Talking Proud Archives --- Military

LS-85, Airmen left out on the limb, a leadership failure

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

The aftermath: LS-85 lost, twelve American Airmen technicians killed


Robert J. Destatte commented on this NVA photo of damage done to the site:

"Depicts damaged American equipment, including a prefab metal building or van and the base of the TSQ-81 antenna at the TACAN/TSQ station. Note the galvanized metal garbage can in the debris on the right side of the operations facility. The photographer was standing near the rear door to the operations van and facing south when he snapped this photo. The VNA caption reads:
'Tram ra da cua dich o Pa Thi bi Quan Giai Phong Nhan Dan Lao pha huy. TTXKPL,' which translates to 'Enemy radar station a Pha Thi destroyed by the Lao People's Liberation Army' "

Captain Edward Vallentiny, USAF, Headquarters PACAF Directorate of Tactical Evaluation CHECO Division prepared a report on the "Fall of Site '85," dated August 9, 1968. He reported the following.

Ambassador Sullivan briefed PM Souvanna on March 13, 1968, told him the facilities had been destroyed and informed him of the American losses. Sullivan reported:

"Souvanna winced at these two items of information, and said they increased the risk that enemy could be able, if he chose, to make some pretty damaging disclosures."

The two men agreed to sit tight and stay quiet to avoid public exposure. Sullivan concluded his report of the meeting with the following:

"Souvanna obviously does not wish to make decision on posture he will take towards potential Communist exploitation of this incident until he knows how damaging their evidence is. He urged me to destroy as much evidence as we can rapidly. Since his position is understandable, I did not repeat nor try to press him one way or another on contingency statements."

On March 14, 1968, General Momyer sent a message to Sullivan:

"I am concerned about the need for a postmortem analysis on the loss of Site '85. In terms of assessing whether future sites should be established believe it important to determine how a relatively small force was able to take such an allegedly well defended installation. No indications have been received here as to what efforts if any were made by local defense forces on site to defend installation, especially in view of clear indications of impending attack. Your views on how future sites might be defended in view of experience with Site '85 would be appreciated."

Sullivan replied on March 16. The two messages reflect some elements of finger-pointing for blame. Sullivan agreed a post-mortem should be done, but commented:

"Believe you should understand, however, that enemy forces were not ... 'relatively small'. Our intelligence indicates their numbers between five and seven battalions, with artillery and rocket support, considerably outnumbering local defense forces, which never numbered more that 1,000 men in 12km defensive perimeter which drawn around Site '85."

Sullivan continued to tell Momyer that the embassy had "made it clear from the beginning" that the site could not be defended against a determined and superior enemy force. He also underscored his embassy had been reporting its estimates of the deterioration in the area, and then he said:

"Therefore, its fall should have come as no surprise to anyone.

"The manner in which enemy accomplished its fall is, however, instructive, and should, I think be carefully studied with view to future operations. Artillery fire, at relatively long range, was surprisingly accurate. According to fragmentary reports of survivors, direct hits were scored, very early in the barrage, upon personnel quarters, operations structure, and bunkers. It seems possible that installations were rendered effectively inoperable even before destruction order was given. There may be some lessons in this which should be studied with respect to length of time technical personnel should be required stay at their posts after installation falls within artillery range. In hindsight, it seems to me we should have pulled all technicians out the morning of March 10th, even if this meant losing the last several hours of the installation's capabilities.

"What concerns me most is not the defensive action, but the disruption of preplanned evacuation procedure. It is still not clear why technical personnel went over the cliff to a narrow ledge rather than down trail to chopper pad. CAS and local personnel subsequently went up same trail to installation searching for technicians, so we know trail was travelable, even if under artillery fire. It is also not clear to me how small Vietnamese suicide squad got to installation site, although it seems they must have scaled the cliff which all of us considered impossible."

I wish to convey Ted Shackley's analysis presented in his book
Spymaster: My Life in the CIA. I find it very appropriate:

"Again this situation was the classic 'good news bad news' scenario. The good news was the TSQ-81 was hurting North Vietnam more than a little; thus Hanoi was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get rid of the electronic menace. The bad news was the Air Force would soon have to dispense with the TSQ-81's services. The time-sensitive, critical question was how soon. The Air Force could bow to the inevitable and evacuate its little force of technicians, but to do this would be to reduce the effectiveness of its all-weather air war against North Vietnam's infrastructure … The key unresolved issue was how much expenditure in aircraft resources would be required to buy the delay, and what this block of time would mean to the effectiveness of the air war against North Vietnam. In recognition of this dilemma and faced with a choice between two unappealing alternatives, the Air Force did what many individuals would do in a similar quandary: they procrastinated."

Lair noted:

“The 7th Air Force and the director (CIA) told us to ‘hold at all cost' —- those were the words used —- that it was so important that it had tremendous effect on the enemy. They said, ‘We're willing to take that risk because you’re saving lives every day.’ And so we strapped on our seat belts and said, all right.”

Based on my research, I would be a little more strong than Shackley and Lair. I would have said the Air Force chose to keep the site operational for as long as humanly possible, even if that meant sacrificing the men and equipment on the mountain. In short, effective bombing of North Vietnam was more important than the lives of the men on the mountain. The 7th AF was willing to take that risk. That is my personal opinion.

On or about March 14, 1968, Lt. General James Edmundson, USAF arrived at Udorn. At the time, Edmundson was the deputy commander PACAF. Prior to that assignment he had been the director for inspections for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force in Washington. In any event, the Secretary of Defense instructed him to go to Udorn to find out what happened at LS-85. Ted Shackley, Pat Landry, Tom Clines and Major Secord met with him. Secord commented that Edmundson was there in an inspector general (IG) role, and wrote, "I unloaded on him." Secord went on to describe what he said:

"I told him the loss of Site 85, which during its existence had directed over a quarter of all bombing missions in North Vietnam, had been a major disaster made worse by the loss of nearly the entire team and the compromise of our TSQ technology and a variety of top-secret encryption systems that we could only assume were now safely on the way to Moscow. Even more infuriating, the loss could have been prevented easily at any of a dozen decision points over the past few months, beginning with Ambassador William Sullivan's inability or disinclination to deal with the problem realistically. Numerous warnings had been sent from the Laos Station to 7th Air Force headquarters in Saigon, to CINPAC, and to Washington-the CIA and the Pentagon-about the deteriorating status of site defense, and a deaf ear was turned to them all. Instead of allocating assets needed to defend the site properly, or even withdraw from it in an orderly fashion, Washington had ordered us to 'hold the site at all costs.' Even worse, once the enemy attack was under way, critical assets were denied until the site had been rendered indefensible and timely extraction of the team and demolition of the sensitive gear was impossible."

Secord said the general responded that perhaps he had misunderstood the instructions in the fog of battle. Secord responded:

"General, I've been in the field a long time. I've been in a lot of battles. And I'm telling you, this just doesn't happen. It never should happen. It can't happen. But it did. And it's up to you to do something about it."

Secord then recorded in this book: "He and I both knew I was talking about a gross dereliction of duty, or worse."

I best stop here. Secord has hit the bottom line. There's nothing more to say except what happened at LS-85 on March 10, 11, and 13, 1968 was a tragedy. On the other side of the coin, many brave men demonstrated indescribable valor while on that mountain and while flying rescue and search and rescue operations. For that we should hold them in our hearts and keep them on our minds. Above all, be proud of their service and sacrifice.

The 12 USAF-contractor losses, LS-85


CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger, Air Force Cross upgraded to Medal of Honor

LtCol. Clarence "Bill" Finlay Blanton, Bronze Star with Valor "V" upgraded to Silver Star
MSGT. James Henry Calfee, Bronze Star with Valor "V" upgraded to Silver Star with Valor "V"
SSGT. James Woodrow Davis, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
SSGT. Henry Gerald Gish, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
TSGT Willis Rozelle Hall, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
TSGT Melvin Arnold Holland, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
TSGT Herbert Arthur Kirk, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
SGT David Stanley Price, Purple Heart
TSGT Patrick Lee Shannon, Bronze Star with Valor "V"
TSGT Donald Kenneth Springsteadah, Bronze Star with Valor "V
SSGT Don Franklin Worley, Bronze Star with Valor "V

The thirteenth missing man is Major Donald Elliot Westbrook whose A1E aircraft was shot down while searching for survivors. Throughout his career he received three Silver Stars for gallantry in action and three Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Lt.. Colonel Blanton's remains were handed over in 2005 to the US by a Laotian citizen who had his identification card and some bone fragments. I believe the remains were positively identified and returned to the family in 2012. reported remains of TSgt. Patrick L. Shannon, USAF, were found by US investigators on the ledge in March 2003. He was positively identified in 2012. I do not know how he got on the ledge.


The COMBAT SKYSPOT memorial at Andersen AFB Guam, September, 1999. The memorial consists of an AN/MSQ-77 (AN/TSQ-81) parabolic antenna poised at 45 degrees elevation. It is situated directly behind the ARC LIGHT Memorial, a B52D Stratofortress which flew dozens of missions over North Vietnam. The aircraft and the radar are facing the Vietnam theater, in solemn tribute to the men who flew the weapons and the men who directed them over targets of opportunity. Two bronze plaques at the memorial scratch the surface of the legacy . . .


Seventy-five percent of the B-52 combat missions flown over Southeast Asia were directed from the ground by a technique code-named COMBAT SKYSPOT. Over 3000 men of the 1st Combat Evaluation Group (CEG) manned ground radar sites in South Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos 24 hours a day from March 1966 until August 1973. This memorial is dedicated to the eighteen members of CEG who gave their lives in this effort. Twelve of these Fallen were from LS-85.

"A tear welled in my eye--
the story I'd heard only shreds of until now was clearer.
I had the names of the men who served and fought so bravely,
and, as I would later learn, died so unnecessarily."

Seven other Airmen from the 1st CEVG would be killed in action as well

One Airman was killed on February 24, 1968 at Gia Dinh, RVN ear Tan Son Nhut AB, Saigon

TSgt Lowell V. Smith

Six Airman were killed on June 5, 1966 near Done Ha, RVN

SSgt John P
A1C Rufus L James
TSgt Bruce E Mansfield
TSgt Antone P Marks
SSgt Jerry Olds
A1C Rufus L James
TSgt Bruce E Mansfield
TSgt Antone P Marks
SSgt Jerry Olds,
SSgt Vasquez Ephraim

Dave Rosenau, an analyst, sent a memo to the JTF-FA on September 30, 1994 highlighting a Communist propaganda film entitled "Bank Lao Tapee" which was shown in the Latin quarter of Paris, France during May 1968. The North Vietnamese Army's Public Affairs/Psychological Operations office produced the film, narrated in French. A Lao refugee said the film showed 3-4 American servicemen and Thai soldiers killed on Phou Pha Thi when it was overrun by Communist forces on March 11, 29168. The film contained scenes where the bodies were visible. The memo said "The narrator informed viewers that the bodies were thrown into a ravine/over a cliff and left to the elements." This explains why the JTF-FA threw dummies over the cliff to see where they landed etc. and rappelled down the cliff and took imagery of items found.


JTF-A investigators found boots, canteens, a survival vests, clothing fragments and other personal items of the Americans such as shown in this next photo from the JTF-FA team.


The overall events surrounding Phou Pha Thi were declassified in 1982. The Director, Policy and Plans, POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) informed the DPMO Director through an undated memo, but one received by DPMO on May 27, 1987, that the JTF-FA investigated the site in March 1994 and conducted a recovery operation at LS-85 in December 1984 - January 1985. The team "did not find any trace of the remains of the 11 missing" Airmen. It did recommend that "DPMO must continue to turn over all stones in a search to positively resolve the case of the 11 unaccounted" Airmen.

I know that a Senate committee met on January 22, 1992.

The Library of Congress has a host of material on this case that run through at least 2004. I have not been able to access these.


Linkages: Vietnam and Laos
US tackles the linkages
Challenges to Rolling Thunder pilots
TACAN at LS-85
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Process to make it happen
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Installation
TSQ-81 operations
Situation Assessment: Houaphan Province
NVA plans attack
NVA moves to attack positions
US threat assessments - actions taken
The NVA attack
The aftermath