Sheldon John Burnett
Colonel, United States Army

 

Name: Burnett, Sheldon John
Service Number: 395287149
Rank/Branch: O5 (LtCol) / US Army
Unit: Headquarters Troop, 1st Squad, 1st Cavalry, 23rd Infantry (Americal) Div
Date of Birth: 9 Jun 1931
Place of Birth: Milwaukee WI
Home City of Record: Pelham NH
Race: Caucasian
Religion: Lutheran
Date Southeast Asia Tour Began: 18 Oct 1970
Date of Loss: 7 Mar 1971
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 163700N 1063250E (XD653388)
Status (1973): Missing In Action
Status (1979): Dead/Body Not Recovered
Status (2005): Dead/Body Recovered/Buried - Arlington National Cemetary
Aircraft/Vehicle: OH58A "Kiowa" Scout Helicopter
Date of Declaration of Death: 29 May 1979

Other Personnel In Incident: Phil Bodenhorn; Jerry Castillo (rescued); Randolph J. Ard

Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews.

 

LAM SON 719 was a large offensive operation against NVA communications lines in Laos in the region adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. The operation was a raid in which ARVN troops would drive west from Khe Sanh on Route 9, cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail to sever the supply lines for Communist forces in South Vietnam and Cambodia, seize Tchpone, some 25 miles away, and then return to Vietnam. The ARVN would provide and command the ground forces, while US Army and Air Force would furnish aviation airlift and supporting firepower. The 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) commanded all US Army aviation units in direct support of the operation.

Most of the first part of the operation, begun 30 January 1971, was called Operation DEWEY CANYON II, and was conducted by U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. The ARVN met their halfway point on 11 February and moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border.

On 8 February, ARVN began pushing along Route 9 into Laos. The NVA reacted fiercely, committing some 36,000 troops to the area. The ARVN held its positions supported by U.S. airstrikes and resupply runs by Army helicopters.

President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered a helicopter assault on Tchepone, and the abandoned village was seized on 6 March. Two weeks of hard combat were necessary for the ARVN task force to fight its way back to Vietnam.

Randy Ard had been in Vietnam only a few weeks when an emergency call came in for him to fly the squadron commander to a platoon command post to work his way down to his Third Platoon, which was in ambush in the northwest segment of South Vietnam. He flew his OH-58A "Kiowa" Scout chopper from the 5th Mech and picked up Lt Col. Sheldon Burnett, the squadron commander; and Capt. Phil Bodenhorn, Alpha Company commander.

Ard mistakenly flew past the command post and west into Laos. Seeing yellow marking smoke, he took the chopper down lower. It was too late to pull up when they heard the sound of an RPD machine gun and AK-47's. They had been tricked into a North Vietnamese ambush.

The helicopter went down fast, and smashed into the brush, coming down on its side (or upside down, depending on the version of the account). Ard and Burnett were trapped in the wreckage, but alive. Ard got on the radio and began mayday calls. Bodenhorn and Castillo, who had been in the rear seat, got out of the aircraft. Bodenhorn managed to free Ard, but he had two broken legs and possibly a broken hip. Burnett was completely pinned within the wreckage and injured, but alive. Bodenhorn and Castillo positioned themselves on opposite sides of the aircraft for security and expended all the colored smoke grenades they had, marking their position for rescue.

Bodenhorn and Castillo soon heard North Vietnamese approaching, and killed these Vietnamese. The two listened for nearly an hour as others advanced towards their position from two directions, and 155 artillery rounds impacted very near them. They couldn't understand why they were not being rescued, unless it was because the enemy was so close to them. A helicopter flew over, but took heavy fire and left. They decided to leave Ard and Burnett and escape themselves. They told Ard, who nodded wordlessly. Burnett was drifting in and out of consciousness. Both men were alive.

Bodenhorn and Castillo worked their way to 80 yards away when a UH1C came in on a single run, firing flechette rockets which seemed to explode right on the downed chopper. Later, they watched an F4 roll in for a one-bomb strike over the crash site. Ard and Burnett were surely dead.

Bodenhorn and Castillo were rescued by ARVN troops an hour later. Ard and Burnett were classified Missing In Action. The story was released to reporters at Khe Sanh three days later. The army spokesman accurately described the ambush, but told the press that Burnett had been in radio contact with the ambushed platoon, and that he and Ard had appeared dead to the two escaping officers. The names of the survivors were not released.

General Sutherland stated, ".. the decision was not made to employ the Air Cavalry and the Hoc Bao to attempt to retrieve either LtCol. Burnett alive or his body. ..Burnett had no mission nor units in Laos. He had no reason or authority to take his helicopter over the Laotian border."

After 11 days of heavy resistance, the 11th ARVN Airborne Battalion fought their way into the area where the helicopter had crashed. They searched the wreckage and the surrounding area for several days, but found no sign of the two missing men or any of their belongings or anything to indicate that either man was buried in the area. North Vietnamese prisoners later interviewed in South Vietnam reported sightings of U.S. POWs being escorted north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail but none could be correlated to the two missing officers. Neither officer was ever reported alive in the North Vietnamese prison system.

Both individuals were reported missing and in May 1979 were declared "Dead/Body Not Recovered".

In 1989, a large part of this loss incident was still classified.

 

There can be no question that Randy Ard and Sheldon Burnett were abandoned by the country they served.

 

Losses in LAM SON 719 were heavy. The ARVN suffered some 9,000 casualties, almost 50% of their force. US forces incurred some 1,462 casualties. Aviation units lost 168 helicopters; another 618 were damaged. Fifty-five aircrewmen were killed in action, 178 were wounded, and 34 were missing in action. There were 19,360 known enemy casualties for the operation lasting until 6 April 1971.

Nearly 600 Americans were lost in Laos during the war in Vietnam. Although the Pathet Lao stated on several occasions they held "tens of tens" of American prisoners, Laos was not included in the agreements ending American involvement in the war, and the U.S. has not negotiated for the freedom of these men since that day. Consequently, not one American held in Laos has ever been released.

These Americans, too, were abandoned.

 

Sheldon J. Burnett graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1954. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel during the period he was maintained missing.

Closure

At the 2001 POW/MIA families meeting, Col Burnett's daughter, Trish Burnett, spoke with an Army officer and managed to have her father's case reclassified as a higher priority. That, along with improving relations between the United States, Laos, and Vietnam, helped speed up the investigation.

In 2002, Col Burnett's son, Mike, received a package from the U.S. Army that included interviews with the Vietcong soldiers who had shot down his father's helicopter. Since then, the family received more information about every six months, Trish Burnett said. The soldiers who shot down the helicopter showed American officials where they had buried Ard and Col. Burnett, and the Army told the Burnett family that the site would be excavated in September. In October, the Army asked for DNA samples. In November, an Army officer called Trish: They had found and positively identified Sheldon Burnett's teeth.
"Mike called right away," Jones said. "We both cried. I felt hurt because I'm the type of person, I was still holding out hope that he'd still be alive."
When the full report arrived in February, Mike Burnett could finally put to rest the many theories he'd developed about his dad's fate. "All these years, he's been dead," he said. "He died that day."
For Trish Burnett, the report brought her relief, but it also ended hope she had held onto for so long. "If they wouldn't have found him, I never would have to believe that he was dead," she said. "For his sake, he's where he should be," she said. "He's not lying in a shallow grave anymore. I'll have a place to go."

Sheldon Burnett was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on 13 April 2005. His date of death was etched into a head stone made for him years ago at the West Point Cemetery, where his son and wife are buried.

With Col. Burnett's case closed, only five troops from New Hampshire remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Nationwide, that number is 1,840. Trish Burnett said she will continue to attend league meetings to support families that are still searching. "Just because my dad's back doesn't mean I should walk away from everyone else," she said.

 

Col. Burnett's name is written on "The Wall" - Panel 04W, Row 031

 

 

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