Today we pause to remember the members of Recon Team Arizona, who were declared MIA October 3, 1966, while operating in Laos. SFC James E. Jones, SFC Raymond L. Echevarria and then-SFC Eddie L. Williams were members of a seven-man reconnaissance team comprised of the three Americans and four Vietnamese ARVN soldiers. The mission’s sole survivor was indigenous team member Bui Kim Tien.
On 03 Oct 66, the team was inserted into Laos by helicopter into rolling jungle-covered mountains approximately two miles south of a primary east-west road, three miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border. Their mission was to locate and report on enemy activity moving through this portion of eastern Laos into the acknowledged war zone.
After insertion, RT Arizona moved a short distance from the Landing Zone and ran into an enemy soldier and fired upon him. The team was met by heavy return fire, wounding most of the team members. The team was surrounded and in an attempt to evade the enemy, they split up.
Echevarria called for extraction, but due to the heavy enemy activity this was impossible despite air strikes. Echevarria then reported their situation was hopeless, stating in a calm voice “When I quit talking, put the shit right on us!” A few minutes later, the Air Force fighter bombers dropped their loads across the team’s position. The team was outnumbered almost 100 to 1.
The only survivor, a Vietnamese interpreter Bui Kim Tien, reports that SFC Williams told him “Jones is dying and Ray Echevarria is the same way. At the time formal SAR efforts were terminated, Ray Echevarria, Eddie Williams and James Jones were listed as Missing in Action. The fact is, no one saw Raymond Echevarria, Eddie Williams and James Jones die.
On 4 October, a search and rescue (SAR) operation utilizing four aircraft spent a total of 36 hours searching for the missing reconnaissance team. At 1500 hours, SAR personnel spotted Bui Kim Tien; one of the ARVN assigned to this mission, and successfully rescued him. On 5 and 6 October, additional aircraft joined the search, but they found no trace of the other ARVN or Americans in or around the area of loss. At the time, formal SAR efforts were terminated, Ray Echevarria, Eddie Williams and James Jones were declared to be Missing in Action.
During his debriefing, Bui Kim Tien stated that on 4 October he and SFC Williams continued to evade communist forces when they spotted some caves. Eddie Williams directed Bui Kim Tien to investigate the caves as a possible defensive position they could occupy until help arrived. As the ARVN soldier moved forward, he was spotted by enemy troops before he could accomplish the task. He was forced to retreat under fire in a different direction from the one he approached the caves from. As Bui Kim Tien moved through the jungle, he heard gunfire emanating from the direction he believed SFC Williams was in. Even though he had no way of confirming it, he believed it was an exchange of gunfire between SFC Williams and enemy troops.
On an unknown date a communist defector was questioned about American Prisoners of War he reported seeing. The defector was shown photographs of missing Americans and at that time he positively identified Ray Echevarria as a Prisoner of War. However, according to CIA analysts, based on Bui Kim Tien’s debriefing report that he thought SFC Echevarria died from his wounds, this positive identification of SFC Echevarria in captivity was labeled an error.
The names of the men of RT Arizona are inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial.
Man when you read about these deep reconnaissance teams and the missions that they ran, it is just awe inspiring. The sheer number of guys who were KIA/missing on these missions is incredible and it is great that the stories of their sacrifices are finally coming out.