A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?
July 4, 2011
The interdiction campaign against the Ban Laboy Ford Complex
In a thesis done by Major Gregory T. Banner, USA, entitled, “The war for the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he wrote:
“In summary, the Laotian panhandle is not a nice place. It has incredibly difficult terrain, numerous streams and rivers, thick vegetation, and a rain pattern which causes major seasonal variations in trafficability. The area of the Tchepone Corridor has about sixty-five miles of such terrain, with a further sixty miles of plain or low rolling hills.”
In his paper for the Center for Air Force History entitled, “Interdiction in southern Laos, 1960-1968”, Jacob Van Staaveren wrote this:
“The challenge to air commanders and aircrews in conducting these (interdiction) programs was considerable, for among the Indochina states, Laos had the harshest physical environment. The monsoon weather virtually assured that any given day, pilots and other crewmembers would encounter rain, drizzle, overcast, or fog. On a clear day they were likely to encounter smoke and haze from native slash-and-burn farming and fires from bombings. The jungle terrain of the mountains and the valleys further obscured much of the route and trail system. These conditions, making so difficult the task of pilots and aircrews in flying combat missions in daytime, compounded the problem in finding and striking targets at night. In addition, the airmen had to contend with a wily enemy who traveled under the cover of darkness and was adept at speedily repairing bombed routes, trails, and bridges; building bypasses; and extending his routes and trails. The airmen also had to comply with a bewildering array of ever-changing air restrictions imposed by higher authorities to minimize the danger of causing civilian casualties and over-escalating the war.”
There are interdiction experts who say that roads are generally not very good targets. They can be quickly repaired, and the enemy can quickly create alternative routes. Capt. Michael Roth, USAF, an A-26 “Nimrod” pilot flying out of NKP, assigned to the 609th Air Commando Squadron in 1967, agrees. He said, “Bombing the road system itself was an almost futile exercise, because of the many bypasses and alternates available and because of the large labor force permanently stationed on the Trail.”
In this photo, credit to Mai Nam, you see workers filling bomb craters on the Trail so traffic can start moving again. This was taken in 1967. The capacity to promptly repair the Trail was especially true in Laos where there was an enormous labor force available to accomplish these tasks. That said, interdiction forced the enemy to eat up manpower, manpower that could have been used in combat, and the intensive interdiction did cause major delays for logistics movements and significant delays in NVA operations against the RVN.
Group of A-26 bomber pilots at NKP, among the first to attack the Trail. She was actually a B-26, “B” for bomber, but the Thais would not allow US bombers in at the time, so the designation was changed to “A” for attack. That was acceptable to the Thais.
I had hoped when I began this project that I would have access to more first-hand pilot and crew accounts of what it was like attacking the Ban Laboy Ford, and the storage and logistics complexes that surrounded it including BA 604, Tchepone. I have not succeeded in finding very many such memoirs. I cordially invite those who flew such missions to send me their memoirs at email@example.com and I will work to weave them in.
As a result, I have had to resort to piecing together a very complex and mind-boggling series of highlights that cannot even begin to touch on the most difficult challenges our pilots faced. Clearly I cannot do much more here than give you a taste.
The area that is the most frustrating and maddening has to do with the politics by the civilians in the Departments of Defense and State regarding how best to handle the entire Indochina War, and the air interdiction campaign in specific.
I might remark that all manner of aircraft were employed over the Trail, fixed wing and rotary, some dating to WWII, some much newer, some fast, some slow, some maneuverable, some not, some flying high, some flying low, some could stay for quite a while, some were in and out, some were propeller driven, some were jets.
RLAF T-28D taxis at Long Tieng, Laos, known as Lima Site 20A
USAF and USN reconnaissance aircraft were flying over Laos in 1964. Laotian aircraft flew interdiction strikes against the Trail, the first on October 14, 1964, T-28s escorted by USAF F-100s and RF-101s. The Laotians attacked storage facilities near Mu Gia Pass. By April 1965, the US was regularly flying attack missions against the Trail. On April 3, 1965, two B-57 light bombers supported by Blind Bat C-130 flare missions for illumination struck the Trail. The Rolling Thunder air campaign against the NVN began one month earlier, in March 1965.
Our military commanders learned that a successful interdiction campaign was going to be much more formidable than they had originally thought. But they had remedies for that. What they did not have remedies for were the almost infinite rules and stipulations that were placed on their shoulders by the suits and the up and down manner in which the suits treated this, a very complex military subject. I cannot get into this here. I have addressed the problem broadly in the previous section. I can only say that what I have read is exasperating.
With all that in mind, let’s try to press ahead and give you a taste for interdicting the Ban Laboy Ford complex.
Enemy traffic along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail had been going on since the advent of the French Indochina War.
By 1965, Vinh, NVN had become a major supply hub and most traffic passed into Laos through the Nape and Mu Gia. In addition, Vinh would become an important air base for NVNAF MiGs. Both the Nape and Mu Gia were heavily defended. In November 1967, the USAF stepped up its raids against the trail, doubling the number of attacks. The targets mostly were choke points and truck parks, such as the passes and the Ban Laboy Ford.
Air operations such as Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound had started against NVN targets inside the Laotian panhandle in April 1965 and December 1965. However, they highlighted weaknesses in the US air attack system, a lack of good intelligence on the enemy logistics activities going on in the jungles of Laos. In retrospect this is hard to believe, but in 1964 and into 1965 US authorities in Washington were not sure the NVA was really building a logistics network inside Laos. Many did not believe the photography of the area that would seem to prove such a network was being built. Therefore, the idea was developed to send in special operations teams to validate the photography.
As a result, after great debate, US forces in the RVN received permission to send limited numbers of ground forces into Laos under the direction of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), SOG for short. MACV-SOG reported directly to the JCS.
ARVN soldiers had started penetrating into Laos for reconnaissance as early as 1964 under CIA management, but their information and photography lacked sufficient credibility, so US forces started going in after permission was granted in late September 1965. The SOG operated under the name “Shining Brass.” The first operation launched on October 18, 1965. It confirmed an area of enemy activity and 88 aircraft sorties attacked a depot area. Shining Brass would be renamed Prairie Fire in 1968, and then Phu Dung in April 1971.
The SOG teams were small, a mix of US and ARVN troops, and fell under the name OPS-35, a part of the 5th Special Force Group.
The MACV SOG HQ was at Da Nang, RVN, known as Command and Control North, CCN. They employed Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in the RVN. FOB #1 was at Phu Bai; FOB #2 at Kontum, later to become Command and Control Central, CCC; FOB #3 at Khe Sanh; FOB #4 at Marble Mountain near Da Nang; FOB #5 in Ban Me Thuot; and FOB #6 in Ho Ngoc Tao.
As an aside, William Sullivan, the ambassador to Vientiane, wanted the SOG teams dropped over on the RVN side of the border which would force them to walk through incredible terrain to get to their targets. Colonel Simon solved this by redrawing the border area which he argued was in contention anyway, and his forces were able to get dropped into Laos.
This is a photo of a FOB #2 team being inserted
SOG teams infiltrated into Laos not only from the RVN, but also from Thailand, the latter of which surprised the enemy as he did not expect these teams to come from the west. Missions from Thailand were especially important for reconnaissance of the Tchepone area. Many of the teams were flown into NKP often in unmarked transports, they would deplane through the aft ramp quickly into a waiting truck, and then be whisked off to an area designated for them to get themselves together for their mission. They would then be taken quietly and quickly to a waiting helicopter and off they went, hoping all the while to create no notice of their arrival or departure.
Most of the time their insertion helicopter would land and they would disembark, or they would climb down rope and metal ladders, or I have even seen reports where they would jump from seemingly perilous heights without parachute.
These SOG operations are a study unto their own. The men involved pulled off some of the most ingenious and dangerous operations one can imagine over the course of their activity in Indochina. Not only did they observe and photograph enemy forces coming down the trail, they set up wiretaps, laid down sensors and bombing beacons on the Trail and elsewhere, set down mines, booby-trapped enemy ammo dumps and even arranged for some enemy AK-47s to blow up in the enemy’s face when he pulled the trigger. They also conducted myriad search and rescue missions for downed pilots and others such as their own men and helicopter crews employed to bring them in and out. They also conducted operations to kidnap NVA officers. They worked closely with FACs and when they came under fire, or if they ambushed an enemy force and became involved in major firefights, they brought in every kind of airpower available, from A-1Es to T-28s to AC-130 gunships to F4s and other attack fighter aircraft, and of course helicopters to extract them out of there. This would be an interesting way to conduct reconnaissance, one I know the Marine Recon Teams also employed, which was to find the enemy, come under attack, and create wide-open clearly identifiable targets for support air, a risky way to do business, but often quite effective.
I should say that often the teams were dropped into their target area, they spotted what they needed to spot, and they were summarily extracted for intelligence debriefings and action. Sometimes they would remain in the area, or sneak off to another one, and send their reports to FACs flying above.
By the end of 1965, Shining Brass teams had conducted seven missions which proved very successful. USAF Tiger Hound bombing missions followed which were also very successful. Such operations continued throughout the war. The name “Shining Brass” was changed to “Prairie Fire.” These operations would eventually expand into Cambodia. Of interest to us, one of three SOG command and control operations, CCN (Command and Control North), headquartered at Danang, operated in the area around Tchepone. I should mention as well that SOG teams went into the NVN.
SOG operations combined with the Igloo White sensor program along the trail and provided very useful intelligence on some 59 truck stops, nailing down grid coordinates to six digits. Air Force interdiction improved markedly as a result. In early 1966, Navy SEALs joined in.
O-1E Bird Dog FAC
This is a Covey O-1 Bird Dog out of Da Nang leading the way for SOG insertion
Another outgrowth of Shining Brass and other efforts was that General Westmoreland insisted on employing O-1E Bird Dog FAC aircraft, and a batch of those were taken from Army resources and developed to be flown by USAF pilots. I believe they began operations in 1965 but 1966 was the big year for their employment with the advent of the Cricket program, which began on January 21, 1966. Now Thai-based O-1s would be used, Det 1, 505th Tactical Control Group at NKP, Capt. Harry Pawlak in command. The Det had five Dogs, five pilots, and a group of support people. Quite often an English-speaking RLAF observer would fly with the pilot to help verify targets and arrange for air attacks. These early missions flew mainly against the Nape and Mu Gia passes. Initial results were said to be “exceedingly effective” by PACAF.
As an aside, I commend the book A Certain Brotherhood, by Colonel Jimmie Butler. Jim was a FAC pilot with the 23rd Tactical Air Control Squadron (TASS) at NKP. His book is a novel, but reading it will teach you a great deal about the realities surrounding the job over the Ban Laboy as well as the passes. This is the cover of the book, by S.W. Ferguson. In this book, Butler wrote that the Ban Laboy was one of the three most highly defended targets in central Laos. He also said there was a large karst between the Ford and the NVN border. In his book, he talked of a NVA headquarters hidden in a cave nearby. I reported earlier the area was infested with caves. He said Ban Laboy was about 86 miles from NKP on the 096 degree radial, to wit, almost due east.
Interestingly, Route 912 was discovered in March 1966 by two 23rd (TASS) O-1E Bird Dog FACs flying out of NKP RTAFB. These FACS were known as “Crickets,” but usually carried a “Nail” callsign. They discovered a major construction effort in the jungle and then discovered it was linking up with known roads to and inside the NVN. Much of the construction on what turned out to be a 40 mile segment was done under the jungle canopy and the enemy expended considerable effort to conceal its work. Captain Albert “Ken” Millay followed the road to the northeast until it intersected previously known roads near the NVN coast. The new road connected with Route 911 in Laos, which went to Tchepone.
AC-47 Gunship, AKA Puff the Magic Dragon and Spooky
It did not take long for the USAF to go after Route 912. On June 3, 1966, an AC-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” gunship from a detachment of the 4th Air Commando Squadron was sent out from Ubon RTAFB to conduct reconnaissance and locate and interdict enemy activity along the Trail under the control of a FAC. Commanded by Capt. Theodore Kryszak, the crew spotted targets on Route 912, about 20 miles southwest of the Ban Karai and near the Ban Laboy. Puff began firing but was hit by enemy hostile fire, caught fire, and crashed. It crashed close to the junctions of Routes 911 and 912, in the heart of NVA military country, Binh Trams, way stations and the like. All six souls aboard were lost.
That said, the location of the loss (roughly marked by the red dot) was one mile south of Route 912, two miles southeast of the junction between Route 911 and Route 912, 20 miles southwest of the Ban Karai Pass and 30 miles north of Tchepone. The area was described this way: “The entire area was heavily populated with villages of all sizes and NVA BinhTrams, established way stations the communists used for a variety of purposes.” Please note the arrow points to the Ban Laboy.
I am going to pause here for just a moment and refer to an article written by Major Strong, USAF, “The lost war that never was.” This is a photo of him standing next to his O-1E “Bird Dog.” You will recall from an earlier section that introduction of the FAC along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was among the dominant improvements the USAF made in its interdiction campaign. I did an extensive story on the Bird Dogs which I commend to you, and it has a section on the 23rd TASS. Strong wrote about his experiences on the Trail and I will draw some from those memoirs.
The 23rd TASS had an inconspicuous beginning, inconspicuous to the public, that is. Six pilots , five O-1F aircraft, and 13 support troops arrived at NKP on January 17, 1966. The unit flew its first combat mission the next day. These pilots were experienced FACs from Vietnam. Its main mission was to fly the Trail, find targets, especially enemy trucks, and bring in air power to destroy those targets. Within a couple weeks, the FACs and their attack aircraft partners had virtually shut down vehicular movement by day.
Major Strong arrived in 1966 as well. He said that the force at NKP would grow to about 24 aircraft. He had no fighter experience, which he cited as a major shortcoming because he knew little of fighter tactics, jargon and ordnance. Other FACs were former fighter pilots, according to Strong, far better suited for the job. But even then, they found that the fighter pilots they called upon were not well trained for the interdiction mission especially under intense hostile AAA fire, far more lethal than many had expected. Here again, they had to figure out tactics largely on their own for avoiding the AAA and destroying the AAA.
Whatever the case, Strong opined that the USAF at large was not well trained for the interdiction mission they experienced in Indochina. The USAF pilots were trained mainly for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets or, at the least, a fight to the finish in Europe against the Soviets. For interdiction in Indochina, they had to learn everything the hard way, by making mistakes and employing good old American ingenuity more than once.
NKP was a good place for the 23rd TASS. The security was good and it was a straight shot from there to the Trail, important because they usually flew for about three hours, perhaps one hour out, one hour searching and attacking, and one hour home, leaving about 30 minutes fuel. He said he often flew overweight because of the rocket load and the high temperatures causing the fuel load to expand, meaning it could not carry as much as the pilots wanted but they often put in as much as they dared. They developed means to save on fuel, lowering power settings, slowing their speeds, and employing partial flap settings. They learned that the slower the better for finding targets. They often flew in two ship formations, one high for protective overwatch, one low for spotting and marking.
Strong commented that he had to learn a lot. He mentioned that he would be so focused on looking out his window for targets that he had some close calls with karsts that were popping up in front of him. The triple canopy of mahogany and teak forests were all new to the FACs, and they and their fighters could often be spoofed by what they thought they saw.
A group of pilots formed a Tactics Panel according to Strong. This panel’s number one recommendation was to attack choke points. Ban Laboy was considered to be one of those choke points and close to another, the intersection of Routes 912 and 911. For the FACs, they learned to “jink” all around the sky in unpredictable flight paths, short climbs and dives, sometimes faking they had been hit by AAA only to mark the spot and call in air.
A high point of Strong’s paper for me was his talking about “getting the eye.” He described it this way:
“This referred to the highly specialized method whereby the spotter learned all about the natural flora and foliage so as to know exactly what looked natural, then, by the process of elimination, learned to see what was un-natural. This often required weeks of acclimatizing and several frustrating flights with the old heads. In the author's case, it was a matter of combining the usual seeing with ‘The Eye’, plus some Extra-Sensory Perception. Using The Eye required staring for a period of several seconds, which then required slow flying.”
Much has been written about them. I mentioned their flight in an earlier section, but here I would like to touch on what they encountered and experienced in the Ban Laboy area, their target on November 9, 1967.
They launched a two-ship F-4C formation, AWOL 1 and AWOL 2 from Danang on the RVN’s northeastern coastline. They launched as it was getting dark, flying for the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), 366th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW).
F-4C on strafing run
Vietnam in this particular area was narrow, so they encountered the Annamite Cordillera chain quickly. They entered Laos through the heavily defended Ban Karai. They married up with a FAC and the FAC marked the Ban Laboy with flares. AWOL 1 rolled in on the target, released his bombs and almost immediately exploded, whether from ground fire or a problem with his own bomb fuze systems. Armstrong is believed to have gone down with the ship, while Sijan successfully ejected and was located about three miles northwest of the Ford, on the side of a mountain under the heavy foliage of triple canopy jungle. After a massive search and rescue effort, he was captured, imprisoned, and died in prison.
In his book Into the mouth of the Cat: The story of Lance Sijan, Malcolm McConnell described the Ban Laboy like this:
“The target was near a junction of main vehicle infiltration routes on the part of the Trail the Americans had designated LOC 101. It lay in wild, uninhabited, triple-canopy forest, surrounded by sheer chimneys and towers of limestone called karsts that rose from the narrow jungle valleys.”
A-1E Skraider, known as “Sandy” in her search and rescue mode
A-1E Sky Raider “Sandies” had a better chance, but even they had a hard time loitering around looking for him. One was shot down and an effort had to be expended to rescue that pilot, who landed in a tree but somehow was able to shake himself free and get down to a small valley and stream below for pickup.
Flak sites were embedded in the ridges all around the area, 23 mm, 37 mm and 57 mm guns under the cover of the tree canopies. Sandies and F-4 “Misty” Fast FACs flew numerous flak suppression runs to quiet the enemy guns.
HH3 “Jolly Green” Search and Rescue (SAR)
There were numerous NVA and Pathet Lao basecamps all around the area. As the Jolly Green SAR helicopter approached Sijan the enemy in the gullies opened up with 14.5 mm machine guns and hit him.
A Jolly Green endured heavy fire but hovered over Sijan’s position for some 33 minutes. Sijan kept telling him not to send down pararescue PJs because of the danger to them. He said he would crawl to the penetrator which was only some 20 ft. from him. He couldn’t make it. The entire SAR force finally had to withdraw.
Ban Patang at the northern end of the Vang Vieng karsts, Laos. Photo credit: Terry Bolder
The point I wish to make here is that this was rough and heavily defended country indeed. As we discussed in an earlier section, there was more here than just a Ban Laboy Ford; there was a Ban Laboy Complex which included BA 604 surrounding nearby Tchepone, the enemy’s largest logistics center at the time in Laos. Deep gullies turned out to be Sijan’s worst enemy, as the NVA were able to use them to reach Sijan. The enemy took a beating, they lost a lot of their AAA guns, but they ended up getting their man. By my count, six USAF aircraft were significantly damaged and had to abort out of there, and one A-1E went down, pilot rescued. About 108 aircraft and four ground radar sites were involved.
NKP-based A-26 Nimrod
Capt. Michael Roth, USAF, was an A-26 “Nimrod” pilot flying out of NKP, assigned to the 609th Air Commando Squadron. The first A-26s arrived at NKP in 1966. Their job was to attack the Trail. Roth arrived in September 1967. Most of his missions were at night, supported by O-2 FACS, and C-123 Candlestick and C-130 Blind Bat flare aircraft. His aircraft had no night vision equipment. Roth described a generic mission as follows:
O-2 Cessna Skymaster FAC
“When the FACs picked up a target, they had to reference its position on the ground to something that could be seen and identified in the dark by a strike pilot’s unaided eye. Flares were used frequently to illuminate targets, but most pilots preferred the protection afforded by the darkness. The reference was usually a fire --- perhaps one left from a previous strike or from a marker dropped by the FAC. This required precise communication, and FACs frequently met with strike crews to work out exact descriptive wording.
“Once the strike pilot was satisfied that he had sighted the reference that the FAC was describing and could locate the target, he would launch a strike. After the first strike, the FAC could guide the strike pilot further by making corrections from the point of the initial strike.”
37mm AAA gun
He told a story about his A-26 mission with an O-2 FAC on April 5, 1968. His area of operation was on the Trail about 60 miles east of NKP. I commend his account to you. The short story is he and his navigator, Lt. Col. Francis L. McMullen, USAF, spotted an enemy 37 mm AAA gun. They spotted him because the gun took some shots at him. Working closely with his navigator, they laid on some cluster bomb units (CBUs) across a triangle set up by his navigator. One of the bomblets directly hit some munitions that flared up into a huge secondary explosion with fires thereafter. The fires lit up the sky, and everything around it, so he rolled in three more times and the whole area blew up. He had found a truck park and storage area, far more exhilarating than the single truck he destroyed earlier in the evening.
Here is another example of the impact of the terrain. On January 11, 1968, a Navy OP2E Neptune, “Crew 5,” flying with Naval Observation Squadron 67 from NKP RTAFB, such as the one shown here parked at NKP, was on a run to drop sensors along the Trail and decided to drop through a hole he spotted in the low cloud cover to conduct his mission. He was later found crashed into a sheer cliff on the northern side of Phoulouang Mountain, the highest mountain in that sector. The crash site was 150 ft. below the 4583 ft. summit. This area was so rugged that when a recovery mission entered the area in 2000, they found the wreckage untouched. Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, a recovery team member from the 10th Mountain Division, said, "It was incredible. As you were flying up there, it was like something out of Indiana Jones. A 1,000-foot waterfall spilled below the wreckage site."
Ban Laboy Ford back in the day
Ban Laboy Ford in modern days. Go to associated story.
I wish to pause for a moment. These photos of the Ban Laboy in modern days came from Chris Corbett. He motorcycles around Laos and has been working hard to map the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He has been to the Ban Kaboy a couple of times, the most recent trip in December 2012. He has done an article, “Ban Laboy Ford,” and shows his photography on his web site, Motorcycle Tours of Laos. I urge you to take a look at his work. He has been a good friend of Talking Proud. If I were 20 years younger I’d go with him! That’s him in the bottom photo.
Okay, let’s press ahead. Thanks Chris!
In the Mekong Express article mentioned in the previous section, Gerry Frazier wrote this about the Ban Laboy:
“The ford itself was pretty simple, but our near-constant bombing with Tacair and B-52s probably really did ‘destroy’
the original ford. But, there were few choices for re-routing the road to better areas. So the engineers contrived a variety of
alternate solutions to keep this particular part of their road system open and functioning for several years, despite practically
everything we could throw at it.
“Among the alternate solutions was a ferry. To the best of my knowledge, we rarely if ever saw the ferry itself, but we
saw things necessary to make it work, and we saw the effects - the trucks kept moving. The HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) basically ran at full capacity during the dry season, but during the rainy season, parts of it were shut down by mud and high water. Ban Loboy Ford probably stayed open at reduced capacity, year around, and could do so using a ferry, even when water levels were too high for vehicles to cross on their own. Cables could sometimes be seen at the crossing point that could have been used to guide a ferry boat.
“Another trick used by the NVA at water crossings was to build an under-water bridge. A more-or-less conventional concrete bridge could be designed to allow water to flow both through the structure and over the road surface, which would be camouflaged by a few inches of flowing water. Trucks simply ‘forded’ their way across the invisible bridge. They may also have employed retractable or folding bridges at this or other stream crossings on their route south.
“There was very likely one other method used by the NVA to cross the Ban Loboy area when necessary ... A system of ‘interdiction boxes’ was developed (by 7th AF). There were a total of four boxes, one of which covered the entire Ban Loboy area.
Aerial mines are dropped to interdict an enemy ferry and ford near Tchepone, Laos in 1968.
B-52 bombs impact target area
“The boxes were bombed around the clock, using B-52s and Tacair, with a mix of instantaneous and delayed action bombs, and mines with anti-magnetic and anti-disturbance features. In other words, bombs exploded in the area at random intervals, even when bombs were not falling. The interdiction boxes were pretty effective, based on truck movements detected by sensors. But over a couple of weeks, we started to see a resumption of the logistics flow.
C-123 “Candlestick” FAC and flare dispenser
“One night, the pilot of a Candlestick FAC (C-123 from NKP) reported that he could see a helicopter on the ground in the light of the flares they dropped. The helicopter appeared to be shuttling supplies between an offload point at the north end of the interdiction box, and the south end, where they were transferred to trucks. 7th Air Force Command Post ‘Blue Chip’ denied that any such thing could happen, but this was one of several suspected sightings of enemy helicopters in the Trail network at night.”
As an aside, I have seen multiple reports of US air crew sightings of Soviet transport aircraft delivering supplies in Laos and of MACV SOG visual reports of Soviet vehicles on the Trail. My guess is this was a Soviet helo.
Jacob Van Staaveren wrote that as early as 1963 the US knew that Soviet-built IL-12 and -14 transports were landing troops and supplies at the Tchepone airfield and were paradropping supplies to units in the field. You will recall that Tchepone was known to be the main enemy supply and logistics center for feeding the Trail.
As a point of interest, I received a short note from Mike Vale who was a photo interpreter (PI) in the USAF at PACAF. He reported on the Trail from April 1966 through December 1968. He worked on the PACAF morning intelligence brief and reported daily on truck traffic, USAF air strikes on the Trail and anything of interest in Laos. He pointed out that most PIs back then were specialists interpreting photography of the Soviet Union and had little experience dealing with the jungles of Indochina. He said he was a young guy and took it upon himself to study the Ban Laboy Ford in some detail. He made a mosaic of the Ford. By mosaic he means that he would receive a lot of photos that might have a part of the Ford in it and some of the surroundings. He would try to gather together as many photos of the area as he could, piece together individual bits of the photos, and make a mosaic or coherent whole picture of the Ford and its surrounding area.
Prior to this, he was assigned to the 67th Reconnaissance Squadron in Japan in January 1966 and spent much of his time looking at U-2 photography of the jungle and wilderness of Indochina. He said that the more experienced PIs focused on photography of China and passed the jungle photography to the less experienced like him. As a result, when he got to PACAF, the bosses were looking for anyone who knew anything about Laos, he raised his hand and spent the rest of his time in the service reporting on Laos.
Never underestimate GI ingenuity!
While not directly related to the Ban Laboy, I read an account from Capt. Monnig and 1st Lt Browning, USAF, 20th TASS, Danang AB, RVN, driving their FAC patrol along Hwy 924, dirt but 20 ft. wide and able to handle trucks at speeds up to 25 mph. They were flying a night mission and provide some insight into enemy truck tactics. These 20th TASS guys had Model NVSF-040 Uniscopes that could amplify light. They spotted traffic and “Moonbeam,” the ABCCC on duty that evening, got them some F-4s.
Before the F-4s could get there, the trucks moved under the triple canopy jungle plateau area and pulled off the road into the tree area. But the trucks turned on their lights and kept moving through the jungle. Monnig could see them in his uniscope as the headlights reflected off the foliage. The trucks moved, then stopped, shut off their lights, turned them on again, shut them off again. By that time the FACs had their targets pinned, the F-4s arrived and they conducted business, destroying four trucks and probably destroying two more. The secondary explosions from the attack, according to the FACs who loitered in the area, was something “you have never seen before ... (quite a) show.”
The enemy, attempting to prepare for a major offensive against the RVN, significantly ramped up movement of men and supplies on the Trail in the 1967-1968 dry season. As a result, during the period 1967-1968, when US interdiction against the Ban Karai and near environs was the heaviest, most flights were daylight ones. So the enemy parked during the day, drove at night.
C-130 “Blindbat” FAC flareship during pre-flight check
The enemy took all kinds of countermeasures to offset the power of American bombing. In response, the C-130 Blind Bat flareships were very active at night along the trail lighting up the skies for air attacks.
Regrettably, on March 31, 1968, LBJ imposed new restrictions on bombing the NVN below 20 degrees latitude, which actually turned out to be 19 degrees, which gave the enemy an extra 60 miles of sanctuary inside the NVN to get to the Trail.
As a result, the Navy and 7th AF decided to concentrate on multiple major choke points below the 19th parallel. General Keegan wrote that this was a very successful operation.
I need to quickly introduce you to the Route Package concept for targeting the NVN. I’ve mentioned Route Package 1 (RP-1) in previous sections.
The US divided the NVN into route packages, known as RPs. You can see from this map which service was responsible for which RP. Attacks against all RPs except RP 1 were tasked either by the Pacific Air Force (PACAF), the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), or the Pacific Command (PACOM). The commander Military Assistance Command (COMUSMACV) ran the war in Vietnam, but not in Laos or the NVN, with the exception of RP 1. MACV could task air attacks in that RP because it was just north of the DMZ. As the NVA increased its use of the Ban Karai and Ban Raving Passes to the south, close to the DMZ, the Ban Laboy Ford area often was seen as part of RP 1.
Given LBJ’s proclamation of March 1968, on July 14, 1968, 7th AF initiated its “Summer Interdiction Campaign” focused on the roads into Laos and the Ban Laboy Ford. That they specifically identified the Ban Laboy as part of the campaign reflects how important a target they felt it was.
This was to be a 30-day campaign. Analysts had concluded that the enemy always launched major logistics efforts prior to a major offensive. The idea here was to prevent what was called the “Third General Offensive.” US planners also knew that during the Southwest Monsoon, from May to November, Route 912 and the Ban Laboy were the enemy’s main road into southern Laos from the NVN. Many of the other roads were useless.
In support of the 7th AF, the Navy conducted intensive attacks in RPs 2 and 3, forcing the NVA southward into RP 1. That increased their vulnerability.
Six interdiction points were selected for the campaign. The 7th AF considered these “non bypassable” points on the trail, meaning the enemy had to use them. Two such points were on Route 137 and Laotian Route 912 through the Ban Karai Pass and toward the Ban Laboy. While the US Ambassador to Laos controlled the air war in Laos, by this time he was supportive of 7th AF-MACV desires to attack into Laos so the 7th AF did most of the attack planning for the area of Laos near RP-1.
The Campaign began with Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mainly to support B-52, fighter bomber and photo reconnaissance.
The B-52s were assigned bombing boxes thought to host major base and assembly areas. General Keegan wrote that without the approval of higher authority, the USAF directed the B-52s against “previously invulnerable truck parks, storage areas, and transshipment points, hidden by jungle canopy.” Then interdiction runs by fighters disrupted traffic with a view toward choking a few of the enemy’s vulnerable points. The flow of enemy truck traffic began to decline, so armed reconnaissance sorties were sent in to strike the choke points. Finally, photo reconnaissance missions were employed as well.
After three weeks of such attacks, the enemy was forced to dump its cargo prior to water crossing areas. I should mention that Naval experience was that the Mark-36 destructor mine was especially useful at water crossing points. These were general purpose low-drag bombs modified to be land mines. The photo shows MK-82 500 lb. general purpose bombs. They could be configured for multiple missions. One such configuration was the Mk-36. Aircraft would simply deposit them in the water crossings from low altitude. The low drag fins enabled the fighters to escape in the event the bomb detonated. Use of the M-36 intensified. This resulted in the enemy trucks having to dump their loads before the water crossings. In turn, the USAF was able to destroy the building supplies.
On June 14, 1967, Capt. JImmie Butler and Lt. Jack Little, USAF, 23rd TASS, flew an O-1E FAC mission to Sector 12. This photo shows Little’s Bird Dog FAC as seen from Butler’s Bird Dog. Sector 12 hosted the Ban Laboy. Butler remarked:
“I have a little asterisk in my log book in the column for counters and a note mentioning Route 137. That tells me that Jon (Jack Little) and I weren’t ordered to fly a counter across the border that day. On our own initiative, we flew a few miles into North Vietnam.”
Butler added a comment about the Ban Laboy: “(It became known as) the most bombed spot on the face of the earth.” He would remark:
“The VC and their NVA comrades understood that once a FAC arrived, they had better break contact if they could, because help and hurt was on the way. Many of you vets reading this tale may have been saved by brave FACs like Jon Thomas Little who found and helped destroy a truck that carried a bullet with your name on it.”
By the end of August, Routes 137 and 15 were closed 50 percent of the time. The passes were in some places turned into gravel pits, which, when struck by the September rains, turned the passes into difficult mud roads. From September through November Route 137 was closed more than 80 percent of the time. The major interdiction points in RP-1 were dealt quite lethal blows. So was the Ban Laboy in Laos.
During July and August, fighter bombers were forced by bad weather to conduct mostly radar bombing without being able to visually observe results. However the USAF planted sensors north and south of the Ford to measure traffic flow and confirmed that by mid-August the enemy was finding it very hard to move traffic through the Ford. Quite often they dumped their supplies north of the Ford and returned to NVN. The USAF estimated the enemy had piled up some 8,000 tons of supplies in truck parks just north of the Ford.
Some analyst had determined there was a POW camp near that spot so B-52s were prevented from carpet bombing the area. In the mean time, the USAF kept pounding the Ford area hoping the enemy wold park even more supplies there. In response, the enemy worked day and night to find alternatives and built a secret camouflaged cable bridge and a separate cable ferry crossing. The attacking fighters destroyed those.
The Ambassador to Laos then reconsidered the analysis and decided the POW camp did not exist any longer. He lifted objections to the B-52s and in they came.
On September 18, 1968, the air campaign to destroy the Ban Laboy Ford complex began with 18 B-52 and 12 F-105 sorties. They destroyed the pontoon bridge and severely damaged the cable bridge. But the main ford remained operational. Continued bombing attacks from September 20 through October 1 still were unable to destroy it.
On October 1, 1968 30 B-52s dropped 900 tons of bombs against the Ban Laboy complex, reported 73 secondary explosions, ranging from 5-20 times normal size in that area. They employed a bomb train of 780 feet rather than the normal 4,500 ft., and hit the ford directly. A bomb train is the distance in which the bombs impact; 4,500 ft. bomb train would be considered carpet bombing with no specific target in mind, while 780 ft. would be targeted against a pinpoint target. The B-52s destroyed two-thirds of the underwater causeway that had been working for the enemy for three years, and on October 2 F-105 Thuds came in and destroyed the other third employing 2,000 lb. bombs.
On October 12, B-52 sorties bombed truck parks and storage areas around the Ford. More sorties on October 16 using a single aiming point destroyed the repaired cable bridge and interdicted the Ford and its approaches. Following attacks destroyed road and repair machines and storage areas. From September 18 through October 26, B-52s flew 93 sorties against the complex.
The Ban Laboy Ford was closed, and remained so for 30 days. Between September 18 and October 2, over two million pounds of ordnance were delivered to what was now being called the Ban Laboy Ford Strategic Complex. One can only imagine a truck backup and traffic jam like this. The enemy moved in two battalions of engineers but persistent harassment attacks day and night, often using 260-pound proximity fuzed bomb clusters, severely inhibited their progress.
The enemy was now forced to build a bypass crossing the river to the west, which consumed considerable manpower and time.
General Keegan wrote, “Reliable sources have since confirmed that for the five month period starting 1 June 1968, the enemy moved an average of only 12 trucks a day across this Ford, the largest number being moved prior to mid-September, an average of 175 trucks per week shuttled to the north and south of the Ford. Following airstrikes on 17 September, this shuttling activity was reduced first to 20 trucks per week and then finally to fewer than 15 per week, none of which were able to transit the Ford.”
John W. Sherman and Newton A. Wilson, then with the 7th AF Office of Operations Analysis, had their report published on November 1, 1968 that addressed the AAA threat in our area of interest, Steel Tiger, in eastern-central Laos. They said that as a general rule, the enemy employed the 23mm, 37 mm and 57 mm AAA weapons systems to protect the Trail in this region. They said they did not believe the enemy had deployed the 85 mm gun yet.
They concluded that broadly speaking, flying above 10,000 ft. AGL was a fairly permissive environment for US aircraft. They presented a map showing the AAA threat envelops they felt existed in the Ban Karai Pass region and to the south.
The number “85” upper right center indicated the probable location of an 85 mm gun right where NVN Route 137 passed through the Ban Karai Pass and into Route 912 in Laos. You can see how the heavily defended the area of the Ban Karai, Ban Laboy Ford, Tchepone, and points south along the Trail were. They acknowledge in their brief report that the enemy AAA systems were highly mobile but nonetheless felt this was a fairly accurate representation of the threats. As you have already seen, our aircraft had to operate smack-dab in the middle of all this amidst rugged terrain and lousy weather.
Interestingly, Keegan said “attrition was surprisingly light” as attacks against AAA defenses improved with new tactics and employment of Cluster Bomb Munitions (CBU).
Then, on October 31, 1968, LBJ ordered a halt to all bombing of the NVN immediately. Laos remained open to bombing but the enemy now had the chance to move all its supplies and men right up to the Laotian border untouched. They also opened the Ban Raving Pass which allowed them to go through NVN untouched nearly all the way to the DMZ before moving into Laos.
“(The truck had) splashed through the fords at Ban Laboy. I was able to sit up in the back of the truck and see the karst to the west and realized exactly where we were at .... the most bombed target in the history of aerial warfare, heading straight for the Ban Karai!”
He said the F-4 spotted the truck and rolled in on his target firing his Gatling guns. After the first pass, the lead F-4 pulled up and went straight into the Ban Karai pass, at which time the enemy opened up on him. Somehow, Long reported, he managed to get out of there and the second F-4 never tried to get in, so they both left. Long was held captive for four years and endured intense interrogations, beatings and torture, but he survived and was released in 1973.
On March 1, 1969, Major Wendell Kelly and his co-pilot 1 Lt. Virgil Meroney were flying their F-4D out of the 433 TFS at Ubon RTAFB, Callsign “Sherman 01,” in a flight of two targeted against a storage area and suspected vehicles moving through the jungle out of the Ban Karai. Working with a C-123 “Candlestick” FAC out of NKP, they were directed to make multiple rocket passes on the storage area and against any mover they spotted. They received moderate to light ZPU and 37 mm AAAA. On his final pass, Sherman 01 was hit and went down, just six miles from the Ban Laboy. The area was described as completely in enemy control and no search and rescue (SAR) was attempted.
As I said in the beginning, Jimmie Butler, a FAC pilot with the 23rd TASS, put me on to this story. I was rummaging through my old e-mails and found the story that got me going. Jimmie has a good one in there. It’s about him and Fred Beauchemin.
Fred was a “short-timer,” only three days left before he would go home. He either volunteered or was volunteered by the civil engineers to go over the Trail. The engineer needed an old hand to take a look at the Ford and see if he had any bright ideas about how to take it down. It was July 1967 heavy-duty monsoon season. NKP was expected to get about 80 inches of rain over the next several month. Jimmie flew with him.
They dodged around the clouds for about 45 minutes and finally made it over the Ford. They circled, and crossed over the place where AWOL 1 went down. Jimmie and Fred did not take any ground fire, probably because during the monsoon the enemy preferred to hold up in the nearby Harley’s Valley. Jimmie also speculated that the enemy had put his guns away figuring no crazy American would fly over the Ford area in this kind of weather.
Well Fred brought some new ideas to the Ford. He suggested following the Nam Ta Li river downstream for a mile or two. He spotted a massive karst and said that if we bombed this karst along its side, enough of its side would collapse and dam up the river. Fred figured that the dam could cause the river to rise 5-6 ft. which would be enough to prevent trucks from crossing it. Jimmie said bombing the karst on Christmas afternoon of 1967 would cause the river to rise shortly before all the trucks he had spotted going into North Vietnam on Christmas Eve morning would be coming back across fully loaded. Then they would either all get caught in a back up and make a fabulous target, or would have to off-load their stuff and create yet another fabulous target.
As these things go, the idea got lost in the bureaucracy and the USAF did not try it.
I am going to stop here. I invite anyone who has a memoir like Jimmie’s to send it to me and I will insert it here. I feel this section of my report needs more memoirs about what it was like over the Ban Laboy. History depends on you guys to speak up.
I’ll conclude with General Momyer’s thoughts:
“The interdiction campaign was able to limit the number of forces the North Vietnamese could support in the South. Not until the interdiction campaign ended with the termination of US involvement could the North Vietnamese logistically support and deploy their full strength of 18 to 20 divisions. Before the 1975 offensive, they never deployed more than 11 or 12 divisions, apparently for fear of the destruction they would suffer by exposure to our airpower.”