20 September 1965 — Laos
The Kaman HH-43 Huskie helicopter was originally designed to provide rescue support and fire suppression for aircraft accidents on or near any given airbase. In the opening days of America’s war in Southeast Asia, however, its job description was forced to expand to include combat rescue operations for downed flight crews. On 20 September 1965, Capt. Thomas J. Curtis, aircraft commander, 1Lt. Duane W. Martin, co-pilot, crew chief SSgt. William A. Robinson, and pararescueman A1C Arthur N. Black comprised the crew of a HH-43B helicopter, call sign "Duchy 41," which was on a rescue mission for the pilot of an F-105D. Willis E. Forby of the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron had taken a severe beating; he ejected ten miles east of the Laotian border, forty miles south of Vinh, North Vietnam.
The little Huskie departed Nakhon Phanom Airbase, Thailand – otherwise known as ‘NKP’ or ‘Naked Fanny’ - and headed northeast, where Air Force search & rescue Skyraider support aircraft were doing their best to keep Forby alive. Within five minutes of arriving on station, one of the Sandy pilots observed the Huskie take ground fire and crash on a ridge that bordered a small canyon which was enclosed on all sides by steep slopes and jungle canopy. As a second SAR helicopter hovered over the downed HH-43, it took several hits from enemy ground fire, forcing him to move away from the wreckage. Because of the intense enemy presence in the area – later determined to be a combination of North Vietnamese regular army troops and Communist Pathet Lao forces - no ground search was possible for the crews of the F-105D and HH-43B. All five men were listed Missing in Action.
Of the helicopter crew, Curtis, Robinson & Black were captured by NVA regulars – as was Forby, the Thud driver - and moved to a POW camp in North Vietnam. Duane Martin was captured by Pathet Lao forces and immediately moved to a POW camp deep in Laos. This camp already housed the surviving crewmen of an Air America C-46 - American Eugene DeBruin, three Thai and one Chinese – which had been shot down in 1963.
Throughout the fall of 1965 and into spring and summer of 1966, the group of Americans suffered regular beatings, torture, harassment, hunger and illness in the hands of their captors. They witnessed their captors behead one unnamed American Navy pilot and execute six wounded Marines.
By February 1966 Navy pilot LT Dieter Dengler joined the POWs. In late June the seven POWs prepared for an escape. At that time they were housed in two cells constructed of logs in a bamboo fenced compound measuring 20 by 20 meters. Three towers overlooked the compound. The camp's 16 guards had their quarters and mess hall near the front gate. Each morning the prisoners would be taken to a nearby stream and allowed to bathe and fetch water. They were permitted to walk within the compound until receiving their morning ration of rice. After eating, they were placed in stocks and handcuffs which they soon learned to remove. The guards then would eat together leaving their weapons in the watchtowers.
On the morning of 29 June 1966, while the 16 guards ate their meal in the mess hall, Dengler, Duane Martin & one of the Thai crewmen removed a previously loosened log, left their cell, climbed through an opening in the bamboo fence and secured the rifles from the empty guard towers. The three armed POWs confronted the guards. When they were ordered to remain still one of the guards panicked and began to flee. The three POWs killed the guards and all seven POWs fled the compound. Following prepared plans, they split into three groups: Dengler & Martin, DeBruin & the Chinese crewman, who was very ill, and the three Thais. They planned that if one group was rescued, it would direct a search party toward the other two groups of escapees.Dengler and Martin and the others made their way through the dense jungle surviving on fruits, berries, and some rice they had managed to save during their captivity. DeBruin, unwilling to abandon his sick Chinese companion, was captured the next morning and never seen again. The three Thai crewmen managed to reach safety, and freedom. Dieter and Duane floated down river on a raft they had constructed, eventually coming to an abandoned village where the men found some corn. After a night's rest, they made their way downstream to another village. It had been five days since their escape; Dengler was weak from dysentery, while Martin was delirious with malaria. As Dengler watched from the relative safety of some brush, Martin decided to get something for them to eat. Seen by a young girl, Duane entered the village to ask for food when another villager charged with a machete. As Lieutenant Martin fell to his knees, pleading with hands clasped, the man’s first swing cut off Martin's leg. Dengler, too weak to help his friend, could only watch in horror as the villager’s second swing decapitated him. The Naval Aviator was forced to continue alone. 23 days after their escape, on 20 July 1966, Dengler was rescued by helicopter.
To date the Laotians have made no attempt to return the remains of Duane Martin. He left behind a young widow and two small daughters. Martin is one of nearly 600 Americans who remain missing or otherwise unaccounted for in Laos.