The specially modified, intelligence-gathering C-47 plane lifted off from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, March 23, 1961, and headed north toward Xieng Khouangville, a Communist-held area. The experienced Air Force crew was accompanied by Army Maj. Lawrence R. Bailey, a Laurel resident serving as the assistant Army attache in Vientiane. Bailey always wore a parachute when he flew.
His habit would save his life that day, and lead him into a prisoner of war experience that was reported in detail in the News Leader after his return as a hometown hero.
The crew's objective that day was to determine the frequencies used by Soviet pilots to locate a jungle airfield hidden under a dense fog. Anti-aircraft fire suddenly burst all around the plane.
As the rest of the crew scrambled to don parachutes, one of the wings was sheared off by the intense fire. Bailey was the only crew member able to jump from the burning plane, which plummeted in a tailspin.
Throughout the 1950s, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam Conflict consisted mostly of military advisers. It was in 1961 that the escalation of troops started in earnest. From 1961 to 1962, U.S. troops in Vietnam increased from just over 3,000 to more than 11,000.
At its peak in 1968, more than half a million American troops were there.
Bailey's long military career started in 1942, when he enlisted as a 19-year-old aviation cadet in the Army Air Forces. After receiving his wings and commission in March 1944, he spent the remainder of World War II flying B-29 combat missions in the Pacific.
After six years in the Reserves, he returned to active duty in 1951 and served as an aviation officer during the Korean War.
In 1956, he was sent to Fort Meade, and his family settled in Laurel, on Greenhill Avenue behind the Laurel Shopping Center.
As Bailey recalled his ordeal in an interview with the News Leader in 1962, after jumping from the burning plane he landed on a mountainside, with "a dangling broken arm, an immobile leg, and painful cuts and bruises." He could see smoke from the wreckage about a quarter mile away.
Bailey cut a line from his parachute and painfully bound his broken arm to his side. "A supreme effort to crawl away was futile and he looked around hopefully for signs of friendly hill Laotians," reported the News Leader.
Unfortunately, he was found by Communist troops, who ordered him to raise his hands.
As Bailey struggled to stand up with his injured leg, he pointed with his good arm to the broken, bound one. The soldiers fired at him but missed as he dropped back to ground. They carried him to a Jeep in the jungle, which took him to a primitive field hospital.
A doctor set his arm and treated his other injuries. He was now the first official American prisoner of war in the Vietnam Conflict (which was not yet referred to as a war).
For the next 17 months, Bailey was held captive and, as described in the News Leader: "Interrogation started which was to continue almost uninterruptedly for two months. They threatened his life at gunpoint, subjected him to days of starvation, and in many other brutal ways tried to force him into denouncing the United States and giving them vital information about U.S. military strength and plans in Laos."
When the interrogation and beatings stopped, Bailey was taken to a house. He was confined to a small room with a fireplace, which his captors only let him use a few times. The windows were boarded up, and the room only contained a wooden bed and a bedpan. He was in near-total darkness.
Bailey described to the News Leader how he survived the solitary confinement: "He was able to persuade the guards to give him a worn dust broom and he scraped away at the floor in the darkness in an effort toward order, but mostly for exercise. He imagined his room … a suite. One corner he reserved for his dining room where twice a day he ate a monotonous and inadequate diet of rice and tiny smoked fish complete with head. … Imaginary partitions in the black room converted another corner into his toilet, while another was reserved for refuse, and the other his bedroom."
Set free by Geneva Agreement
On July 23, 1962, an agreement was signed in Geneva by 15 nations. The Geneva Agreement, also called the Geneva Accord of 1962, declared that Laos was a neutral country and banned other nations from interfering with its internal affairs. The agreement was almost instantly violated, but all POWs in Laos were set free.
The Washington Post reported Bailey's impending release: "The family of Army Major Lawrence R. Bailey, of Laurel, Md., are at last raising their hopes for the Major's early return from imprisonment behind the Communist rebel lines in Laos. … According to the Geneva Agreement ratified yesterday, all prisoners are to be freed within 30 days of the signing."