The Last Vietnam P.O.W.'s fate remains a mystery
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) - A Kentucky man was forgotten in the Vietnam War--but not by his family, who wants his legacy to live on.
Col. Charles Shelton was the last prisoner of war of the Vietnam era.
WDRB's Rachel Collier explains the mystery of this hero's battle and his family's own struggle to find answers as to what happened to him.
A time of turmoil in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. More than a thousand Americans missing in action or being held prisoner with families back home, waiting for answers. "One day we got abrupt notice that he's been shot down. Initial report is that they did in fact have contact with dad," said Michael Shelton, of his father.
Michael Shelton was nine years old, living in Okinawa, when his dad, Colonel Charles Shelton, a pilot in the air force, was shot down over Laos in 1965 on his 33rd birthday. "He was running around free for 3 days and then captured. He didn't come home immediately, and it parlayed into never coming home," said Michael Shelton.
He remembers his father: "I do remember distinctively dad being very affectionate towards his children, picking me up, tickling me, throwing me up in the air, stuff like that," said Michael Shelton.
The youngest of five, Joan Shelton was only 18 months old when her father was shot down. She has no memories of him. "None. but you know, tons of stories," she said. "Mom always said I wrote like him and thought like him and just reminded her of dad a lot."
Their mother, a whole diferent kind of prisoner. Marian Shelton's hands were tied, trying to get answers for decades about what happened to her husband. "I consider my dad a prisoner of war and my mom was MIA because she was so had so much fervor to try to get dad home because we knew he was alive for so many years."
Some answers came--stories about their dad's courage while held captive. "Just outright belligerent and assaultive if he could get away with it," Michael explained. "Dad was deemed incorrigible by his captors.
After escaping a few times, he was kept in a hole in the ground with a grate over it--guards standing over him 24/7. Charles Shelton stood his ground and protected his country. "Dad also was known to have been during an interrogation, he beat 3 men to death. He I'm sure at that point in time, I would think that they probably killed dad," said Michael.
There were conflicting reports for years--they never knew if their father was still alive or dead. Many Americans who were POW's or MIA were declared dead by the U.S. government. Marian Shelton wouldn't allow it. Not without getting answers....and that meant going to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1973. "She snuck into Laos illegally, she was a real go-getter," said Joan, "she would not let them push this under the rug."
Colonel Charles Shelton has never been found. "This issue has haunted our family our entire lives. It has left a scar on each of us. But, the biggest scar was on mom." said Michael.
The headlines changed over the years about the missing air force pilot, shifting focus to his courageous wife. Little by little, the mystery ate away at Marian. "It just took over. It enveloped her," said Joan.
It took a piece of them all. "I'd say, 'Mom, we're here, dad's not here, but we're here.' So it was very hard," said Joan.
There was the agony of not knowing, the false hope of a false lead. "All of us were very torn during that era. We didn't know what to believe," said Michael.
The weight kept baring on Marian's shoulders. "Her only brother was MIA in WWII. So she'd been through a lot," Joan explained.
In 1990 Marian committed suicide. "She just couldn't take any more. She was totally immersed in trying to find out what happened to her husband," said Joan.
Just a few years later, the five children made a decision to put it all to rest. " I still think we may get answers some day. Or we might get some remains. You never know."
They pushed and had the government declare the last official prisoner of war from Vietnam, killed in action. Col. Charles Shelton was remembered in a full service at Arlington National Cemetery.
A chapter closed but wounds are still open. "I feel sad. It's still a little bit hard for me to talk about it," said Joan.
Their lives have been filled with aguish, heartache and hurting. But there are often sweet spots in life. The brother and sister take a trek from Louisville to West Point, Kentucky to meet a woman who knows their story.
For decades, Norma Brewer has taken an interest in the Shelton family--all because of a P-O-W bracelet she bought in 1973. She had no idea she would get a bracelet with a Kentucky man's name.
"When I got that bracelet, everybody was buying them. But they was wearing them. I was going to save mine and when he come home, I wanted to give it to him," said Norma Brewer sadly. "Oh bless your heart," Michael responded. "But he never did, (come back)," Norma finished. "No he never came back," Michael confirmed.
Norma thought about the Shelton's often, clipping articles and jotting down notes about the family--including the names of Colonel Shelton's five children. She saved the articles in the very 16-cent stamp envelope her bracelet came in. An envelope postmarked in Louisville, one that Michael very well may have packed himself. "I remember packing 100s of these and sending them out all over the country," he recalled.
An exchange of bracelets, a telling of stories, a story through articles and pictures. "Well he sure was a fine looking young man, how old was he?" Norma asked while inspecting a framed photo of the young airman, "33" Michael responded.
"So he had 5 kids before 33?" she laughed. "Oh yeah, they started right away. (having children)," Michael explained.
It's a chapter in Norma's life that is closing. "We sure appreciate your prayers all those years Norma," said Michael. "Ohhh I know you do," said Norma.
Turning over years of articles, scrawled with handwritten notes of hope. "It's almost like Norma was an angel all these years overlooking dad's fate," said Michael.
"What really touched me was her giving us the bracelet that she wanted to give to my dad."
Colonel Charles Shelton is commemorated in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. Standing tall and strong, in the forefront of the memorial named after him.
On the other side, the Shelton family that was left behind. "The families that are left behind suffer a great deal also."
another kind of hero.
"I think it's a story and it needs to be told other Americans need to know and we need to raise the future generations to know," said Joan.
"I often will wonder what our lives would be like if we hadn't lost dad, and I'm sure it would be monumentally different," said Michael.
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