50 Years After This Airman Disappeared In Vietnam, Investigators Made An Astonishing Discovery

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It’s 1968 and three A-6 Intruder planes take off from USS Enterprise for a mission over Vietnam. For the two-man crew of one of those craft, this mission will not turn out well. But it will be more than 50 years before the full story about one of the airmen, navigator and bombardier Lieutenant Richard C. Lannom, emerges.

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The pilot flying the A-6 with Lannom aboard was Lieutenant Commander Thomas Scheurich. It was 6:00 p.m. on March 1 when the trio of planes took off from USS Enterprise on a foggy evening with heavy cloud. All three A-6 crews reported that both radio reception and their weapons were in good order after take-off.

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Once clear of the Enterprise, the three planes went their separate ways, two to attack North Vietnamese Army barracks at the port of Cam Pha, the other to attack a bridge. It was 37 minutes after take-off that Lannom and Scheurich radioed what was to be their last message, “Execute.” That meant they were just minutes away from their target, the Cam Pha Barracks.

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Now close to the target and as ordered, Lannom’s plane turned its identification transmitter off. This was presumably to avoid detection by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries. The plane also disappeared from radar as it was flying at the low altitude of 2,500 feet. To all intents and purposes, the A-6 was now undetectable except by the human eyes.

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The three planes had a pre-arranged rendezvous point where they were to meet after completing their missions. That location was intended for a situation when one or more of the planes had lost radio contact or sustained damage. Two of the planes arrived on schedule. But there was no sign of Lannom and Scheurich’s aircraft.

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The two crews that made it to the rendezvous searched the area for the missing craft, but found nothing. They then tried to raise their buddies on radio. When there was no response, they alerted search and rescue. They, too, drew a blank and no emergency signals from the Intruder were detected. Nor did they spot any wreckage. The mystery was complete. It seemed that Lannom and Scheurich had disappeared into thin air.

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When Lannom and Scheurich disappeared in March 1968, the U.S. was well and truly embroiled in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese communists, with the support of their Chinese allies, howevercalled the conflict the “Resistance War Against America.” In fact, the fighting in Vietnam is seen by many as part of the Cold War, the decades-long dispute that pitched America and her allies against communist countries, led by the Soviet Union.

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At first, the American forces stationed in the country were classed as military advisors. In 1964 23,000 of them had amassed there. Then in March 1965, the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. A Marine force of 3,500 men landed on the Vietnamese coast. And by the end of that year, there were 200,000 American soldiers in the state.

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A turning point in the war came in January 1968 when the North Vietnamese launched a massive assault, the Tet Offensive. This involved over 85,000 North Vietnamese fighters attacking more than 100 South Vietnamese cities. Fighters even attacked the American Embassy in the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. Many towns fell to the communists and two more large-scale attacks quickly followed.

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The two-month long Tet offensive left 4,000 U.S. military personnel dead and 45,820 wounded. Indeed, the situation was so serious, it’s said that even nuclear weapons were considered for use by U.S. commander General Westmoreland. This idea was swiftly abandoned, however, once President Johnson’s White House got wind of it, leading to Westmoreland’s replacement in March 1968.

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So when Lannom and Scheurich took off from USS Enterprise on March 1, 1968, the Vietnam War was at its most intense. We’ll take a closer look at the details of their mission in a little while. In the meantime, let’s learn more about the two men’s backgrounds and how they ended up serving in Vietnam.

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Thomas Edwin Scheurich was born in 1933 and brought up on his parents’ farm near Norfolk, Nebraska, along with his brother and two sisters. He was a student at Norfolk Junior College and graduated from there in 1953. After that, he attended pre-flight training at the Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air School.

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Scheurich went on to become a qualified pilot of the Grumman A-6 Intruder. This was an assault plane specifically designed as an all-weather craft and was one of the main planes used by the U.S. Navy at the time of the Vietnam War. And it could carry up to 18,000 pounds of bombs, making it a highly effective attack plane.

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The A-6 often flew at low altitudes to deliver its deadly payload. And that is just what Sheurich and Lannom were doing on their mission to bomb Cam Pha barracks. Unfortunately, this low-flying meant the A-6 was a target for anti-aircraft weapons. And, in fact, the military lost 84 of the planes during the course of the conflict.

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When the Vietnam War got under way, Sheurich actually volunteered for active service despite being 35 at the time. Towards the end of 1967, he deployed to the USS Enterprise. And that, of course, was the ship from which he and his navigator, Lieutenant Lannom, took off on their March 1 mission in 1968.

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Sheurich’s flying partner, Richard Clive Lannom – who inherited the nickname “Tito” from his father – was born in Union City, Tennessee in 1941. A keen athlete at school, he went on to attend the University of Tennessee, where he studied business administration. And it was while at college that he met his future wife, Charlotte.

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Lannom graduated from college in 1965 and, from there, signed up for the Officer Candidate School, also in Pensacola. The young airman started out flying in C-130 Hercules planes but then transferred to the Intruders. He then received training for them at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state. And, like Sheurich, he joined USS Enterprise at the end of 1967.

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With both Lannom and Sheurich aboard, Enterprise sailed from Sasebo, Japan, in January of 1968, bound for the Gulf of Tonkin. En route, the ship was diverted by an incident in the Sea of Japan. The North Koreans had captured a U.S. spy vessel and the Enterprise took part in a show of force during this crisis.

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However, as we saw earlier, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam on January 30. So, the Enterprise resumed its journey to the Tonkin Gulf on February 16. Her specific destination was Yankee Station, a mustering point at sea for U.S. Naval forces some 90 miles off the North Vietnamese coast.

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Enterprise arrived at Yankee Station on February 21 and airborne combat missions commenced the very next day. On the 23rd, despite bad monsoon weather, Attack Squadron 35’s A-6 Intruders headed out on their first mission of the deployment. They attacked the North Vietnamese port at Hanoi, the country’s capital city.

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Attack Squadron 35 was Lannom and Sheurich’s unit and this first mission to Hanoi was judged a success. Concerning these types of A-6 missions, it’s worth noting the words of Admiral William F. Bringle, the vice commander of the Seventh Fleet, quoted on the P.O.W. Network website. They give a flavor of what men like Sheurich and Lannom were up against.

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Admiral Bringle said, “The low-level night missions flown by the A-6 over Hanoi and Haiphong were among the most demanding we have ever asked our aircrews to fly. Fortunately, there is an abundance of talent, courage and aggressive leadership in these A-6 squadrons.” The missions Lannom and Sheurich undertook, then, were no cakewalk.

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And the A-6 crews continued to fly in the heavy rains and stormy weather that characterize the north-east Asian monsoon season. Indeed, it’s been said that the airmen actively welcomed these bad conditions which persisted through February and into March. Their aircraft were specially designed to cope with the conditions and the bad weather offered the planes a cloak of concealment from the enemy.

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But let’s return to March 1, 1968. Three A-6s took off from the Enterprise at 6:00 p.m. that day. The lead aircraft, number one, was crewed by pilot and squadron commander Glenn Kollman. Navigating was Johnny Griffin. Lieutenant Commander Greg Young was flying the second plane, with Lieutenant Bill Siegel as navigator. And Lannom and Sheurich were in plane number three.

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Kollman’s plane was to attack the strategically important Thanh Hoa Bridge. Planes two and three, however, were heading for the Cam Pha barracks, about 90 miles from Hanoi. After the three planes had taken off from the Enterprise, they met up at pre-ordained point just off the North Vietnamese shores. After final weapons and communications checks, it was time to fly to their targets.

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Kollman headed west for the seemingly indestructible bridge, while the other two planes, led by Young, set a course northwards for Cam Pha. The approach to this target was fraught with difficulty. The sea was dotted with small islands by the hundred, many with jagged rock formations reaching to the sky. This made low-altitude flying particularly perilous.

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And the mission was made no easier by the fact that there was a heavy concentration of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses in the very area the crews were flying into at low altitude. Young sped in for his attack at 1,500 feet. Sheurich came on the radio to say he was about to attack as well. Young’s plane then dropped its bombs.

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After the airmen competed their bombing missions, the three planes were to meet up again at the same rendezvous point they’d started out from, south-east of the island of Bao Lai Tao. Aircraft one, with Kollman and Griffin, plus aircraft two, crewed by Young and Siegel, were present and correct. But there was no sign of Lannom and Sheurich.

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The two A-6s waited as long as they could in the hope that Lannom and Sheurich would show up. But eventually, with fuel running low, they had no choice but to return to the Enterprise. As they made their way back to the carrier, they radioed the ship to report their comrades missing. The next group of planes due to make an attack from the aircraft carrier then jettisoned their bombs and instead went to search for the missing A-6.

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Lannom and Sheurich’s Navy comrades now made a thorough search for the pair. The Intruder Association website later carried an interview with Bob Benjamin who had been a member of Attack Squadron 35 at the same time as the two missing men. And he’d been flying in one of the planes that ditched their bombs to help with the search.

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“As I remember it was a clear, but dark, night,” Benjamin explained. “If there was a fire on the ground [from the wreckage] we should have been able to see it, but we didn’t. We found neither fire nor a survival radio signal. We searched the area near Cam Pha, the islands south, west and east of Cam Pha and even went north as far as the Chinese border looking for any sign of the
wreckage. Nothing.”

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Ominously, Benjamin also added, “Cam Pha on a dark night was almost impossible to find on radar; it was a place that was tailor-made to get disoriented; the [limestone] formations and the mountains behind Cam Pha made low-level flying deadly.” And, as a result of the fruitless search, Lannom and Sheurich were declared missing in action.

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The naval authorities then announced that Sheurich and Lannom’s plane must have gone down about 29 miles from Cam Pha in the Bay of Tonkin. But the truth was that nobody really knew where the plane had ditched – or even crashed. Perhaps the men had ejected near their target before being captured by the communists. But it was all speculation.

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Nobody knew for sure whether Lannom and Sheurich were dead or alive. But there was still the possibility that the pair had survived and were being held in a North Vietnamese P.O.W. camp somewhere. This, after all, had been the fate of many other U.S. airmen. But this, too, turned out to be a blind alley.

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After the U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, just under 600 American prisoners of war were released. Sadly, neither Lannom nor Sheurich were among them. And even now, there are still men that haven’t been accounted for. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, in fact, 1,592 Americans remain missing as of December 2018.

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The years passed and the families of Lannom and Sheurich were left in limbo, not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. In 1978, however, the Navy declared that Sheurich was no longer missing in action. Instead, he was now presumed dead. But for both families, there was still no grave to grieve over.

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But that wasn’t the end of the story for Lannom’s family. Indeed, employees of the Office for Seeking Missing Persons, a Vietnamese state organization, tracked down some local witnesses to a 1968 incident. They’d seen a U.S. plane crash on the densely forested island of Tra Ban, just off the coast of the mainland.

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One witness gave a convincing account of visiting the site where an American plane had crashed. The location was a mountain top on Tra Ban, near a village called Na San. The man also said he’d found a helmet belonging to a pilot. Another local witness described hearing an explosion one night. These testimonies were compelling enough to prompt the Vietnamese authorities to take further action.

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In 2017, a team from the Office for Missing Persons visited Tra Ban. There, they found plane wreckage and human remains. The following year, the remains underwent DNA analysis and a positive identification was made. It was Lannom. At last, after a 50-year wait, his family finally knew what had happened to him.

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On March 2, 2019 Lannom was buried, 51 years and one day after his death. His final resting place is in his hometown of Union City, T.N. The airman’s wife, Charlotte, spoke to CBS News. “I just want him to know how proud I have been all of these years, to have been his wife… I would just like to be able to tell him,” she said. Sadly for Thomas Sheurich’s family, however, his remains are yet to be discovered.

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