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POW’s Children Surrender the Legend

He was 9 years old then, and the family was living on a military base on Okinawa. It was his father’s 33rd birthday, but Dad was flying a mission that day. Then the men in uniform came to Mama with the news: Her husband, Air Force Capt. Charles E. Shelton, had been shot down--but he was alive and in radio contact.

“I remember all these men, and Mama sitting down. And I remember her being upset,” John Shelton recalls 29 years later. “But I was thinking he’d be back soon. . . . I didn’t really understand.”

The boy didn’t understand that his father would become a prisoner of war. And it would be years before John Shelton would understand that his entire family had become captives as well.

The shackles were emotional, and the grip tightened with the deepening mystery of Capt. Shelton’s fate, and the growth of his legend.

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The Pentagon, long before the war ended, placed the greatest credence on a report that Capt. Shelton, shot down over Laos, had died as a prisoner of the Pathet Lao. But there was no proof. And, meanwhile, there were also unconfirmed reports that he was still alive. There was even the extraordinary tale that Capt. Shelton killed an interrogator and two guards with his bare hands. True believers said the enemy so admired his bravery that they wouldn’t execute him.

If he was your husband, if he was your father, what would you believe?

Marian Shelton clung to the hope that her husband was alive. After U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, she traveled to Laos, seeking answers. Frustration mounting, she became a leading voice for families whose loved ones had vanished in the war and who were frustrated by the U.S. government’s efforts to find answers. Marian Shelton was a media regular.

Ronald Reagan, running for President, listened to the POW-MIA families and enlisted their support. When it came time for the Pentagon to reclassify the missing men as KIA/BNR--or killed in action/body not recovered--the Reagan Administration decided that one man should remain classified as a POW, if only as a symbol of the nation’s commitment toward a full accounting of the missing. Charles Shelton, who by then had been promoted to colonel despite his uncertain status, became the last POW.

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John Shelton, now 38, wonders if that was such a wise decision. Every time the Shelton legend grew, it placed a greater burden on his mother.

“I don’t know if I’m a wife or a widow,” Marian once told me. It was, I’m sure, a comment she made often. She appeared on TV and spoke on the radio and at rallies to push the POW-MIA cause, often joined by one or more of her children. Five years ago, we spoke a few times over the phone and met once at a POW-MIA event in Ventura County. She sweetly offered me a POW bracelet bearing her husband’s name if I agreed to wear it. Awkwardly, I declined. Her reaction was gracious and understanding.

She seemed brave and strong. So it was a shock when, a few months later, I learned that Marian Shelton had climbed the terraced back yard of her San Diego home, placed a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Twenty-five years had passed since her husband’s disappearance. Marian had removed her husband’s gold POW bracelet and was wearing the medal of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. On her piano was the music to a favorite song--"It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”

I interviewed four of her five children for a story that was never written. The Marian Shelton the public knew was impregnable. What wasn’t widely known was that she had been hospitalized for alcoholism. She would try to stop drinking, but she always started again. An autopsy found her blood alcohol level to be above .30--almost four times the drunk-driving standard of .08.

“I just figure she must have been in a lot of pain,” says John, an actor who lives in Studio City. “I used to drink a lot myself, so I know the world can look pretty ugly sometimes.”

With the help of friends in Congress, the family arranged for Marian Shelton to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A few Hollywood producers recognized the emotional power of the story, but the Shelton children were ambivalent. Ultimately, the children cooperated with the producers of “Unsolved Mysteries.” Four days before the filming began, the producers auditioned John and gave him the role of his father. One scene re-creates the tale of Charles Shelton overpowering and killing his captors.

But is it truth or fantasy? John doesn’t know if there will ever be an answer.

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Early last year, the Shelton children, who were still receiving their father’s paycheck, decided it was time to put the questions behind them. They asked the Air Force to reconsider their father’s status, and this week, he was reclassified as KIA/BNR. On Oct. 4, the fourth anniversary of their mother’s death, Col. Charles E. Shelton’s name will be added to her tombstone at Arlington.

John Shelton knows that some POW-MIA activists feel betrayed by their decision. An old friend of his mother’s hasn’t returned his calls. Not long ago, this woman had called with another bizarre tale from the POW-MIA grapevine--that his father had hanged himself in prison rather than collaborate. John has also heard a much stranger tale--a conspiracy theory that holds that his father is living in a California trailer park as part of some sort of witness protection program.

So the legend grows and mutates, but the Shelton children want to escape from its shadow.

“Are we soldiers? As a soldier, you are expected to give up your identity,” John says. “As the son of a POW, as a fighting family of POWs, you give up some of yourself. Mama suffered greatly. She didn’t know who she was, other than the wife of Col. Shelton.”

And the Shelton siblings want to move from the past to the present.

“If anyone has a perception at all about our family, it’s one that is bigger than life,” John says. “And it’s not. It’s just life.”

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.


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