Part II: Major Laurent "Lee" Gourley made the ultimate sacrifice

 Part II of a two part series 

On Nov. 11, 1968, Lee began his assignment with the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Tuy Hoa Airbase, South Vietnam. He was a jet fighter F-100 Super Sabre pilot, with the 31st tactical fighter wing, 7th Air Force. 

“He was very good about writing home and wrote to a lot of different people. Between the Academy and the war, reel-to-reel recorders came out and he’d send us tapes. He was always upbeat and positive,” his sister, Elzene said.  

In one letter home he wrote, “I’m gaining more confidence and at least I feel I’m helping the war effort a little bit,” recounted his brother, Fred. 

When flying in the Tactical Fighter Wing wasn’t enough, Lee volunteered for the Misty program, also stationed at Tuy Hoa Air Base. Only the best pilots were in this top-secret squadron. Armed only with marking rockets and cannons, Misty’s mission was to fly fast (speeds ranging from 350 to 550 miles per hour) and low (low enough to see trucks, bridges, boats and bulldozers) over enemy territory in order to disrupt the transfer of enemy supplies and equipment down the Ho Chi Minh trail. When a Misty located one or more of these targets, he directed Air Force and Navy fighter strikes to the location.  

Misty’s mission was so dangerous, and the loss rates so high, the tour of duty on this was shortened to four months, or 50-60 missions. The Misty program lasted for more than a year and a half with only 157 men participating in the program.  

“It was a 90 day assignment one volunteered for. It was only for the best of the best pilots,” Elzene said. “He didn’t quite make his 90 days, but he knew the risks; it was a step up and a goal.”

On Aug. 9, 1969, the day he was shot down, Lee wrote a letter to his family saying all missions had been scrubbed because of the weather. He had delayed a R&R trip to Hawaii until his Misty duties were complete in another week, knowing his time in the Vietnam would be short following his return. 

Lee’s Forward Air Controller (FAC) mission that fateful day was to Oscar Eight in eastern Laos, described as rugged jungle mountains. He was the pilot and 1st Lt. Jefferson “Scotty” Dotson, was the co-pilot of the F100F aircraft with the call sign, Misty 31. 

According to the mistyvietnam website, “more American aircraft were downed in this sector than any other place in Laos. This was because burrowed deep in the hills of Oscar Eight was North Vietnamese General Vo Bam’s 559th Transportation Group’s forward headquarters. It was also the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s control center and contained the largest NVA storage facility outside of North Vietnam. Oscar Eight was defended by consecutive belts of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns of all sizes that were not only stationed on the ground, but also mounted on platforms in the trees and were expertly camouflaged. Oscar Eight also favored the enemy because it was located in a wide bowl surrounded by jungle covered high ground containing AAA guns and bunkered infantry.”

The duo was supposed to conduct a FAC and visual reconnaissance mission on the Southern Steel Tiger Area of Laos to search for enemy activity in the sector. Weather conditions in the target area consisted of overcast clouds at 4,000 feet and visibility of more than six miles. 

“During the flight, Capt. Gourley made regular radio transmissions. In his last message, he reported the aircraft’s position as ‘it was passing a well known location along an infiltration route.’ He stated they were ‘progressing to another location’ in accordance with pre-flight briefing. The last reported location placed Misty 31 on the south side of Route 92, a primary east/west road that was a major artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Route 92 ran along the southern side of a rugged jungle covered mountain range. 

At 1040 hours, Capt. Gourley and 1st Lt. Dotson were scheduled to meet with an airborne tanker for refueling, but failed to do so. When no further radio contact could be established with Misty 31, another aircraft was dispatched to the area of operation. It arrived on site about an hour later and immediately began a visual and electronic search for the missing aircraft and crew, which continued until sundown. The weather was bad, which prohibited further search.  “At the time the formal search effort was terminated, Lee Gourley and Jefferson Dotson were listed Missing in Action,” read the P.O.W. Network report. 

A Homecoming II Project report, updated by the P.O.W. Network, reported a passing aircraft intercepted a radio transmission from the plane, “We’ve been hit. We’re going to try to get out.” Observers from the passing aircraft then saw the aircraft go up in flames, and observed one fully deployed parachute. 

Elzene was still living in Denver when the black car pulled up with the news about Lee. 

“They often parked down the street, not in front of the home. My house faced east and I saw the car pull up on the bay window that faced south. They came to my door and I asked if he was dead. They wanted to come in and talk to me. He’d gone out on a mission and didn’t show up for refueling, and they began to look for him. The weather was bad, which prohibited searching for him. The other Misty pilots went looking for him and he was declared MIA.” 


Following the crash, the family heard reports that Lee had survived and that there were live sightings. There were reports of Lee being used as a packmule for the Viet Cong; that he’d been sent as a Prisoner of War to Russia, in which he had learned to speak Russian at the Academy. 

The family whole-heartedly agreed Lee was alive and being held captive. In December 1969, while still MIA, he was promoted to Major. 

Lt. Dotson and Capt. Gourley were among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos during the Vietnam War. 

“Lee was remarkable. He made a huge sacrifice for all of us. There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think about him,” said Elzene. 


At the age of 25, Elzene moved to Washington D.C. for a year and worked at Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Families as a lobbyist on Capital Hill to bring Lee, and others, home. She didn’t have much, but an intense fire to get answers for her brother. 

“I knew I had to get him home. That was the switch that kept me going for 33 years. Lee’s life had value.” 


While Elzene was continuing her plight to get Lee home, Fred, who was a senior in college when Lee disappeared, was piloting F-4 Phantom Fighter missions in southeast Asia. 

“I was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in 1970 after graduation from Iowa State University and entered the Air Force and pilot training in the fall of that year. I was sent to Southeast Asia in 1972. I flew missions over the same area that my brother, who was missing,” recalled Fred. “After delivering ordinance, climbing to a safe altitude, away from threats, enroute to home base, and being over that vast jungle, I would think about my brother. He would have been flying the same area less than 3 years earlier, and I would wonder if he might be a POW somewhere down there.”

Fred would retire as a Lt. Col. after 22 years of military service. 


In 1973, 591 POWs were released and able to come home, but none from Laos. By now Lee had been missing for three years. Elzene continued to be an impressive powerhouse at the federal and international level for the early version of the League of Families, but when asked about it, she said. “This article is not about me, it never was; it is about Lee.”


In 1974, the family sent a letter to Lee in care of the Prime Minister of Laos, who responded the letter would be conveyed later to their son. In 1976, the family wrote to Lee in care of Prince Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane, Laos, who replied the letter would be sent to the “one for whom (it was) intended.”  The U.S. State Department ordered the family to stop writing Lee in care of Lao officials. 


In 1978, Walt and Betty received notice of a military status change hearing which produced a recommendation to change Lee’s status from MIA to KIA in SE Asia. Betty then wrote: “Walter and I and our three children appeared at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas on the appointed day. Five officers introduced themselves and we were seated. They asked what I had to say. I spoke about a minute, and offered the fact that there was no specific sign Lee was not living. I added a little more. Walt just couldn’t talk. It was very hard for Walter, and it may have shortened his life. Then it was the officers’ turn and in about 10 minutes each man had his say that it was scarcely possible Lee could be alive.”


On Nov. 29, 1978, Lee was declared legally dead. He would have been 34 years old. 


 “I always knew it was hard on my family, especially Mom and Dad, to have two sons in the Vietnam War. One didn’t come home,” said Fred.  “This is all about Lee, as it should be, and as we all want it to be. But we, the surviving family of Walter and Betty Gourley, have lived our lives always remembering and honoring the memory of our brother. From 1969 to 2002, we held hope that Lee might return. We wrote letters, sought information, spoke to groups, wore bracelets, donated time and money to causes looking for MIAs from the Vietnam War … I would say, we never gave up trying to discover what happened to Lee.”


After years of pleading the government look for Lee’s crash site in Souvannahket Province in Laos, they finally relented. Items recovered from three 30-day excavations, were sent to Army Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu for identification. The three remaining Gourley siblings traveled to Hawaii, where they were presented with a forensic report and final determination that Lee died Aug. 9, 1969 in the plane crash. His remains were returned to US soil Dec. 11, 2001. 


“He deserved to come home from that War and we all deserved to have him come home, but God’s plan was far different from mine,” said Elzene. 


Elzene traveled under military orders to escort Lee’s casket home.  

“Such care was taken to assure that I could see the casket as it traveled on the ground, and was loaded in and out of the planes on which I flew. The tarmac had been closed to civilians in Honolulu since 9-11, but airport personnel created a new baggage route so that I could watch the safe transport of that casket,” she recalled. “In Dallas I was driven around the tarmac on a little tractor pulling the casket. As the casket was loaded into the belly of the aircraft, one of the baggage handlers stood back and saluted.”


Lee’s remains were laid-to-rest next to his father on Oct. 5, 2002 in the Villisca cemetery with full military honors. Three weeks later, Elzene was at Arlington National Cemetery to bury the remains of Dotson, with whom they’d remained in contact with the family over the years. 


“Lee was a normal kid; everybody liked him. He was honest, loyal, witty and had a good sense of humor,” Elzene said. “There is a reason the rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield. One of the things you learn when you go through something like this is, you just have to continue going forward.”  


Lee was the recipient of the following military awards:

• Silver Star – for Gallantry in Action (from a mission in July, 1969) 

• Purple Heart

• Air Medal (silver and bronze oak leafs represent multiple combat missions)

• Presidential Unit Citation

• Outstanding Unit Award (“V” device represents With Valor)

• National Defense Service Medal

• Vietnam Service Medal (bronze stars represent participation in other operations)

• Air Force Longevity Service Award

• Small Arms Expert Marksmanship

• Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation

• Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal


“We remember the good things about our brother. He was patriotic, strong sense of duty, focused, always concerned for others, and possessed those indefinable qualities that made him seem larger than life to those he left behind,” said Fred. “Lee thought of himself as a somewhat ordinary guy from Iowa, who had been given some extraordinary opportunities in his life. If he’d only known, we thought of him as a hero. 

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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