Though it had been declared obsolete
in 1956, the Fairchild C123 Provider, which was a converted WWII glider, became
one of the mainstays of tactical airlift in the Vietnam War. In 1962 the
Provider was fitted with special equipment to spray defoliants. Later, it was
modified with a pair of J-85 jet engines which increased its payload carrying
capability by nearly one third. The first of these modified C123s arrived at Tan
Son Nhut on 25 April 1967, and this venerable old aircraft proved to be among
the hardest working aircraft throughout Southeast Asia. The C123K differed from
other C123 models in that it had the addition of auxiliary turbojet engines
mounted in underwing pods. While this addition did little to increase the speed
of the "Provider", it added greater power for quicker climbing on
takeoff, and power for maintaining altitude.
On 13 December 1968, 1st Lt. Thomas M.
Turner, pilot; 1st Lt. Joseph P. Fanning, co-pilot; 1st Lt. John S. Albright,
II, navigator; 1st Lt. Morgan J. Donahue, navigator; SSgt. Douglas V. Dailey,
flight engineer; TSgt. Fred L. Clarke, loadmaster and then SSgt. Samuel F. Walker, Jr., loadmaster;
comprised the crew of a C123K aircraft, call sign "Candlestick 44."
Their night Forward Air Control (FAC) mission was to guide several B57B bombers
onto a convoy of enemy trucks traveling along Routes 911 and 912. These routes
were cut through the rugged jungle covered mountains approximately 2 miles north
of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), 14 miles northwest of Ban Namm, 18 miles
southwest of Ban Loboy, 35 miles northwest of Muang Xepon and 26 miles southwest
of the Lao/North Vietnamese border, Savannakhet Province, Laos. Additional data
places the loss approximately 47 kilometers northwest of Xepon, 3 kilometers
east of Ban Kok Nak and Route 411, and 1 kilometer southeast of Ban Pa Dong.
This area of eastern Laos was
considered a major artery of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. 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.
Flying at an altitude of no more than
2000-3000 feet, the Provider crew's mission was to spot enemy truck convoys
traveling along the trail, then to drop flares to illuminate the area for the
accompanying bombers to attack. As the navigator responsible for monitoring the
infrared detection device, Morgan Donahue laid on his stomach in the underbelly
of the Provider to observe the situation through an open hatch. Weather
conditions at the time were clear with a half moon, ground fog, no wind and no
cloud ceiling. At 0300 hours, as the crew of the C123K guided a B57B, call sign
"Yellowbird 72," onto an enemy convoy, the FAC was jolted by a blow to
the top of their aircraft in the aft section by the overhead bomber as it
approached the target. Major Thomas W. Dugan, pilot; and Major Francis J.
McGouldrick, co-pilot; comprised the crew of Yellowbird 72. 1st Lt. Turner,
stunned by a blow to the head and lost consciousness as his aircraft lost power.
Because of its glider configuration, the C123K did not fall straight to the
ground, but drifted lazily in a slow flat spin that lasted several minutes.
During his post-rescue debriefing,
Thomas Turner reported: "Yellowbird 72 made either one or two passes over
the target and received no ground fire while Candlestick 44 maintained position
in our quadrant at altitude. While the bomber conducted its strikes, I began a
run to our left in order to stay in our own quadrant, yet be able to scope to
clear the previous strike (to observe the bomber's attack pass and its pull off
of the target). Just as we rolled out straight and level, I looked out the
window and saw the strike area. The next moment there was an explosion and the
aircraft was out of control. I was knocked unconscious for several moments. When
I came to, I turned in my seat and could see the co-pilot's seat was empty and
fire was coming into the cockpit from the fuselage area. I turned to the left
and opened the window, then unbuckled by seatbelt. I looked out at the wing tip
and could see the wing tip and that the left engine was still running. The next
minute I was out and clear of the aircraft. I pulled the "D" ring when
clear to deploy my parachute. On my descent I saw another parachute below me and
2 or 3 fires on the ground. At that time I was unaware of the other aircraft's
fall, and didn't know if it was one of the fires on the ground or not." 1st
Lt. Turner went on to say: "I landed safely in a treetop where I remained
until search and rescue (SAR) personnel rescued me at dawn. I did not hear any
of the other crewmen come up on the radio, and I understand that the only beeper
the SAR aircraft heard was mine."
Members of other aircrews provided
additional information about this loss incident. One witness stated he saw a
steady stream of enemy anti-aircraft artillery fire aimed in the direction of
the aircraft just before the large explosion caused by the collision. Several
other witnesses reported there was a large explosion that broke the aircraft
into three parts shortly after the initial explosion.
After plucking Thomas Turner out of
the tree, aerial SAR personnel continued to search for the other crewman in the
rugged jungle covered mountains. Because this area was under total enemy
control, no ground search was possible. At 0900 hours on 15 December, the formal
SAR effort was terminated when no trace of the remaining crew could be found. At
that time John Albright, Morgan Donahue, Douglas Dailey, Joseph Fanning Fred
Clarke and Samuel Walker were listed Missing in Action. Likewise, no trace of
the B57B crew was found and they were also declared Missing in Action at the
Over the years numerous reports
filtered through the intelligence community regarding the crew of the Provider
including National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted enemy radio communications
correlated to at least 3 of the missing men. In 1974 a Laotian refugee who
escaped reported having observed an American prisoner thought to have been a
member of this aircrew who had been moved to the caves near Tchepone where he
was held during the 1968 to 1970 timeframe. This American was later transferred
to another location unknown to the refugee. Another intelligence report received
shortly after the loss incident indicated that Morgan Donahue suffered a broken
leg in the mishap and was believed to have been taken to a communist holding
area near Tchepone after capture. Several reports referring to "Moe-gan"
or "Mr. Moe-gan" have been received by military intelligence since the
end of the war. Frequently this prisoner is referred to as "the animal
doctor" because he is being used as a veterinarian to treat sick and
injured animals. These reports have come directly from refugees to the Donahue
family as well as through US government agencies.
From 1981 to 1984, the Special Forces
Detachment, Korea (SFDK) was charged by President Reagan with the responsibility
of collecting live POW information throughout Southeast Asia. SFDK was commanded
by Major Mark Smith, himself a returned POW from the Vietnam War. Through his
efforts, and those of team Intelligence Sergeant Mel McIntire, an agent net of
50 agents was established, specifically in Laos. This intelligence net resulted
in Major Smith compiling a list of some 26 American POWs by name and captivity
location with Morgan Donahue being one of them. In April 1984, Major Smith
received a message from one of his agents specifying that on 11 May three US
Prisoners of War would be brought to a given location on the Lao/Thai border.
The only prerequisite was that an American be on the Thailand side of the border
to receive the men. When this information was reported up his chain of command,
Major Smith's team was ordered not to leave Korea, to destroy all documents
pertaining to LIVE POWs and they were sent back to the United States 6 months
early. According to Major Smith and SFC McIntire, they believe Morgan Donahue
was one of those three Prisoners who could have been returned on 11 May 1984.
This documented information was provided to the United States Senate Veterans
Affairs Committee in sworn testimony on 28 January 1986.
In June 1987 and again in August of
that year, the Donahue family was given intelligence reports tracking their
youngest son's movements from a POW camp in Kham Kuet, Khammouane Province, Laos
in the spring of 1987, then to another camp in the Boualapha District of the
same province that August. These reports were only a few weeks old at the time
the USG obtained them, yet intelligence personnel marked them
"routine" and made no effort to act upon the information. One of these
reports stated that the POW had been a crewman aboard a C123K aircraft and gave
its serial number. When government analysts finally evaluated the report, they
discovered that the aircraft number was actually the missing navigator's
father's home zip code instead of the aircraft's number. The Donahue family
believes this is clearly a message from Morgan Donahue.
The crew of the C123K are among the
nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Like this aircrew, many of these
men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding
"tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never
negotiated for either by direct negotiations between our countries or through
the Paris Peace Accords which ended the Vietnam War since the Laotians were not
a party to that agreement.
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 POWs remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Aircrews in Vietnam and Laos were
called upon to fly 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