Review of American Countess Cruise: Visiting Memorial for POW of Vietnam War

On his 33rd birthday, Air Force pilot Colonel Charles E. Shelton was shot down over Laos on April 29, 1965.  Shelton was taking reconnaissance photos for his country during the Vietnam War.

“He was believed to have been captured but he was never released at the end of the war and his remains were never found,” says local guide Laura. “For almost three decades, his family worked to try and get him home. But it never happened.”

The memory of Shelton as well as others listed as prisoners of war and missing in action are honored at an impressive memorial in Owensboro, Kentucky. The memorial at Smothers Park is called the Colonel Charles E. Shelton Freedom Memorial.

Shelton stands with other POWs and MIAs in the memorial.

I had heard about the site and when our American Countess cruise docked in Owensboro, I took the ship’s hop-on/hop-off motorcoach to the riverfront park. On the ride, our guide Laura shared highlights of the town of 61,300, including the story of native son Shelton.

Raindrops had started to lightly fall when I got off the motorcoach which seemed appropriate for such a beautiful but hauntingly sad place. Shelton’s wife Marian had pushed the government for years to find her husband. She became the standard bearer for families fighting to bring loved ones home from the Vietnam War.

Shortly after the Shelton’s 38th wedding anniversary in 1990, Marian committed suicide with a gun in her San Diego garden. The five Shelton children petitioned the US government to declare their father dead because the family could not deal with the emotional agony any longer of believing him to be a POW.

The memorial honors those who lost their lives in serving their country.

“The government declared Shelton killed in action,” Laura says. “They had memorial services for him at Arlington National Cemetery in 1994 but the family still has not received evidence of his death and his body was never found.”

More than 2,200 are said to be still missing from the Vietnam War, many of whom, like Shelton, were known to be alive in the hands of the communists but were not released at the end of the war nor have their remains been returned.

When Shelton’s photo reconnaissance aircraft was hit by ground fire, the pilot had to parachute to ground. He was in contact with his wing man, Capt. Richard Bilheimer, who watched Shelton land with no injuries.

Shelton’s family tried to free him from POW captivity.

Several hours later, two rescue aircraft arrived, spotted Shelton on the ground and communicated with him through radio. But a rescue effort had to be called off because of darkness and deteriorating weather conditions. For three days Shelton evaded capture. On May 5, 1965, the search for Shelton was called off and he was declared “Missing in Action.”

However, information began filtering in that Shelton was captured after three days on the run. But government officials didn’t want information about Shelton and his heroism known because it would admit U.S. involvement in the war.

Years after the war, Marian used the Freedom of Information Act to gather records from reluctant government agencies. Stories surrounding Shelton’s resistance as a prisoner are legendary. He fought back during interrogations and escaped several times.

He reportedly killed three of his captors with a metal chair. After that, Shelton was kept in a hole with a grate over it, guards standing over him around the clock, the family was told.

A poem written by LeAnn Thieman is engraved around the memorial.

The memorial in Shelton’s hometown recalls a young man who was a starter on his Owensboro High School football team. An engraving on the large memorial shows his family at the time he was shot down. On the other side of the memorial is a large engraving of Shelton, his bound hands broken free, surrounded by other POWs and MIAs.

On stones surrounding the memorial is a poem titled “Come for Me,” written in 1987 by LeAnn Thieman.

Twenty years in the jungle has taken its toll on me.

I’m not the same man I used to be.

But one thing’s consistent – I long to be free.

Please, Mr. President, come for me.

 

The scars of my torture will never go away.

I’m fifty pounds lighter.

My hair is now gray.

But their shackles can’t chain the freedom in me.

Please, “mighty” lawmakers, come for me.

 

If my family believed there’s a chance I’d survived,

They’d fight to their deaths to prove I’m alive.

Please, lovin’ family, come for me.

 

Some captors say you don’t know that I’m here.

That I’m doomed to this prison year after year.

God bless America, the land of the free.

Please, friends and parishioners, come for me.

 

Other captors say you know I’m here

But refuse to accept the evidence so clear.

Will some citizen hear my plea?

Please, fellow countrymen, come for me.

 

I’ll have faith in my country ‘till my dying day.

I’ll never believe you could leave me this way.

My country tis of thee

Please, please, America, come for me.

 

Bottom Line: Cruises are supposed to be a happy carefree time and the American Countess trip is definitely that. But it is good to pay homage to our POWs and MIAs at this loving memorial on our stop in Owensboro, Kentucky. As a stepping stone says at front of the Charles E. Shelton Memorial, “Enjoy your freedom. It has been paid for.”

 

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

 

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