By Kevin Leonard
11:30 AM EDT, September 5, 2013
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."
The front page of the Aug. 25, 1962, Washington Post, ran the headline, "Families Embrace Freed Prisoners of Laotian Reds on Arrival Here." The article and photos described the return of Bailey, and another POW freed by the Geneva Agreement, to Andrews Air Force Base. Bailey's first words to his wife were, "My, but you're pretty."
The article reported that Bailey had dropped from 185 pounds to 122, but his wife, Betty, told him, "You look just fine." The Bailey's children, Barbara, 18, Lawrence III, 16, and Elaine, 14, as well as his mother-in-law, Eunice Waybright, were also on hand to welcome the major home.
Bailey was taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital to recuperate. His room contained telegrams and letters from Laurel Mayor P.G. Melbourne and virtually every Laurel civic organization: Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, Jaycees and Women's Club.
President John F. Kennedy visited and pinned a Bronze Star for "meritorious cold war gallantry" onto Bailey as he lay in his hospital bed. According to the Post, Kennedy told Bailey that "the medal was an inadequate token of affection for a test in many ways more exacting than service on a battlefield."
While still at Walter Reed, News Leader Publisher Gertrude Poe paid homage to Bailey on the front page: "Major Bailey is a hero not only to his family but to a nation indebted to him, and to a hometown in which he will find many newfound friends and acquaintances when he finally returns to his home on Greenhill Avenue."
Melbourne proclaimed Oct. 20, 1962, Major Lawrence R. Bailey Day and the city planned for weeks to stage a parade and banquet. Details of the festivities were reported by the News Leader.
The elaborate parade started at the bridge on Route 216 entering Laurel from Howard County, turned left onto Main Street, and then turned right on Fourth Street, ending at Montrose Avenue, where the reviewing stand was constructed.
Leading the parade were Bailey and his family, Melbourne and other city dignitaries and numerous Army officers. The long parade was a combination of civilian and military participants, including school bands from Laurel Senior High and Glenelg Senior High, and color guards from the American Legion and National Guard. Fort Meade and the Army were well-represented by the U.S. Army Garrison, a 164-man marching unit from the 120th Transportation Company; a WAC detachment from the Army Garrison; the Second Army Band; a Color Guard from the 35th Artillery Brigade; and a missile float from the 35th.
The banquet that night was organized by the Laurel Jaycees and held at Laurel Junior High, which is now the Laurel Municipal Center on Sandy Spring Road. Three hundred people jammed the school's auditorium for the banquet, where Bailey received the key to the city from the mayor and attendees heard a moving tribute to the major from Lt. Gen. John S. Upham Jr., commanding general, 2nd U.S. Army.
Proceeds from the banquet were used to set up the Lawrence R. Bailey Jr. Honor Scholarship, to benefit selected students graduating from a high school in Laurel. The Citizens National Bank of Laurel managed the scholarship fund, and Laurel organizations such as the Rotary Club supported it with donations.
The News Leader extensively covered the banquet with stories and photos. In his remarks to the crowd at the end of the evening, Bailey concluded by paying tribute to his hometown: "It's a waste of time to say I'm glad to be home. But I am glad to be home, and I'm glad to be home in Laurel, Maryland."
When he returned to active duty four months later Bailey was assigned as the chief of aviation at Fort Meade. In February 1965, he left Laurel for Sandia Base, New Mexico, eventually divorcing his wife, Betty, and remarrying. He retired from active service in 1970 as a colonel, and now lives in North Carolina.
In 2003, Bailey told his story in a book co-authored by Ron Martz and titled "Solitary Survivor: The First American POW in Southeast Asia." In the book, Bailey briefly describes his Laurel homecoming and the remainder of his Army career.
Remembering his 1962 hometown welcome in a phone interview this month, Bailey, 90, said he was "completely overwhelmed" by his reception.
"I was still trying to get used to being free," Bailey said. "I wish I had been more settled to enjoy it more. It was very heart-warming to have all those folks turn out and treat me in the fashion they did."
In his book, Bailey describes an emotional return to Laos 30 years after being set free, in an unsuccessful search for the house where he was imprisoned.
"It was a big disappointment when I went out there, that I could not find the house," Bailey said. "But all I saw was the inside of that house; I had no way to navigate and my only memory of geography was through the window."
After the death of his second wife, Jean, Bailey and his first wife, Betty, remarried in 2007.
"We brought the family back together," Bailey said.
Melanie Dzwonchyk contributed to this story.
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-776-9260.