Family of Air America Pilot Say Goodbye
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gayle Herrick Holt was 15 when frightening news reached the family home in San Antonio. Her father, Charles G. Herrick, had been shot down in a cargo plane in faraway Laos.
It was September 1963 and Laos, while officially neutral, had become a focus of U.S. covert operations against communist rebel forces allied with the North Vietnamese army. The U.S. government _ which kept secret the fact that Herrick was flying a CIA-owned plane _ told Holt’s mother, Margaret Louise, only that her husband was presumed to have died in the crash.
No body was recovered, no details were offered.
And for Gayle Holt, the tragedy had no finality.
``In my mind there was always a question: Is he alive? Is he not alive?″ she recalled.
Seven days after the crash, a headline in her hometown newspaper in San Antonio said he ``may be alive.″
Herrick was not alive, but that reality did not reach Holt until May 2000 when, out of the blue, her family got a telephone call from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. A bone recovered from the crash site in Laos might be her father’s.
``It was a neat, neat shock″ to finally learn the truth, she said.
On Wednesday, after nearly 40 years and two U.S. excavations of the crash site, Herrick’s remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony with full military honors.
``This to me is a celebration,″ Holt said in a telephone interview from her home in Modesto, Calif., before flying to Hawaii to take possession of the remains. ``He’s home finally. He’s where he belongs.″
Herrick was flying for Air America, an airline based in Taiwan that was secretly owned by the CIA. It was used to deliver weapons, food and supplies to Laotian regular forces as well as Hmong tribesmen who were enlisted for guerrilla operations in communist-held areas of Laos.
The remains of Herrick and Joseph Cheney, the pilot-in-command on that fateful mission in 1963, were recovered over a period of years starting in 1989 and finally identified in the past year. Among the items found at the crash site was a radio microphone marked with Herrick’s initials.
Herrick and Cheney are, respectively, the second and third Air America civilian fliers _ of approximately 100 who perished in Laos from 1957 to 1974 _ to have their remains recovered, positively identified and returned to their families, according to Pentagon and Air America records. The first was Lowell Z. Pirkle, a flight mechanic who was shot down over Laos Aug. 3, 1967; his remains were identified in 1998.
Herrick had been flying missions over Laos for less than a year from a base at the capital, Vientiane, when his C-46 Commando plane was shot down on Sept. 5, 1963. The mission was to airdrop bags of rice and buffalo meat to Laotian soldiers. He was 44 years old.
It is not clear Herrick knew he was working for the CIA, since he was not a staff employee; most of Air America’s hires were told the airline was property of the Pacific Corp., but they were not told that Pacific Corp. was a CIA front company.
The CIA did not publicly acknowledge the wartime role of Air America and its predecessor, Civil Air Transport, until June 2001, when it issued citation awards to former employees.
One year after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Air America disbanded and its planes were sold.
Herrick was born in Buffalo and grew up in Lockport, N.Y. He played semiprofessional ice hockey in Canada before he enlisted in the U.S. military in 1943. He flew supply missions in the China-Burma-India theater _ in support of Chinese troops fighting on the side of the Allies against Japan _ during World War II.
The family’s scant records of Herrick’s military career indicate he flew in the Korean War at the rank of Air Force captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. When that conflict ended in 1953 he switched to the Air Force Reserve until he retired as a major in April 1963.
When Herrick joined Air America in 1962 he was sent to its main base on Taiwan. His wife and two children in San Antonio were going to join him in January 1963, but that plan was scrapped when Herrick was transferred to Vientiane.
Michael LaDue, a former assistant chief of aerial delivery for Air America, remembers Herrick in Laos and estimates they flew together on about 10 missions to drop food, fuel and sometimes weapons, mostly to Hmong tribesmen.
Herrick was a quiet professional who aspired to move up from co-pilot to command pilot, LaDue said.
``He had the right amount of self-assurance,″ LaDue said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
It is not clear who shot down Herrick’s unarmed, twin-engine plane, but LaDue thinks it most likely was North Vietnamese soldiers. The plane was loaded with rice and meat for delivery to soldiers of the regular Lao army at Ban Houei Sane, a village in southern Laos a few miles from the Vietnam border, LaDue says.
Only Herrick and Cheney died in the crash. The five crew members in the rear of the plane parachuted and were captured in the jungle by soldiers of the Pathet Lao, the communist rebel forces. Of those five, only one lived to tell about the ordeal, and LaDue is one of the few people who ever heard the story in person from the single survivor, a Thai named Pisidhi Indradat.
LaDue also was in charge of a rescue mission that arrived at the crash site about two days later. The C-46 had crashed nose first, collapsing onto itself like an accordion, he said.
The rescue team was chased off by gunfire, and the U.S. Embassy overruled their plan to return to the scene later.
The last words from the air crew were recalled by Thomas A. Krohn, an Air America operations manager in Laos. In a telephone interview last week from his home in Las Vegas, Krohn recalled being summoned urgently to the radio room at his operations compound at the Vientiane airport. He believes he communicated with Herrick, who said the plane had been hit by ground fire south of Tchepone, a known stronghold of North Vietnamese forces.
``He said, `The wing is on fire; we’ll get back to you,′ or something like that,″ Krohn recalled.
Then only silence, followed by years of waiting by the Herrick family for a final goodbye.
On the Net:
Air America Association: http://www.air-america.org