- Solitary Survivor: The First American POW in Southeast Asia
Lawrence R. Bailey, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was the first member of the American military to be captured and imprisoned by forces hostile to the United States in Southeast Asia after World War II. On 23 March 1961, while serving as assistant Army attaché at the U.S. embassy in Vientiane, Laos, then-Major Bailey hitched a ride to Saigon in a C-47–type aircraft flown by a young Air Force lieutenant. The plane was manned by a crew of five other U.S. servicemen and carried one other passenger. The flight was supposed to be a milk run. The only warfare in Laos at the time consisted of a series of "ill-defined and inconsequential skirmishes far away from Vientiane" (p. 3). Few if any Americans even knew about the confrontation between Royalist Laotian forces and the Communist Pathet Lao, aided by a group of rebel "Neutralist" paratroopers, under the command of Captain Kong Le and heavily supported by the Viet Minh and Soviet Union. Americans had not yet entered the fray, at least formally.
Prior to takeoff, Bailey was given the choice of the sole backpack parachute on board or one of the several chest packs. The backpack had to be worn all the time and was uncomfortable. Chest packs consisted only of the harnesses, with the actual parachute kit stowed in the aircraft's cargo compartment, to be clipped on if needed. Hence, most crew members preferred the much more comfortable chest packs. But Bailey, perhaps because of his experience with backpacks while flying B-29s in World War II, chose the backpack. Approximately 30 minutes later, this decision was to save his life. He was the sole survivor of the flight—hence the title of the book.
That C-47, code-named Rose Bowl, turned out to be no ordinary cargo aircraft. It was equipped with photographic and electronic surveillance devices, and its mission on that March day was to deviate from a scheduled flight from Vientiane to Saigon and pass over the Plain of Jars to try to pinpoint a navigational beacon used by the Pathet Lao to guide Soviet supply aircraft into one or more landing strips during inclement weather. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the North Vietnamese had begun moving antiaircraft artillery onto the Plain of Jars, and it was one of these weapons that scored direct hits on Rose Bowl. Because Bailey already had a parachute strapped to him, he was able to exit the aircraft before it broke up and crashed. His parachute brought him safely to earth, but he sustained serious injuries, including a broken left arm and badly bruised feet and legs. He was unable to walk and decided to hail the first human beings he saw on the ground, hoping they were friendly. They were not, and Bailey began his seventeen months of captivity in Laos.
This book is Bailey's story, as told to professional writer Ron Martz. Bailey describes his ordeals at the hands of Kong Le's forces that captured him, with Vietnamese doctors who treated his injuries, and as a prisoner of the Pathet Lao. He was not tortured or used for propaganda purposes (p. xviii). Instead, he was stripped of everything he owned and held in solitary confinement for more than a year. This isolation [End Page 156] was devastating to him, confining him to the "cold dark void" of his cell. He "fought with time every day, trying not to be overwhelmed by its enormity and praying for something to happen that would speed its passage" (p. xviii). For strength, he harkened back to his upbringing in Waycross, Georgia, the independence and self-sufficiency he developed while living apart from his divorced father and mother, and the role model set for him by his grandfather, whose sense of fairness, work ethic, and devotion to family and faith contributed to the inner strength necessary for Bailey to endure solitary existence in faraway Laos.