Thunderchief ("Thud"), in its various versions, flew more missions against North
Vietnam than any other U.S. aircraft. It also suffered more losses, partially due to its
vulnerability, which was constantly under revision. Between 1965 and 1971, the aircraft
was equipped with armor plate, a secondary flight control system, an improved pilot
ejection seat, a more precise navigation system, better blind bombing capability and ECM
pods for the wings. While the D version was a single-place aircraft, the F model carried a
second crewman which made it well suited for the role of suppressing North Vietnam's
Eighty-six F-105Ds fitted with radar homing and warning gear formed the backbone of the
Wild Weasel program, initiated in 1965 to improve the Air Force's electronic warfare
capability. Upon pinpointing the radar at a missile site, the Wild Weasel attacked with
Shrike missiles that homed on radar emissions. The versatile aircraft was also credited
with downing 25 Russian MiGs. Thirteen of these modified F's were sent to Southeast Asia
Capt. Elliot's Thunderchief was number two in a flight of four. The flight was to make
successive runs on their target near Hanoi. As Elliot was pulling off the target during
one of his planned runs, his aircraft was hit by hostile fire. He radioed that he was hit,
but the rest of the flight did not see any parachute or hear emergency beeper signals
indicating that he was able to eject from the aircraft. Elliot was declared Missing in
The Air Force was careful not to declare Elliot dead unduly, even though no evidence
existed to indicate that he survived. Early in the war, pilots had been declared dead
because of the grim circumstances surrounding the crash of their aircraft, only to turn up
in the prison systems of North Vietnam. Indeed, several intelligence reports were received
that indicated Elliot had been captured, although outside confirmation of this fact was
apparently never made.
Elliot is among many Americans on whom information is almost certainly held by the
Vietnamese, but the Vietnamese continue to deny knowledge of him or of his fate. As
reports mount convincing many authorities that Americans are still alive in Southeast
Asia, held captive by our long-ago enemy, one must wonder if one of those said to be still
alive is Robert Elliot. He may not know that he has been promoted to the rank of Colonel.
What must he be thinking of us?
MEMORANDUM FOR CORRESPONDENTS December 27, 1999
The remains of an American serviceman previously unaccounted-for from the
Vietnam War have been identified and are being returned to his family for
burial in the United States.
He is identified as Air Force Colonel Robert M. Elliot of Springfield, Mass.
On Feb. 14, 1968, Elliot was flying his F-105D Thunderchief on a strike
mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam, when he was hit by a surface-to-air
missile. He radioed to the other pilots in the flight that he had been hit
and they witnessed his crash. None of the other pilots saw any ejection
attempt nor heard any emergency beeper signals, but one reported seeing a
streaming (unopened) parachute at approximately 3,000 feet.
In April 1988, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam turned over remains to the
United States that they attributed to Elliot. Returned with those remains
was his military identification card. Then in 1992, Vietnam provided to
U.S. officials several documents related to U.S. losses during the war. One
entry was for Elliot. The description indicated that he died from his
In 1994, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese team interviewed residents of the province
where Elliot's plane crashed. They took the team to the spot where they had
buried his remains in 1968 and subsequently turned them over to their
government for repatriation to the United States.
With the accounting of Elliot, 2,031 servicemen are missing in action from
the Vietnam War. Another 552 have been identified and returned to their
families since the end of the war. Analysis of the remains and other
evidence by the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii confirmed
the identification of Elliot.
The U.S. government welcomes and appreciates the cooperation of the
government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that resulted in the
accounting of this serviceman. We hope that such cooperation will bring
increased results in the future. Achieving the fullest possible accounting
for these Americans is of the highest national priority. -END-
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, December 29, 1999
31 YEARS LATER, HER PREMONITION IS CONFIRMED
Vanessa Parks, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
On Valentine's Day in 1968, Billie Elliot's heart was broken.
She awoke that morning with the oddest feeling that her husband, Robert,
had come to see her, to tell her he was gone. Her daughter, Julie, was
crying, having felt it, too.
And so when the military personnel arrived to tell her that Robert, a
39-year-old native of Springfield, had been shot down near Hanoi, she felt
she already knew.
Yet the family was tortured by hints that he had survived the crash and
might still be alive. Another American pilot flying that day said he had
seen a parachute after Elliot's jet was hit by a missile. Later, villagers
said they had watched as Elliot was captured and taken away in a Jeep.
Eventually, though, the family's hope began to wane, replaced by a deep
and troubling uncertainty. Convinced that the government had not pursued
every possible lead, Billie and her four children - who had moved to Hampton
Roads, Va., before Robert went to Vietnam - would gather every year in
Washington, D.C., for a grim ritual. Documents in hand, they would walk the
corridors of the Pentagon in search of answers.
Their journey ended this week with a Pentagon announcement. Using DNA
analysis and dental records, the Army Central Identification Laboratory in
Hawaii said that remains taken from a Vietnamese grave near the crash site
are those of Air Force Colonel Robert M. Elliot.
Billie said that on one level she has long known that her husband would
never return, but that the definitive identification will steel her to the
rumors of American survivors that still circulate through the close-knit
community of POW-MIA families.
"I wouldn't have wanted him to live in prison all these years," she said.
"It's been a burden on all of us."
It's a burden the family has borne for more than three decades.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, they spent most of the
night at the wall, reminiscing and talking with families like themselves.
They joined the National League of POW-MIA Families, where they've learned
about technological advances that allowed investigators to find fresh
answers in old clues. They've pored over documents at the Library of
Congress. They've combed the Internet.
The answers, though, came slowly.
Robert M. Elliot was due to come home at the end of March 1968, after
flying his 100th mission. But on Feb. 14, 1968, his F-105D Thunderchief was
hit by a North Vietnamese surface- to- air missile and slammed into the
ground. The crash was witnessed by other pilots, one of whom reported seeing
an unopened parachute at about 3,000 feet. He was classified as missing in
action, but in 1979 the military changed the classification to killed in
"After he went down, I had a letter every day for five days," Billie
Elliot said. "It was eerie. I could tell that he was getting depressed. It
was getting very hard on him. He had two planes go down on either side of
him, and he had to send things to the families."
Then 20 years later came a break, as diplomatic relations between the
United States and Vietnam started to thaw. In April 1988, the Socialist
Republic of Vietnam turned over 24 bones that they identified as Elliot's,
along with his military identification card.
But his family refused to take that as the last word. The military told
the family that a DNA analysis showed a match, but the results, based on a
less sophisticated test than is now available, did not satisfy the family.
"We did not feel like we had done everything we could, just accepting
those remains," said Kenneth Elliot, 38, the youngest of Robert and Billie's
children. "There was always a chance he was alive. There are lots and lots
of stories. The only thing we could do as a family was to take that story
and research it."
As Elliot's family pushed to learn what had happened to him, "one of the
only things we could do was absorb information," Kenneth Elliot said. "And
one of the pieces of information we absorbed was the O.J. Simpson case."
Watching coverage of the Simpson trial, the family learned that a more
precise DNA test was available than the one done in 1988.
Kenneth and Billie visited a DNA lab in Maryland to learn more and met
with military computer simulation experts to pinpoint the site of the crash.
In the meantime, the family received tidbits of information. In 1992,
Vietnam provided documents to the United States regarding US losses during
the war. An entry on Elliot indicated that he died on impact. In 1994,
residents of the province where Elliot's plane crashed took a joint
US-Vietnamese team to where they buried his remains in 1968, according to
information from the Pentagon.
In 1997, the family convinced the military to again interview the six
pilots who witnessed the crash. Then, in November 1998, military officials
agreed to excavate the grave site and send the remains to the lab in Hawaii.
Last month, the family was notified that, using dental records and DNA, a
positive identification had been made.
"Now we have two-thirds of his remains," Kenneth Elliot said. The second
excavation also yielded more personal effects: an onyx ring, two keys, and
The family plans to take the onyx ring and have it made into small tokens
for everyone in the family.
"We've never had a funeral," Kenneth Elliot said. "We had a memorial
service in 1982."
More than three decades after the war ended for most Americans, they are
planning a funeral for the spring. Colonel Robert M. Elliot's headstone in
the Missing In Action section of Arlington National Cemetery will be buried
with him at a new plot in the cemetery. With the accounting of Elliot, 2,031
Vietnam servicemen are still classified as missing in action.
"I always remember him on certain days," Billie Elliot said. Especially,
she said, on Valentine's Day.