Thursday, September 29, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last Vietnam Pow Declared Dead So Family Can Have Peace After Decades Of Pain


LOS ANGELES - In the end, the five children of Col. Charles E. Shelton felt driven to their decision by a relentless seesaw - the dizzying up-and-down of hope, then despair; trust, then suspicion, of rumors that never came true but always came back.

It took their mother, dragging her down into alcoholism and depression.

When she shot herself four years ago, with the black and white POW-MIA flag flying outside the house, her rosary draped over her husband's POW bracelet, they decided it must end.

Hard as it was, guilty as it made them feel, the time had come to declare that their father, the nation's last official Vietnam-era prisoner of war, whereabouts unknown for 29 years, was dead.

It was time to push the war out of their lives.

"It was for our own sanity, for our own futures," John Shelton, 38, says slowly, staring at the photo of a young man who looks just like him, the photo of his dad climbing into a plane.

"It's hung over us for so long."

Last week, at the children's request, the Air Force changed Shelton's status from prisoner of war to killed in action. Next Tuesday, his children will gather at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington to place his name on their mother's gravestone there.

None of this is easy, even now, three decades after their father was shot down over Laos.

The Pentagon says it will continue to push for a full accounting of all servicemen missing in Southeast Asia. But among the nation's POW-MIA activists, the children say, their decision has left bitterness.

"We hope they understand that this is not about politics, that this is very private," Shelton says.

But on his face, as he talks, are the same confusion and guilt, the same feeling of inadequacy, that bedeviled his mother for 25 years.

"Even if he was over there, even if he'd been there all that time, do you think he'd still be alive?" he asks, restating an argument he's clearly had with himself many times before.

"I mean, we can't think we're deserting him, anymore. He could have died of old age."

Charles Shelton would now be 62.

He was shot down over Laos on his 33rd birthday, April 29, 1965, while flying a secret reconnaissance mission. He parachuted safely onto a ridge and got a radio message out that he was in good shape. A rescue helicopter got within sight of the downed airman but had to pull back when encroaching mists swallowed the ridge.

Marian Shelton was told six days later that villagers had reported him captured by communist Laotian forces.

At first, she had real hope. She moved her five children - LeaAnn, Charles Jr., John, Michael and Joan - from the base on Okinawa back to Kentucky, where she had grown up.

John, then 9, remembers the sheltering care of a mother who quickly learned to pay her own bills and make her own way, after being sheltered herself since marrying at 17.

Marian Shelton had loved being a military wife - traveling the world, raising her babies, joining the social whirl. A photo catches her at a party, arms wrapped tight around her husband, her dimple exploding off her face.

"They were very close," John Shelton says.

The years dragged on, but Marian Shelton seemed never to waver. She traveled to Laos, talked to villagers, showed them Shelton's picture. She traveled the United States as spokeswoman for the POW activists.

In the early 1980s, she fought the Pentagon over changing the status of many POWs. Other servicemen were declared dead or missing in action; the Air Force agreed, as a symbol, to keep Shelton listed as the sole POW.

But such symbolism was taking an internal toll on Marian Shelton, and her children knew it.

She became more cynical, viewing government officials as liars. Her children share that distrust and also resent the people who "would call Mama and get her all riled up, make her crazy telling her these wild rumors," John Shelton says.

One rumor said the CIA had rescued Charles Shelton in the late 1960s, then handed him back to preserve the U.S. government's secret war in Laos. Other callers said he was in a re-education camp near Hanoi, or was living in northern California with another wife.

"She'd be going along just fine for six months or so, getting herself back together, and then somebody would call her with some crazy rumor and she'd be off again," her son says.

"She felt it was her duty (to maintain hope), but she had no idea the toll it was taking."

Her children, now scattered, some with children of their own, grew up with a certain sense of despair as the war's shadow swallowed their mother and crept close to them. John Shelton describes how they felt they could never be themselves; they were always "Colonel Shelton's kids."

Some of the siblings tried to distance themselves from their mother's preoccupation. Others reached out, suggesting diversions or counseling, but felt rebuffed.

"I'd drive down there to San Diego, where she was living, and try to have a normal visit. But she'd be on the phone all the time," John Shelton says. "At the end it became very bad."

When she killed herself, she wrote in a note to her children: "I have done all I can."

Now her children feel the same.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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