chester L. Coons, plane captain; AN Frank A. Dawson, 2nd mechanic; ATN1 Paul N. Donato, 1st technician; and AN James E. Martin, aerial gunner.
The target location was along Highway 19, the primary road running from the Mu Gia Pass through the Steel Tiger sector of eastern Laos, then into South Vietnam near the US base at Khe Sanh.
After completion of the first target run, Commander Hayden reported to the accompanying fighter escort and Forward Air Controller that the aircraft had been hit by small arms fire but would continue with the second target run.
During the second pass, the fighter escort reported the starboard engine of the OP2E on fire. The Neptune acknowledged the report and aborted the rest of their mission. The plane started to climb into an overcast of clouds at 4000 feet in its attempt to return to home base. The fighter escort climbed to the top of the cloud overcast to await rendevous with the damaged OP2E. The Neptune never emerged above the clouds.
The last radio transmission from the aircraft was, "We're beat up pretty bad."
The fighter dropped below the clouds to search for the OP2E and found burning wreckage. No parachutes were seen, nor were any emergency radio beepers heard. Aerial search and rescue efforts were initiated, but found no signs of life around the wreckage.
Investigation of the crash site was not feasible because of enemy presence in the area. The aircraft crashed about 34 kilometers northwest of Xepone in Savannakhet Province, Laos. The crash site was situated 2,800 meters south of route 19 in rugged terrain on the side of a 550 meter ridge, approximately four kilometers northwest of Muang Phin. The aircraft was on a reconnaissance mission and carried no ordnance.
Because there was no direct witness to the crash of the OP2, it was not known whether any of the crew of nine survived, but assumed that they did not. All nine members of Crew-5 were classified Killed, Body Not Recovered.
A Grim Toll
The squadron lost twenty airmen over its relatively short seven-month combat history. Nineteen of these twenty were classified as POW/MIA for decades, giving this squadron the distinction of having the greatest number of POW/MIA casualties of any unit from any branch of service during the ten years of the Vietnam war.
For their actions at Khe Sanh and other combat missions, Naval Observation Squadron VO-67 was awarded The Presidential Unit Citation in May of 2008. This Citation is the unit equivalent of the Navy Cross and the highest award available to a military unit. This was one of only two such Citations awarded to a U.S. Navy unit for combat-related action in the last sixty years.
The Presidential Unit Citation was a long time coming for the veterans of VO-67. Due to the classified and top-secret nature of their operation, the United States was unable to acknowledge their missions over Laos, or even the existence of their unit, until the records of their accomplishments were de-classified years after the fact.
Ensign James Charles Wonn's Remains Returned - 1993
The crash site of VO-67 Crew-5's OP2E was located in rugged jungle covered mountains approximately six miles west of the town of Ban Namm which was located next to Highway 19; eleven miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam, nineteen miles northwest of the major communist city of Tchepone and 58 miles south-southeast of Mu Gia Pass, Savannakhet Province, Laos. The crash site was also located nine miles west-northwest of Binh Tram 34, an NVA way station used for a variety of purposes and 56 miles northwest of Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.
During 1992 and 1993, the Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTFFA) actively investigated this crash site first with a site survey, then four joint field excavations. The first excavation was conducted in February of 1992, with three subsequent excavations in 1993. There was also one unilateral turnover of some partial remains/wreckage/personal affects to U.S. personnel during this same timeframe.
The excavation resulted in the recovery of over 400 bone and teeth fragments, one gold crown for a tooth and one anterior permanent dental bridge. Also recovered were personal items including Lt. Thurman's Military Identification Card and his Sears Roebuck Credit Card. Additionally, other crewmen's ID cards and dog tags were recovered along with parts of nine parachutes and other pieces of the Neptune's wreckage.
The bone and teeth fragments were sent to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination. They were able to match two of the teeth fragments to the dental records of Chester Coons and he was identified on the basis of those teeth. The bridge and the gold crown were possibly attributable to specific individuals, but it was decided to keep them as part of the group identification.
After examining the bone fragments, CIL-HI personnel were only able to identify them as human/possibly human. Further, because they were so small and fragmented, no DNA testing was possible and no individual identifications for any of the Neptune's crew could be made based upon the bone fragments. On December 16, 1993, the final determination was that all the remains were considered to be a "group identification."
Interment At Arlington National Cemetery
On April 24, 1994, the nine members of VO-67 Crew 5, Commander Glenn M. Hayden; Lt.Jg. James S. Kravitz; Lt. Curtis F. Thurman; Ensign James C. Wonn; AO2 Clayborn W. Ashby, Jr.; ADJ2 Chester L. Coons; AN Frank A. Dawson; ATN1 Paul N. Donato; and AN James E. Martin were intered in Arlington National Cemetery in one grave bearing all nine names.
David Wonn, the younger brother of Ensign James Charles Wonn, now lives in Boston, Massachusetts. David shared some recollections of that special, yet difficult, time when the Wonn family was reunited with James after twenty-five years:
"When the remains of Jim's crew were recovered, the only positive identification that we had of him from the crash site was an Our Lady of Loreto medallion, measuring only 1" by 1", in near perfect condition. Jim's fiance gave it to him before he went overseas. It was given to her by Father Arthur Garbin, our parish priest. Our Lady of Loreto is the Patron Saint of Aviators."
"I was working in Washington, D.C. at the time of the recovery operation in Laos, so I attended briefings and post mortems on their findings at the Pentagon. They showed me pictures of all of the things and the actual objects that they found after literally sifting the soil at the crash site."
"You can imagine the emotions that run through you while sitting around a conference room table with several military officers and reviewing all of this. When they showed me that medal, it was pretty hard to keep a stiff upper lip because I knew it was his."
"He was finally home."
"My mother kept the medal until she passed away and now my sister is holding it."
Ensign Wonn Honored At Home
In 1994, Ensign James Charles Wonn was inducted into the Seton-LaSalle High School Hall of Fame. Seton-Lasalle High School is the successor to South Hills Catholic High School. A graduate of the Class of 1962, James was joined, in 2002, by Richard Lacey, Class of 1964, an Army communications specialist who went missing in Vietnam on January 31, 1968. Also a of the South Hills and familiar face in the community of Brookline, Sgt. Lacey's remains were never recovered.
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