Leland Sorensen returns after successful trip to Laos

Leland Sorensen returned from his search for a downed pilot who was left during the Vietnam War 45 years ago. Although the remains weren’t found on the trip, they located the area where the pilot went down. They found his military identification card laying on top of the ground.

“As I think about my time in Laos, I sometimes want to ask myself if all of that really happened. Did we really find David T. Dinan’s military ID card? Was it really his card just lying there on top of the ground? I didn’t just dream it, did I?” Sorensen said.

When Sorensen left Idaho he flew to Honolulu, Hawaii and met with members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and they showed him what they do and how they do it. From Honolulu he was to fly to Guam, but they had a typhoon so they were rerouted to Kadena Air Base in Japan. During that flight he lost a day. They took off on Saturday night and landed on Monday because they crossed the International Dateline.

From there they flew to U-Topao Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. He spent the night in the Amari Hotel in Pattaya, Thailand. Pattaya is on the ocean, but they were told to stay out of the water because the ocean is polluted. From there they traveled to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It sits just over the border of Thailand. Then they flew to Phonsavan, that is called the Plain of Jars. It is one of the few spots in Laos that is relatively flat, Sorensen said. From there a couple of helicopters took them to Kham Muang – the base camp. There are guest houses on the base camp and they stayed in those houses. Outside the door of the guest house was a tent with an armed guard stationed. There were also tents with armed guards stationed around the dried rice patties used as the landing area for the helicopters.

Sorensen said it was hard to get used to the time there. It is a 12 hour difference between Washington D.C. and Laos. There was a satellite phone so he could communicate with home, but because of the time difference he had to get his wife, Laura, up at 5 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time.

There are many restrictions in Laos and it has only been in recent years that JPAC has been allowed in to look for remains. They are only allowed to go in once a year from the first part of March until about mid April. The helicopters cannot start until 7:30 a.m. and they have to be completely stopped by 4:30 p.m. A Laos official has to ride on every trip the helicopters take and, depending on where they go, city officials also ride to the areas where they are excavating.

Sorensen said the JPAC is separated into two different teams – the Investigative Team (IT) and the Recovery Team (RT). He went on excavating trips with the RT for a few days until the IT joined them at the base camp. In the excavating, they took off the topsoil in the areas and put the soil through sieves to find anything that could be remains of bodies, parachutes, planes, etc. The particular site they were excavating was a site where a plane was suppose to have hit the side of a mountain. He had flown under the clouds to drop his bomb and pulled up into the clouds. He was not ever seen again by his wing man, so they figure he hit the side of the mountain.

To do the excavating, they divide the area off into four meter squares called units. One or two units are done at a time, depending on the manpower available. Sorensen said the unit he was working on found a couple of lead ballasts. He was later told sometimes they put lead ballasts into a plane to level out the weight.

On March 11 the IT joined the base camp. They were allowing Sorensen three days to help locate the area where Dinan went down.

On Wednesday, March 12, Sorensen was asked where the best place to look was. He suggested the last new position that was reported of his rescue mission would be a good place to start.

During the war the rescue missions were traced from a few different places and the location could be off by a couple of miles. Those positions changed as the location of the copter changed.

The helicopter flew around that area and Sorensen said there is no way that was the area because there were steep cliffs and peaks. They then went to the next to the last reported position and that was not it either. Sorensen said he was looking for a grassy slope with tree lines all around it. It was also suppose to be at about 3,500 feet.

Sorensen said the area has changed so much because of the way the Laos people farm. They go into a forested area and burn it all to kill the trees. After the trees are dead they will go in and burn all the trees down to ashes. They use the ashes as fertilizer and make their rice patties and farm that area until the fertilizer is gone. Then they move on to another area. He noted the area could have been burned and farmed two or three times during the past 45 years.

On Thursday, March 13, they went to check out a site where parachute material was found in 1994. Nothing was found at that site. They went back to the first area they checked on the previous day and hiked up the trail. It was very steep and they hiked back down.

On Friday, March 14, they decided they wanted one last look at all the sites. First they went into a village and visited with someone who saw a double ejection in 1967 or 68. They went to look for these two ejections. The person who saw it went to show them where he saw it. They said it was about a two hour hike. It turned out to be about one mile. They started off by jumping the creek as it wound through the area. They then left the creek and hiked up on a ridge line trail. They found nothing so they started down the other side of the ridge through a jungle area that took them down along the stream bed. The witness recognized a tree at the creek so he hiked up the steep hill and found a half buried pad that looked like a floor mat. The jungle around it had grown into it, but the pad had two strips of Velcro on one side and snaps on the other side.

Sorensen stayed where the mat was and the guide and others went a little farther and found some parachute material, a sock, and a locker key. Then they spotted a military ID card on top of the ground. Those up at that site were talking about the name on the ID when Sorensen hollered that was the person he was looking for. When the card was given to him, he could make out the name of David Thomas Dinan III.

Sorensen said everything must have washed down the hill in one of their monsoons or something because the area he landed in 45 years ago didn’t have a creek and it wasn’t as steep as the area they were in. Sorensen tried to hike farther up the hill, but it was so overgrown with brush he couldn’t get very far. He told them when they start excavating the area they need to excavate farther up the hill.

Sorensen said at least now they know where to look. They had only 30 minutes to document everything they found in the area and get back to the base camp. They just barely made it and Sorensen said the blades of the helicopter were just barely moving a little at 4:30 p.m.

He left the next day to head home to Aberdeen. Before leaving he paid 1.58 million kip for his room for 11 days. That comes to about $198. That price also included laundry service, breakfast and lunch.

He flew to Phonsavan and then Vientiane and stayed overnight in a JPAC detachment three team house. Then he went to Bangkok and spent the night. Then to Tokyo and on to Honolulu again to be debriefed. He landed in Honolulu 12 hours before he took off from Tokyo because he again crossed the International Dateline and gained a day this time.

After Honolulu it was to Denver and home to Idaho Falls and Aberdeen.

Sorensen told of a funny incident in one of the airports. He purchased a silverware set consisting of a knife, fork and spoon in Honolulu because he thought he might need it. At the airport they put the bags through the x-ray machine. In the meantime he walked through the metal detector and the alarm went off. They didn’t do anything about it, The alarm went of for many others that were going through the detector, but again they didn’t do anything about it. They asked him if he had a knife. He said no he didn’t and then he remembered the silverware. He pulled it out of his suitcase and showed them. He thought it was funny they were concerned about a knife in his luggage, but not about the metal detector going off when people walked through.

“At the time I thought the time was going by very slowly. But now that it is over, it was no time at all. The ID card was just a symbol marking the hillside where I was 45 years ago and where a fellow airman lost his life. It has been his final resting place for the past 45 years, and now it is an opportunity to repatriate his remains and bring another hero home. It was a very hallowed event in which I was able to participate and I thank God for that,” Sorensen said.

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