Lost Over Laos

Scientists and soldiers combine forensics and archaeology to search for pilot Bat Masterson, one of 88,000 Americans missing in action from recent wars.

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Night closed over Laos, where clouds were piling up over the rugged mountain jungle. An American pilot, on a mission to disrupt enemy traffic bound for North Vietnam, was flying into trouble. The artificial horizon on his A-1 Skyraider, a single-prop workhorse of World War II vintage, had suddenly stopped functioning, making it impossible for him to gauge his position among the clouds.

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Dizzy and disoriented, Air Force Capt. Michael J. "Bat" Masterson radioed to a companion flying nearby that he was ejecting.

"I'm losing it and getting out," Masterson barked.

At this, the wingman, Air Force Maj. Peter W. Brown, began a sharp turn to avoid colliding with Masterson. Halfway through this maneuver, Brown saw an orange fireball light up the jungle. Masterson's plane was down. Brown noted the time and date—6:55 p.m., October 13, 1968. But where was Masterson?

Brown circled the crash site for more than two hours, searching for some sign of life, until his fuel gauge dipped dangerously low, forcing him to break off and return to home base in Thailand. Other aircraft took over the search at first light, scanning the site for hints of movement. There were none, just the fuselage of a Skyraider drilled into the steep mountainside, a pair of broken wings smoldering nearby, but no Bat Masterson. Had he parachuted to safety? Had he been captured by Pathet Lao troops, the Communists controlling this corner of Laos? Had he ridden his Skyraider into the ground?

Those questions would remain unanswered for almost 40 years—through clandestine night raids on Laos, through days of fighting along the border with Vietnam, through the sanguinary years that finally ended the war in April 1975. A long, hard silence followed, with little contact between the United States and its former enemies who controlled the battlefields of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The victors, more interested in rebuilding their lives than in helping Americans find lost compatriots, kept the doors closed until the scars of war began to heal. The impasse plunged more than 1,800 Americans listed as missing in Southeast Asia into a kind of limbo, like the wandering phi pheth ghosts of Lao tradition. Masterson—nicknamed for the frontier gambler and deputy marshal who shared his surname—became one of these missing souls, lost between the world of the living and the dead.

Meanwhile, back at home, Masterson's family held out the hope that he was still alive. Two daughters, ages 11 and 6 when their father disappeared, eventually acquired MIA bracelets engraved with his name, which they pledged to wear until his return. Masterson's wife, Fran, recalled one of her last conversations with Bat, who told her how he dreaded night missions over Laos.

After Fran got word of Masterson's crash, she flew to Southeast Asia to search for her husband while the war was still raging. After a few weeks, she returned to Upland, California, and continued to wait. She played and replayed the taped messages Bat had mailed home before his crash.

Years passed. She put the tapes away. Masterson was promoted, in absentia, to lieutenant colonel. Hope flared when his name appeared, along with 20 others, on a list of prisoners captured in Laos and transferred to Vietnam. But the others on that list, from a 1972 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, came home alive; Masterson, who had been included erroneously, remained at large. A decade after the 1968 crash, his status was routinely changed to missing in action, presumed dead. While many grass-roots activists believe that former enemies may still hold Americans captive, a lengthy investigation by Senators John Kerry, John McCain and others found no evidence of any POWs remaining in the region. Their 1993 report was unanimously approved by a Senate select committee.

Fran Masterson never remarried. She still dreamed about her husband, who was a boyish 31-year-old at the time of his disappearance. In those dreams he remained young, wandering the jungles just beyond reach. "Most of the time he doesn't know who I am," Fran Masterson told an interviewer in 2004. "Maybe it's the not knowing of what happened to him that makes it so hard." Frustrated by a lack of progress, she became a founding member of the National League of Families, an activist group that lobbies on behalf of missing service members, who are more numerous than one might imagine.

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