This series is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in the August 2015 American Legion Auxiliary Magazine. Look for the remaining parts of this series in the days and weeks ahead. Please remember: More than 83,000 servicemembers are still classified as either prisoners of war (POWs) or missing in action (MIA).
Remembering Col. Charles E. Shelton
Col. Charles E. Shelton, the last listed Prisoner of War (POW) from the Vietnam War, had been flying over northern Laos as part of a reconnaissance mission when his plane was hit by enemy fire. His wingman saw him parachute to safety.
The date was April 29, 1965. Shelton’s family had been waiting for his return to their home at an Okinawa, Japan military base that night so they could celebrate his 33rd birthday. The youngest of his five children, Joan, was only 18 months old at the time.
Several hours later, two rescue planes spotted Shelton, who radioed to them that he was in good condition. However, bad weather and enemy fire delayed his intended rescue for days. During that period, villagers reported seeing Shelton captured by members of the Pathet Lao militia.
In the decades that followed, Marian was haunted by the question of “What if?” as she relentlessly followed up on both rumors and confirmations that her husband was still alive. She even went into Laos illegally in 1973 to search for answers. After the years turned into decades, Marian committed suicide in 1990. She, too, became “a casualty of the Vietnam War,” her son John told The New York Times in recounting his mother’s endless search for word of her husband’s fate.
Four years after Marian died, the U.S. Air Force changed Col. Shelton’s status from POW to Killed In Action, at the request of the couple’s children.
On Oct. 4, 1990, they gathered at their mother’s tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery to honor their father during a brief service. However, at the time, two of the children said they were still not convinced that their father was no longer alive.
Those are the types of doubts that plague the families and friends of the POW/MIAs, according to Laura Mosby — an American Legion Auxiliary Department of Missouri member and 2014-2015 national Central Division vice president. For the past several years, she has been wearing bracelets that honor the memories of POW Col. Charles E. Shelton and his wife, Marian — who devoted 25 years to trying to find information on Shelton’s whereabouts.
“As unfortunate as it is for a family who has been notified that their loved ones have been killed, at least they have closure,” Mosby said. “We have family members of 83,000 servicemen and women who have no closure.”
“To read that story about Col. Shelton’s wife and what she went through — it makes you think about how many other wives, fathers, mothers, family members have gone through their lives never knowing,” added Mosby, who raises awareness about POWs and MIAs through speeches and by participating in memorial services. She also wears T-shirts, bracelets, and other gear to serve as reminders of POW/MIAs.