A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?
July 4, 2011
Photo by Bill Tilton, USAF forward Air Controller, NKP Thailand, 1966-67
The Ban Laboy Ford and the immediate region around it were targets of unparalleled interest and action for the roles they played as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. US air forces sustained heavy casualties attacking this area, and they caused enormous disruption to the flow of enemy men and supplies, and massive enemy losses. My purpose here is to try to understand why this location was so important.
The Ban Laboy Ford is roughly marked in pale blue on this map.
Please note "Harley's Valley," under that large numeral five. On May 18, 1966 Capt. Lee D. Harley piloted an O-1E Bird Dog with Airman First Class (A1C) Andre R. Guilllet as his observer. They flew as Forward Air Controllers looking for enemy targets coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, callsign "Gombey 19" out of Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, NKP RTAFB. Harley was lead for a flight of two O-1Es, the second flown by Capt. Thomas Morris, callsign "Gombey 25."
Task Force Omega, Inc., a non-profit, tax exempt POW/MIA organization dedicated to the full accounting and returns of all POWs and those missing in action. It's page on Harley and Guillet reported the following:
"Gombey 25 was notified of the situation and its aircrew immediately initiated a visual search of the area. Shortly thereafter Capt. Morris sighted two columns of smoke issuing from the jungle foliage below. As he approached the crash site location, he sighted the burning wreckage. As he circled over the area in his search for signs of survivors, heavy enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) weapons fire with tracers began spraying around him. He immediately dove toward the ground and away from the threat area. Once out of range of the enemy guns, Capt. Morris, set up a RESCAP (Rescue Combat Air Patrol) orbit 1 kilometer to the east of the crash site.
"Search and rescue (SAR) operations were immediately implemented. Sandy 31 and 32, a flight of A1E Skyraiders, were the first of the search aircraft to arrive on scene. In addition to the standard compliment of rescue aircraft, Black Lyon, a flight of two F-4Gs fighters, had been diverted for RESCAP duty. While making a low pass over the area, Black Lyon Lead was struck by AAA fire. Both crewmen ejected safely, and were able to establish communication with the other aircraft. Jolly Green 51 and 56, the rescue helicopters, arrived on station and at roughly 0740 hours and 0800 hours respectively, the helicopters recovered both members of the Black Lyon crew. After that rescue was completed, Sandy 31 and 32 continued to search for Capt. Harley and A1C Guillet.
"During this time additional fighters were called in to suppress recurring enemy ground fire that was interfering with the SAR operation. As the mission continued, Sandy 31 and 32 were replaced by Sandy 41 and 42. They, in turn, were replaced by Sandy 11 and 12. During the days that followed, other pilots from Gombey flights continued to search the area. According to one of the pilots who participated in the SAR operation and who later talked with Lee Harley’s family, a strong beeper was heard throughout the week emanating from the jungle in the area where the Bird Dog disappeared. After the formal search was terminated, Lee Harley and Andre Guillet were declared Missing in Action."
From this time on, fellow FACs and other pilots started calling the area of the shoot-down "Harley's Valley." It is a wide meadow covering most of the area between Ban Laboy Ford and the border of North Vietnam. It had been building up as a major storage area and transshipment center for the enemy
Please note that I have added two locations to this map: the cable bridge and the underwater bridge. I'll talk more about these later.
Ray Smith, an Indochina War veteran with the 1-69th Armor, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 4th Infantry Division prepared these and many more informative maps. I commend them to you. Ray has been kind enough to grant me permission to use them for this story.
These maps contain a lot of information important to our story. Hwy 912 crossed the Nam Ta Le River in Laos at this point. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would later build a spur off 912 to the east and set up an alternate crossing. The village of Ban Laboy was upstream a few miles. The terrain was most difficult, plenty of karsts and more important, plenty of caves and heavy foliage.
Another aerial shot of the ford area.
Ban Laboy Ford today. Photo by Nat Stone. Presented by Mekong Express, March 2007 edition.
So what is a “Ford?” It is a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across. The Ban Laboy Ford was a place where NVA men and material could easily cross on Route 912 to the rest of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to a place called Tchepone, Laos and to a place known to the US as NVA Base Area (BA) 604 near Tchepone. I will talk to these more later.
Volumes have been written about the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is an amazing study. To conquer the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), the NVA had to devise a very long logistics tail, all the way into and through Cambodia to the southernmost tip of the RVN and, of course, to Saigon, its capital. For reasons we will address at a top level, the North Vietnamese (NVN) had no choice but to go through Laos, an internationally agreed neutral nation. You will learn that the US authorities made this option a most desirable one for the enemy on many occasions. You will also learn that, because of history, the NVN had absolutely no problem rationalizing going through Laos.
There is a lot here to highlight. I will do this report in sections:
History, geography, the impact of French colonization
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Ban Laboy Ford, how it fit
The interdiction campaign against the Ban Laboy Ford Complex