WHEELER, JAMES ATLEE

Remains Returned 22 April 1998; Identified 21 August 2001
Name: James Atlee Wheeler 
Rank/Branch: Captain/US Air Force 
Unit: 1st Air Commando Squadron,Composite 
Bien Hoa Airbase, South Vietnam 

Date of Birth: 10 February 1933
Home of Record: Tucson, AZ
Date of Loss: 18 April 1965 
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 102921N 1045451E (VS906594) 
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Killed/Body Not Recovered 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A1E "Skyraider"
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing) 

REMARKS:  CRASH TARGET AREA - J

SYNOPSIS:  In May 1964 the 1st Air Commando Squadron turned in their tired T28D aircraft for the versatile Douglas A1E Skyraider "wide-body" attack aircraft. With its fantastic capability to carry an unusually wide range of ordnance (8,000 lbs. of external ordnance), great flight range (out to 3,000 miles), and the ability to absorb punishment, the A1 became one of the premier performers in the close air support and attack mission (nickname Spad) and RESCAP mission (nickname Sandy) roles. The Skyraider served the Air Force, Marines and Navy throughout Southeast Asia until the end of the war.

On 18 April 1965, Captain James A Wheeler was the pilot of an A1E Skyraider in a flight of aircraft that was conducting an interdiction mission against Viet Cong (VC) activity just south of the South Vietnamese/Cambodian border in the southern most region of South Vietnam. The area was laced with rivers, canals and waterways of all sizes and flowing in all directions. Villages and hamlets surrounded by rice fields dotted the landscape. The VC had several strongholds in this sector, including one in the village of Ba Chuc, Tri Ton District, An Giang Province, South Vietnam.

As the Skyraiders flew low over Ba Chuc, enemy gunners fired at them. Capt. Wheeler and the pilots immediately turned around to attack the enemy position. Other pilot's watched Capt. Wheeler as he made his dive-bombing attack on the village. They observed him release a fragmentation bomb, then saw it detonate immediately upon leaving the aircraft. They watched in horror as the Spad dove straight into the ground trailing fuel and smoke, and exploded upon impact. None of the pilots saw the canopy or ejection seat leave the aircraft before impact.

The crash site was located in the center of Ba Chuc between two legs of the same road, Highway TL55. It was also 70 meters from a small pagoda and 300 meters east of the western-most portion of the road. Further, a large number of huts surrounded the Spad's wreckage. James Wheeler was immediately declared Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

In 1994, a US/Vietnamese team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Ba Chuc to conduct a field investigation into the fate of Capt. Wheeler. The team found that the village as it existed at the time of loss no longer exists today. The terrain in the 100-meter by 100-meter search area believed to be the location of the crash is flat and grassy with bamboo, small trees and shrubs. The team's investigation found no signs of aircraft wreckage, no remains and no sign of a burial site.

US personnel did interview a Vietnamese who said he witnessed the crash. According to this witness, after the Spad was downed, he saw the nose and tail of the aircraft about 7 meters apart. He said he also observed a pair of boots and a human foot lying on the surface of the ground near the wreckage, but did not see any other remains in or around the crash site. He told the JTFFA team members that when US forces arrived about an hour later, he left the village. When he returned two days later, the boots and human foot were gone. He did not believe the aircraft wreckage had been disturbed or scavenged at that time.

When the American members of the JTFFA team returned to Hawaii where their detachment is stationed, they attempted to follow up on the Vietnamese witness's statement that "US forces arrived about an hour later." They could find no record of any US personnel ever being at Ba Chuc on or about the date of loss to search for Capt. Wheeler or of any such troops finding and recovering "the boots and human foot" the Vietnamese referenced.

During the February/March 1998 Joint Field Activity (JFA), another JTFFA team returned to Tri Ton District to conduct an excavation of the Skyraider's crash site. While marking off a grid 20X20 meter square, the American team members noted that the entire sector had been heavily scavenged over many years. The team excavated to sterile soil, which in some areas was only 20 centimeters deep and in other places a maximum of 90 centimeters below ground - a depth of roughly 3 feet.

In addition to small pieces of wreckage that confirmed this crash site was of a Skyraider, the team recovered extremely small bits of glove and flight suit material, helmet shell pieces, parts from a camera, a safety buckle and a piece of cord from the communications system. They also found and recovered 12 small bone fragments, but no teeth or parts of teeth.

Vietnamese officials first inspected the bone fragments before turning them over to US control. The recovered bone fragments were transported to the US Army's Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for a thorough forensic examination. Because of the size and condition of the bones, mt-DNA testing to establish a conclusive identification was not possible. The identification of James Wheeler's remains was determined by the location of the crash site and type of aircraft identified during the excavation. After CIL-HI's staff completed its work, the remains were returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

For the family and friends of James A. Wheeler, they finally have the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies. For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate 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 American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots in Vietnam were called upon to fly 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.