Vietnam veteran returns to airplane crash site 45 years later

Vietnam veteran returns to airplane crash site 45 years later

November 4th, 2018 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Vietnam veteran and former POW William A. Gauntt holds a piece of titanium from the engine of his airplane at his home on Lookout Mountain.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Vietnam veteran and former POW William A. Gauntt holds a piece of riveted air frame from the shot down airplane he flew.

Vietnam veteran and former POW William A. Gauntt...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


Name: William Gauntt

Age: 73

Branch: U.S. Air Force

Years of service: 1963-1989





Now-retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Gauntt was flying over North Vietnam Aug. 13, 1972, when his plane was shot down and he was captured as a prisoner of war.

He'd been in Vietnam for 10 months and was about six weeks from going home when he was shot down.

That August day, Gauntt and his crew had flown out from Northern Thailand on a mission to check for any enemy action. They were looking for troop placements, truck parks, missile sites, anything that showed the enemy was in the area.

"Anytime they moved, we wanted to know where it was going, where they were going," he said.

But that day, one of those missiles hit his plane and they started going down at about 7:30 a.m.

"I was in the parachute less than 10 seconds from deploying until coming down and hitting the ground," Gauntt said.

Unbeknownst to him, a boy and his family watched the plane go down. Gauntt wouldn't meet the boy until many years later.

After landing, Gauntt gathered his parachute, buried it in a hole in the ground and ran away from the crash site to hide. He found some tea leaf bushes that were about six or seven feet tall and dug a hole for himself under them and covered himself with leaves.

Gauntt had made contact with rescue forces, who pinpointed where he was and were on their way. But Vietnamese fighters also were looking for him, and they'd passed him at least three times before coming back with a dog.

"The dog went right straight to me. The guards had AK-47s, and they shot some of those at me. Called it an attention-getting step," he said. "So at that point I gave up."

Gauntt broke the antenna off the radio so enemies couldn't use it before they started moving. They'd walk for 40 days to Hanoi, Vietnam.

"In that infamous camp they call Hanoi Hilton," he said with a chuckle. "That was our facetious name for it."

Different rooms were nicknamed after big hotels in the U.S., Gauntt said.

"There was the Little Vegas room," he said. " It was sort of a code word to everybody 'cause [the Vietnamese] had no idea what we were talking about when we would mention those, but of course, all of our people knew."

Prisoners developed a special sign language, too. And they'd share whatever news they could with each other.

Gauntt spent nine months in captivity, and in January of this year he returned to the very site where his plane crashed.

Gauntt was on a group trip organized by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and he had the reports detailing the excavation of his site where they found the remains of his comrade, Lt. Francis Townsend. So he had a pretty good idea of where it was.

Using a map, the group traced the route back to a house where a group of men led them to the exact site of the crash.

They rode on motorcycles over a hill and came upon the site. It's a pond now, covering about an acre.

The boy, 9 years old when he saw Gauntt land, still lived nearby with a wife and two children of his own. He remembered the day Gauntt's plane crashed.

"He said, 'Yes, we found your seat right up there,'" Gauntt said. "'You were captured and taken away and we didn't know what happened.'

The man told Gauntt, "I'm here to take care of the [airplane] parts. I'm here to take care of the spirit of [Townsend]."

He then brought out three pieces of the plane — a part of the plexiglass canopy, a part of the air frame and part of a titanium blade out of the engine — and gave them to Gauntt. The man had been saving the parts in hopes of one day giving them to Gauntt's or Townsend's family members.

Gauntt said he's found some of Townsend's family, and he plans to visit them at some point.

"That's kind of the fascinating part of the return and closure of my time in the war time there," he said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfree or 423- 757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.