Thirty eight years ago a young Army Ranger Private First Class was reported missing in action while on a long range Reconnaissance mission in the A Shau Valley, Republic of South Vietnam. This is his story:
PFC James Champion
April 24, 2009 by Leave a Comment
On 8 February 1971, South Vietnamese President Thieu announced Lam Son 719, a large-scale offensive against enemy communications and supply lines in that part of Laos adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The mission was to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would provide and command ground forces, while US forces would provide airlift and supporting fire. Phase I, renamed Operation Dewey Canyon II, involved an armored attack by the US from Vandegrift Base Camp toward Khe Sanh, while the ARVN moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border. Phase II began with an ARVN helicopter assault and armored brigade thrust along Route 9 into Laos. ARVN ground troops were transported by American helicopters, as the US Air Force provided cover strikes around the landing zones.
After Lam Son, the ARVN all but abandoned western I Corps and the demilitarized zone (DMZ), thereby yielding immense areas to the communists. Ominously, in April Special Operations teams discovered a new road coming out of Laos just north of the A Shau Valley, pointed dangerously toward the populated coastal plain north of Hue. They uncovered the NVA making massive improvements to an existing road pointed directly at the DaNang area. Heavy NVA forces made penetrations all but impossible, and it was as if a curtain were being lowered to conceal their activities.
On 23 April 1971, then PFC James A. Champion and PFC Isaako F. Malo were riflemen assigned to a six-man radio relay team on a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) being inserted into the infamous A Shau Valley to report on NVA activity. After receiving intense enemy ground fire at their primary landing zone (LZ) on the west side of the valley, the team was inserted into their alternate LZ near the village of A Luoi on the east side of it.
The LZ was located in the west side of the mountain range that overlooked the east side of the valley. It was also situated between two peaks in what is commonly referred to as a “saddle” approximately 1 mile southeast of the NVA’s new road and 2 miles northwest of a river that flowed along the east side of the jungle covered A Shau Valley. This new road ran east-west where it entered South Vietnam north of the A Shau Valley, then ran from the northwest to the southeast along the east side of the valley where it ran next a river that flowed through it. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the valley, the road turned sharply to the northeast where it headed directly toward Hue. The LZ was also located approximately 6 miles northwest of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, 22 miles southwest of Hue, 44 miles southeast of Khe Sanh and 58 miles west-northwest of DaNang, Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam.
The NVA’s new road was a major addition to the notorious 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.
After disembarking from the helicopters at 1500 hours, the radio relay team leader, Marvin Duren, took the point position. Shortly after the team began to move away from the LZ, he was severely wounded by enemy automatic weapons fire, grenade and rifle fire. The team’s alternate team leader, John Sly, took command of the patrol. He was hit by enemy fire and killed in a heroic attempt made by the team medic and himself to drag Marvin Duren out of the line of fire.
CWO Fred Behrens, an experienced Medevac helicopter pilot, volunteered to fly the emergency extraction mission to rescue the wounded soldiers, as well as the rest of the team. CWO Behrens volunteered for this mission because he felt his chance of success to extract the team from this hot LZ were better than other less experienced pilots. During his second attempt to extract John Sly his helicopter was shot down. The 4-man aircrew found themselves on the ground with the LRRP team fighting for their lives. Shortly thereafter in the continuing attempts to rescue the embattled Americans, a second helicopter was shot down by the vicious enemy ground fire. The Aero Rifle Platoon, which was being brought in as reinforcements, was forced to withdraw under intense ground fire and regroup. Over the next three days the intense battle around the downed aircraft continued.
At the same time the battle was raging on the ground, a search and rescue (SAR) operation was in full swing to recover both downed aircrews and the radio relay LRRP team. The SAR effort employed both a wide range of ground and air assets.
On 24 April, the Americans on the ground were widely dispersed around their defensive position on the LZ and were engaged in vicious combat with NVA forces. US airstrikes were called in nearly upon themselves in order to force enemy troops away from the American’s perimeter. During one of these airstrikes, PFC Malo was wounded by shrapnel from a close-in air strike made by a US Cobra gunship. At approximately 1600 hours on 24 April, Issako Malo disappeared. When the others realized he was gone, they searched the immediate area as best they could while notifying SAR personnel of the situation.
.At approximately 1500 hours on 25 April, PFC James Champion was armed with an M-16 rifle and in good shape when he left the team’s defensive perimeter next to one of the downed helicopters to look for water. After being rescued, Fred Behrens reported he heard shots coming from the direction PFC Champion headed, but could not provide any additional information as to PFC Champion’s fate.
A reaction force from Company L, 75 Infantry was finally inserted into the area and successfully drove the NVA elements away from the embattled American position. The survivors and the dead were evacuated. No one ever told the survivors the size of the enemy force they came up against; however, it was a large enough force to warrant an Arclight strike by B-52 bombers.
From the time both Rangers failed to return to the landing zone through 30 April, an intense and protracted series of ground and aerial searches were made for them. On 25-28 April, a psychological warfare operations aircraft was used to make broadcasts calling for the two soldiers to return to the landing zone for pickup. Unfortunately, neither one came to the LZ. At the time the formal search was terminated, James Champion and Issako Malo were listed Missing in Action.
Later information was received by US intelligence confirming that Issako Malo had been captured and his status was changed from Missing in Action to Prisoner of War. After his release from captivity on 27 March 1973 during Operation Homecoming, PFC Malo stated to his debriefers that he became separated from the other Americans and managed to evade capture until the morning of 25 April. After capture, the NVA moved him north and he was eventually imprisoned in North Vietnam. Further, he reported that at no time during his imprisonment did he see or have any contact with PFC Champion.
If James Champion died during this loss incident, he has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. Likewise, there is no doubt the enemy could return his remains any time they had the desire to do so. However, if he survived, there is no question he would have been captured by the same NVA troops who captured Issako Malo, and his fate like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.
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 America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight 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.
If you ever have a chance to see the Vietnam Memorial Wall or if the Moving Wall comes to your town, you will find SSG Champions name on Panel 03W Line 008. Think of him and remember him and all the other young men and women who went off to serve their country and never returned.
1SG David Bowman, US Army, retired.