Talking Proud Archives --- Military

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

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

The NVA attack on LS-85


At 1800 hours March 9, the NVA began to shell the mountain. Russell Hughes reported in his article, "A Fatal Failing of Intelligent Leadership in the Vietnam War, the Battle of Lima Site 85," that three NVA battalions began assaulting defensive positions, helped by 20 Hmong defectors. These defensive positions were, for the most part, located on the slope on the east side of the mountain.

Correll said the NVA attacking force on March 10, 1968 consisted of between five and seven battalions of 3,000 troops.

At about 1800 on March 10 a NVA artillery round struck a 105 mm howitzer protecting the site, another hit the living quarters, and another hit the bunker. This lends credence to Major Do's report that sappers had earlier reconnoitered the top of the mountain to confirm everything's location.

The technicians notified 7/13th AF at Udorn they were taking fire and they were leaving the radio. About 12 of the technicians grabbed their weapons and ran to the trenches to hide. The technicians had portable radios and could talk to the CIA command center down the mountain.

CIA said, "The Air Force at Udorn began urgently preparing night airstrikes, which required flare ships and specially configured night-attack A-26 Invaders from the 56th Special Operations Wing. Evacuation of the personnel still was not contemplated."

While all this was occurring, the Hmong at the base of the mountain were also under attack. However, at about 1845 March 10 hostile fire ceased. Some technicians returned to the facility and resumed work, while others ignored the instruction about not going to the ledge. They went to it for the night, feeling it was the safest place for them.

The five technicians who went to the ledge were Capt. Stanley Sliz, CMSgt. Richard Etchberger, TSgt. Donald L. Springsteadah, SSgt. Henry Gish, and SSgt. John Daniel.

The commonly held position was that the attack would come up the eastern slope. No one knew or even contemplated the sapper plan to scale the cliffs on the western side, no one except Lt. Colonel Farnsworth, who had warned Lt. Colonel Blanton, 7th/13th AF, and his own boss.

At about 2105 the USAF command center at Udorn was told the ambassador was considering ordering an evacuation. Artillery attacks resumed at 2121 and the technicians employed the TSQ-81 to direct air attacks to help defend the mountain. At 2150 the USAF command center at Udorn notified the embassy that an evacuation should be done only as a last resort and informed the embassy that an evacuation order should first be cleared with the 7/13th AF commander.

As far as I can tell, that was a new twist. The Ambassador had felt he was the only one who could give the order. Indeed CIA seems to confirm that. It said:

"Ambassador Sullivan had sole authority for ordering the evacuation, a circumstance that was to prove costly."

CIA commented:

"7/13th Air Force contacted the Embassy in Vientiane and indicated that evacuation should be commenced only as a last resort if the situation became untenable. These interactions indicate that the Ambassador, the 7th Air Force, and the men at the site did not believe as late as 2100 that the situation had become perilous. The danger appeared manageable, and the security of the ridge-line was believed intact. All concerned had good intelligence about the disposition and intentions of the enemy, so there must have been inordinate faith in the remoteness and defensibility of the mountain. When the shelling resumed at 2121, the Ambassador, still in close communication with the site, ordered that nine of the 16 technicians be evacuated at 0815 the next morning."

My reading of this is that as late as 2100, March 10, 1968, 7th AF still opposed evacuation, and the ambassador still relented to 7th AF. He would only order an evacuation of nine of the 6 technicians the next morning, March 11.

Let's pause for a moment and look at some photography of the routes up the western cliffs and a graphic of the attack.

Amicus International Consulting of Vancouver, Canada is an information provider on legal nationality and residency programs. On its Pinterest web page for Lima Site 85 it has some very interesting photos and graphics on Phou Pha Thi Mountain with annotations describing the attack route, where various belongings of those killed in action were found and other photographic descriptions. I do not know why Amicus would do this, but it did. Much of the photography I will show in this section and the next was taken by Lt. Colonel Jeannie Schiff, USAF, shown here, from Joint Task Force - Full Accounting (JTF-FA) that participated in the recovery efforts at Phou Pha Thi in March 1994. JTF-FA would ultimately evolve into the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).

Robert J. Destatte, Senior Analyst, Research & Analysis Directorate, Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Office (Retired), did the sketches on the photography. Recall he is the one who translated Major Do's account of the battle plan.


The JTF-FA team determined there were two crevices shown in red dotted lines that were used by the sappers to scale the cliffs on this, the western side of the mountain. To my knowledge, no one at the time of attack expected they would do this. Quite to the contrary, this side was seen as one of the reasons an attack was unlikely.

The blue sketching shows the location of the TSQ-81 equipment. Most of the American defenders fought from positions among the rocks, ravine and ledges behind the operations center, shown by the light blue dotted lines.


The NVA infantry units were deployed on the eastern side of the mountain and would attack from there, going up the slope. One more smaller element turned toward the helipad to tie down the CIA, Hmong and Thais and block relief from that location.

The sappers were in position on top the mountain, having climbed up the western side, and the infantry battalions were in positions at the base of the mountain. Artillery had already been attacking the mountain. The Central Committee had given the "go" approval. So from a NVA standpoint, everything was ready to proceed on March 10, and it did.


This is another view, facing directly at the western cliff. The red dotted line shows the avenue of approach by the sappers, and the blue dotted lines show the location of the equipment and defensive fighting positions taken by the Americans. Note the yellow arrow pointing to a tunnel. More on this in a moment.

John T. Correll noted “US officials did not believe the enemy could climb the cliffs. The fourth side of the mountain was fortified. The assumptions were wrong.”


Bob Brennan, in his web site "The Fall of Lima Site 85," presented this photo:


This photo shows the site layout. Note the TACAN and TSQ-81 operations radar and vans are located on the western edge of the mountain. That is the direction from which the enemy sappers came.


This is what appears to be a hand-drawn map depicting the NVA attack on the mountain top. It has been sourced to the NVA's Northwest Military Region General Staff Department, which I believe is also called the 2nd Military Region. It is dated March 11, 1968. The red dotted lines show the enemy sapper avenue of approach from the West and then the red arrow shows how the team spread out to attack various locations. You can see a group of red arrows left center converging on the TACAN/TSQ-81 operation. There were some defensive positions shown in the blue lines with the intermittent blue squares on them, and some mortar positions but they were not enough to throw back the attack. Many of those positions were on the southeastern side down near a helipad at the base of the mountain. That is the "fourth side of the mountain" to which Correll had referred.

At 0100 hours on March 11 the sapper cells executed their plan. Correll said there were 33 sappers. Each of the cells moved toward its targets, having to make only a few adjustments. One element got lost. Three American operators were killed instantly as they ran out into the open.

The idea of evacuation in the event of a serious threat, last possible resort, or an imminent attack had passed; the attack was underway, it was a surprise attack from the West, and there had been no evacuation. Everyone who felt there would be enough time to evacuate was wrong. There now was no time. So now the technicians were at a point where they were holding on at all costs.

A second group of sappers climbed the North Slope to cut off any advance from the Thai outpost, and yet a third group moved southwards toward the helipad.

Once the Americans saw that the attacking force was small, they used the assault rifles and employed grenades trying to get the TACAN back.

The CIA local area commander was Howie Freeman. He and CIA paramilitary officer John Woody Spence had been working and living at the operations area several hundred yards below the radar buildings. An Air America document, "
Upholding the Airman's Bond," reported the following:

"(Freeman) faced the communist barrage with great courage and determination. At first dawn, heedless to the presence of enemy soldiers and the continuing risk of mortars, rockets, and artillery fire, Freeman led a rescue party of Hmong regulars to the radar facility. While searching for the technicians he came under enemy gunfire and suffered a serious leg wound. Armed only with a shotgun and some phosphorous grenades, Freeman defended his team until forced to withdraw. Howard Freeman was awarded CIA’s Intelligence Star. At the operations area Woody Spence suffered severe hearing loss during the bombardment but continued to maintain critical communications throughout the North Vietnamese assault. He also declined evacuation from his post until sensitive equipment and documents were properly safeguarded. Mr. Spence was honored with the CIA's Certificate of Distinction."

GishHenry SpringsteadahDonald
The NVA spotted Sliz’s team on the ledge where it was hiding, and opened fire, shooting down about 20 ft. from the top. Two Americans were killed immediately, Henry Gish (left) and Donald Springsteadah (right). The NVA employed automatic weapons and lobbed grenades over the side. Sliz and John Daniel were wounded.

Etchberger, shown here, was unhurt and fired at the enemy from the ledge with his M-16. TSgt. Jack Starling, a TACAN operator, was by the TACAN, wounded and acting as though he were dead. A1C Huffman, the combat controller, was hiding behind one of the TSQ buildings. He fought his way back to the helipad, where he met up with Freeman and Spence. So that puts three at the helipad, and leaves three alive on the ledge, Capt. Sliz, CMSgt. Etchberger, and SSgt. Daniel.

During the 0300 hour, one sapper cell attacked and took the communications site. A cell attacked the TACAN and assaulted the living quarters (tents). Reinforcements came over and the TACAN was seized by 0430 after 45 minutes of fighting. The NVA had firm control of the TACAN at 0630.

CIA said:

" At the Embassy in Vientiane, the Ambassador lost touch with the situation after 0300, and radio contact was not re-established at the helipad until about 0500. He then ordered full evacuation at 0715 (another source said 0515), an hour ahead of schedule.

"The Air America helicopters were standing by and immediately tried to reach the site, as incoming fire had apparently ceased just before 0700. Approaching the summit, however, they drew fire from the sappers.

"Howie Freeman (CIA's on-scene commander: CIA called him 'Marlow'), observing this, estimated that the TSQ area was in enemy hands and called in A-1E Sandys (such as the one shown here) on the facility. This strike forced at least one enemy soldier to flee over the cliff where the surviving Air Force technicians were hiding. There was then a furious firefight on the side of the cliff, and the (enemy) soldier was killed."

The attack against the helipad did not go well and fighting continued throughout the day.

The explosive charges designed to destroy the facility did not explode as the fuses had never been set. CIA said the technicians were concerned the artillery barrages would set off the charges and blow up the TSQ-81, and therefore the men simply threw the explosives over the cliff.


Between 0600 and 1700 March 11, jet aircraft and T-28s (such as shown here) strafed and dropped cluster bombs and high explosives in and around the TACAN site. Incoming fire stopped just before 0700, March 11, 1968.

Conboy said all three NVA battalions from Group 766 overran the defenders of the mountain around the base of the site. He commented the NVA were in full control of the mountain on March 11.

The NVA attacking force remained to defend the mountain on March 12 and 13, and withdrew on March 14. The NVA estimate was 42 enemy killed and wounded, mostly Thais and Laos.

The Hmong at the base of the mountain held until about 0730. They were outnumbered and as predicted by all hands at the US embassy, they could not hold. They finally withdrew into the hills leaving a large cache of weapons and equipment.

The USAF sent in fighters to bomb and strafe the site for the next few days after the attack.

I'll stop those descriptions of the battle scene here. I now want to convey the battle perspectives of three who survived; Captain (later Major) Stan Sliz and SSgt. John Daniel survived on the ledge, and SSgt Jack Starling survived by hiding behind the operations area. I'll then move on to convey what Major Secord experienced at Udorn trying to come to the aid of the men on the mountain. I briefly describe some of Secord's actions in the previous section; this rendition will be more thorough.

You might recall that the technicians were advised not to go to the ledge. General Secord commented on that in his book, saying:

"These technicians apparently (and understandably) had little faith in the her echelon's ability or commitment to save them, so they decided, in extremis, to help themselves."

Memoirs of three survivors

Captain Stanley Sliz

Stan Sliz was the day shift Controller, an USAF captain. The USAF missions coming out of Thailand went right over the site, headed north. He said the men would watch them: "It was pretty awesome watching them swoop down through the valleys.'

Sliz said,

"We knew that the enemy was coming. We could see them on the other mountains around us. We could see them through binoculars looking back at us.

"On the 12th of January, two biplanes attacked us. They were dropping grenades and mortar shells; a Thai captain was shooting at them and hit one of them just as he released a salvo of rockets. This saved us because the plane jerked up and the rockets went over our head. That aircraft staggered off and crashed. The other biplane was shot down with an AK-47 by an Air America chopper who flew along side so the crew chief could shoot at it. The most significant thing that came out of that incident was that they gave us a couple of survival vests, the kind that pilots wear when they fly, there's a little radio in them as well as flares and other survival equipment. We were also issued 10 M-16s along with a case of ammo.

"The day that we were overrun my crew was on the day shift. We worked from six in the morning to six at night. Afterwards both crews sat in a meeting about the situation getting grave, and did we want to get evacuated out tonight or the next morning. We decided to spend the night. We had targets for the night, so let's run them, and we'll get out first thing in the morning. Just as we were getting ready to break off, this loud explosion occurred outside the door. We found that when we ran into the bunker for protection, a rocket had made a direct hit on a corner of the bunker. Because of the condition of the bunker, we decided to hide on the reverse slope of the mountain (the ledge), below the equipment.

"We all grabbed whatever we could; I grabbed the survival vest off the corner of my bed and put it on. We all stayed on the side of the mountain for about three hours, until the barrage ended. Deciding to see if the radar was still in operation, Bill Blanton's crew found that the equipment was okay, and started making bomb runs. The rest of us decided to spend the night on the mountainside in case of another attack. Etch (Etchberger), Hank (Gish) and I set up a portable HF radio with a battery pack and contacted our HQ at Udorn with a report of what was going on. Then we fell asleep.

"We were awakened by the sound of automatic-weapons fire from the vicinity of the outpost on our inner perimeter. Hearing footsteps and voices above us, we sneaked down the mountain about twenty feet to a cave where Danny (Daniels) and Monk (TSgt. Donald K. Springsteadah) were sleeping. (Editor note: This might have been the tunnel shown by the yellow arrow on an earlier photo). There were five of us in that little hole, with barely enough room for two. It wasn't the greatest spot, but it worked well for most of us.

"We heard all this commotion going on above us, guns firing, grenades popping. Soon everything became still. Etch was watching the trail above and whispered, 'Stan, there's people coming!' I said, 'When they get close enough, shoot,' So he did. Almost immediately all hell broke loose. They opened up on us from all over, throwing grenades and firing their AK-47s.

"The first burst killed Hank (Gish) and that's when I was wounded in my thighs. John (Daniel) also was wounded on the first attack. The pain was unbearable, but we just managed to fight them off. I don't recall ever looking at my watch or wondering what time it was. We were more interested in trying to stay alive, using our weapons and firing back. Grenades kept coming in; bullets fragmenting all around, I soon reached the threshold of pain where I just didn't feel anything anymore; I felt my body vibrating from the hits. It became just like the nuisance of standing in a heavy rainstorm. Another grenade came in but I couldn't reach it. I thought about jumping onto it, John said, 'Here grab Hank, he's dead.' So I took Hank and went on top of the grenade. It blew us back, the concussion knocking me out. When I came to, pieces of Hank were all over me. But the rest of us weren't killed. I got a real big piece of it in my thigh, and saw that my hand appeared mangled, but seemed usable. But we didn't get killed by the grenade. I thought I was close to death and the thought flashed through my mind, 'So this is what it's like to die. I wonder what the final feeling is like?'

"I know at one time someone, I don't know who, brought up the idea that maybe we should surrender. I said I thought that was BS, because I was pretty sure that they weren't taking any prisoners. I remember turning to John and saying, 'They couldn't take us anyway, you're shot in the legs and so am I. There's no way we could walk out of here.'

"During lulls in the fighting, using my little survival radio I contacted a C-130 flare ship circling overhead, dropping parachute flares. He encouraged us to 'Hang on, help's on the way.' Sure enough; a pair of A-1's from NKP arrived overhead at daybreak.

"Contacting them, I found they were armed with 20 mm cannons and CBUs (cluster bob units). I oriented them to make strafing runs from the TACAN building toward the radar equipment where I figured the enemy troops were. Each aircraft made two passes, with little effect on the enemy fire. So I asked them to drop the CBUs along the same axis of attack, saying, 'You might as well. We're goners anyhow, so you might as well do it.' So they made their passes and dropped the bombs. It was like setting off a string of firecrackers, only a thousand times magnified. It was a horrendous noise. After a while everything was deathly still. I thought I had gone deaf after the A-1’s dropped their bombs, I couldn't hear a thing, just the ringing in my ears.

"Then I heard this chopper, an Air America Huey. I got on the radio and talked to these guys, telling them where we were. The pilot asked if we had any smoke down there. I pulled it out of my vest and said, 'Yeah, it's purple.' I handed the flare to Etch because my hands were too bloody to pop it, and he set it off. The whole cave filled with smoke and we sat there gagging. The pilot said, 'I gotcha,' and lowered a jungle penetrator to us. Etch needed help opening the leaves (on the seat) before we put Danny (John Daniel) on it. After reeling him up, they dropped it down so I could be pulled up.

"As they lifted me up, I swung sharply away from the mountain and the back swing crashed me back against the mountain. I was stunned as they continued to pull me up, but I remember looking down and seeing one of our guys, Willie Husband, coming around the side and waving at me - like don't forget me. I remember lying on the floor, staring at tiny particles of metal as they were getting everybody else into the chopper.

"That's when they opened fire on us. I saw this little hole in the floor beside my face and thought, 'Hey, that hole wasn't there a second ago. And what's that red spot? My God! It's blood. I've been hit again.' Then I looked up at Etch as he was falling out of the canvas seat above me. The bullet had gone right up through him and got him internally.

"He was killed instantly. The pilot, realizing he was taking fire, went into evasive action by slipping down to the right, away from the mountain. I kept passing out from loss of blood, but each time I awoke, I got a cigarette from the crew chief. And when I passed out again, he took it from me. That's all I remember until I woke up in Udorn."

SSgt. John G. Daniel, USAF

"On March 10, 1968 we had been running missions all day, had gotten a break and decided to cook dinner.

"As we were getting ready to cook dinner Bill Blanton came and called everyone back up to the radar van from the cooking area and was briefing us on the status of us and our mission.

"He said that we were in dire danger and perhaps we could still get some choppers in that evening to evacuate or we could go ahead and drop bombs and get out at first light.

"We all decided to stay and continue our mission.

"At this time there was firing of some heavy weapons and the cooking area took at least one direct hit.

"It was decided that Blanton and his crew would stay and man the equipment and that our crew, which consisted of Stan, Monk, Gish, Dick and I would go to the bunker.

"We decided that instead of the bunker, as it was close to the cooking area and sleeping area we would go over the side of the mountain where we had explored before as there was good cover there. We remained there and sometime during the night there was lots of small arms fire and grenades.

"About that time we came under fire and Gish was hit first. I believe that Monk and Stan were hit and Monk's was fatal. Then I was hit in both legs and Gish was hit again and this one fatal.

"During this time only Dick and I were able to defend ourselves and the others, which at this time only Stan being alive.

"Dick never got hit during this time and was directing me on what was taking place and what to do.

"I had the only radio that worked and was talking to the aircraft ('Sandy' flight A-1Es) if I recall correctly.

"Dick and I decided that we needed them to drop their ordnance on top of the hill as there was no evidence of life there, except for the ones shooting at us.

"They kept dropping all their ordnance and strafing with their guns and as they ran dry other aircraft kept replacing them.

"Also there were some flare ships in the area dropping flares for us.

"About daylight an Air America chopper came in and was able to drop a lift and Dick was able to get Stan and me loaded into the chopper.

"At this time one other person whom we didn't know was alive came down to where Dick was, still on the ground, and got loaded into the chopper.

"Then Dick was able to get loaded into the chopper.

"As we were lifting off there was a short burst of small arms fire that hit the bottom of the chopper.

"I was told later that one round hit Dick and he bled to death before the chopper got to the next LS. We were then transferred to an evacuation flight back to Korat Air Base."

SSgt. Jack Starling, USAF

"It was 200 yards from the runway up to the radar site. The radar site being the highest point on the mountain. It didn’t bother me too much at that point because they had told us how secure the site was. After you get up there you can see how easy it could be secured. Which it wasn’t. One side, it barely had one corner that was unsafe but that was supposed to be land mined. And on the other side they had the Laotian Army and some Thai army on guard.

"I knew that the North Vietnamese Army was within five miles just about all the time. But we felt secure on our own where we were. Observers came by the day it happened and said there might be an attack or something like that. We were called to a meeting up in the radar about five or six in the afternoon. We were in the process of grilling steaks outside the radar unit. While we were in the meeting the first round came in and blew the living quarters away. That kind of broke up the meeting. There was no more discussion about who was going to leave. We took cover on the opposite side of the mountain from where the rounds were hitting. Most of them went right over us. They were lobbing them in from about twenty miles away. We were pretty secure with all the rounds going over us. They couldn’t actually get to us the way they were firing. We figured this would happen in the future, but we didn’t figure there would be a land assault that night.

"About four or five in the morning the rockets stopped for what seemed like an hour. Then all of a sudden, we started hearing machine-gun fire and hollering from the Vietnamese. It looked to me like there were probably a couple hundred of them out there and no Thai Army. Now I’m scared. One other guy and I were lying behind this rock that was about six feet high. They started lobbing hand grenades at us and Fred would kick them over the cliff with his foot.

"Then behind us the Vietnamese started shooting everybody with machine-gun fire. One of the first guys hit was hit by a hand grenade in his right arm. It was completely off. He brought me his M-16 because mine was still down in the shelter. It wouldn’t work because it was damaged by shrapnel. It had a shell jammed in it and I couldn’t get it out. About this time planes came in and started strafing. Me and another guy were laying side by side and these two Vietnamese came down to where we were and jumped over him and landed on my ankle. I had been hit earlier by sniper fire, in the leg. When they jumped over him, they turned around and just opened up on him. How they missed me I’ll never know. On the other side of the rock about three feet away a guy was calling for help. Because of his arm he was bleeding to death. They heard him and went over and just opened up on him. I didn’t see it but I could hear it. The guy next to me had his leg over mine to keep from kind of falling over the cliff. They got him pretty good, and at that point I figured I was dead. What I was afraid of started, coming around and looting, taking watches, money and stuff like that. When the aircraft passed over, the Vietnamese came over this way and then when they saw a chance to escape they got out. When they were doing all the strafing, there were two Vietnamese, running back and forth trying to keep from being shot. A helicopter came in and picked up some guys. When the generator guy went by I said, because I couldn’t walk, I’m over here. The Vietnamese started shooting at the helicopter and it had to take off.

"I was by myself. It seemed like twenty hours, but it was only five or six hours. I just stayed there and kept still because I didn’t have anything to protect myself with. And then when the helicopter came in all I had was a flashlight that had different lenses on the bottom. So I held the red lens over it and was pointing it towards the chopper. He couldn’t land and had to lift me up with a line.

"I felt lucky to get out and glad they came back for me."

Major Secord's memoirs, as documented in his book, Honored and Betrayed:

On March 10, the NVA launched an artillery attack. Secord called 7/13th AF and asked for tactical air. A1C Roger Huffman, USAF, shown here, was a combat air controller brought in to direct air attacks supportive of LS-85. He guided in A-26s and F-4 Phantoms against suspected enemy locations. It was not enough. The enemy barrage resumed later.

Secord was unable to get any firm commitments from 7th AF, so when the TSQ-81 was operational, its technicians continued calling in air attacks in their defense.

As a precautionary move, Secord moved some Air America helicopters closer to the site to LS-36 at Na Khang, about 30 miles away. Secord's mind was now focused on evacuating the people on the mountain. General Vang Pao was airlifting Hmong reinforcements but they would not get there in time.

Secord understood the order received from Headquarters CIA to "hold the site at all costs," but by the time the site was under attack, he, Pat Landry and Tom Clines were fast coming to the conclusion they might have to order an evacuation, blow up the place and get everyone out of there. Secord wrote:

"We decided to evacuate the site after first light (March 11, 1968) despite orders from Washington a couple weeks earlier to hold at whatever cost."

Secord called 7th AF and asked for AC-130 gunship support. There was one located at Udorn. The officer taking the call at 7th AF said he would try, but called back to say the AC-130 was busy on the Trail. Secord told the 7th AF officer to divert the AC-130, and then demanded to talk to his boss. A colonel came on the line and said the AC-130's mission on the Trail carried a higher priority. Secord, who was at Udorn at the time, drove to 7/13th AF Headquarters and grabbed a phone. He called 7th AF again and said he wanted to talk to the colonel's boss. That officer turned out to be Brigadier General Arnold R. Craig, USAF. Secord repeated his requirement for the AC-130, and excitedly tried to explain to the general the importance of LS-85 and the fact that Airmen were up there. Getting no sign of a positive response, he angrily hung up the phone, and he knew the site was going to be lost.

Reflecting understandable frustration, Secord remarked in his book:

"If prayers, drums and feathered rattles would've worked, cleared the skies of Phou Pha Thi or cleared the cobwebs out from between the ears of the commander of 7th AF (General Momyer), we'd have tried them."

Communications went out with the radar site, but fortunately they had positioned Sgt. Gary (cover name for Sgt. Huffman) at the LZ with a portable HF radio. They contacted him, and he reported he was hearing small-arms fire on top the mountain. That seemed to startle those at Udorn. It was hard to believe the NVA could get by the Hmong and Thai forces at the base of the mountain and the mines that had been planted all around. At this point, they did not know the sappers had scaled the cliff, which was not predicted.

Landry ordered Evan Washburn (cover name for Howie Freeman), a CIA case officer, to grab some Hmong and go up and see what he could see. Washburn was not hot on doing that, but did it anyway. In the mean time, Secord ordered Vang Pao's reserves to get over to LS-36. He also got his chief photo-interpreter Pete Saderholm to get over to the A-1 Skyraiders squadron to convince them to launch aircraft to support the site. At about 0400 on March 11, 7th AF began sending an airborne armada to the site. Secord concluded 7th AF did that because by this time it understood "somebody had fumbled the ball."

Washburn and his Hmong reached the top, watched the USAF air attacks descending on the site, and radioed in what was happening. The aircraft "obliterated" Rt. 602, A-1s were bombing all around the mountain and then guided in F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs.

As the minutes ticked by, Secord learned that Washburn, himself wounded, with a few wounded Hmong and five wounded technicians made it back to the LZ, and a chopper came in and evacuated them. After lifting off the NVA fired at it, piercing holes through the belly, and one wounded technician was killed. Sgt. Gary himself had been wounded while with some Hmong who fought off the sappers at the top. Gary said the five technicians he brought back down the hill to the LZ had fought off the sappers with the weapons provided by Secord.

Secord arranged for Volpar photo reconnaissance aircraft to photograph the mountain top. Its photos led to the conclusion that most of the remaining technicians were KIA. As a result, Secord and the others arranged for F-4s from the 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) to bomb the mountain top on March 12. However, their bombs missed the top. So Secord asked for the more nimble AT-28s to attack. Secord said an old friend, Bill Plank, "literally blew off the top of the mountain."

Editor's note: I think there is a little fog of war in part of Secord's memoir. I'll discuss it in more detail in a moment, but I do not believe Washburn (Freeman) brought down five technicians and all hands were picked up by a helicopter. Two helicopters came in, one picked up three from the ledge and one who had been hiding and hurried over to the helicopter, and second to get Freeman (AKA Washburn), Spence and Huffman (AKA Gary). Let's get into that.

Air America helicopter rescues

I will tell you up front that I have had a hard time sifting through the multiple renditions of the rescue operation. You will see references to USAF Jolly Green HH-53 helicopters being involved. The Air University Foundation reported that Ken Wood's UH-1 Huey, and a HH-53B "Jolly Green" helicopter, callsign "Jolly Green 67" participated in the rescue on the mountain, crewed by Capts Russ Cayler and Joe Panza, and Sgt. J.J. Rodgers, USAF.

Panza said, "We launched in the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, to rescue the 19 men that were under attack at Lima Site 85, a top secret radar site atop a 5,600-foot mountain … We went up to pull everybody we could off." Panza was in the USAF rescue chopper next to the Air America chopper that picked up CMSgt. Etchberger and others off the ledge and the mountain top. My gut says the Air America helicopter was in his way out and Jolly 67 was on the way in, and thy passed each other.

Figuring out who rescued whom is where the task got hard. But I believe my description below is accurate.

For example, CIA reported:

"Following the airstrike by the Sandys, the Air America helicopters were able to approach the ridge-line and evacuate some of the Americans. The Air Force combat SAR Jolly Green Giants did not join in the rescue, perhaps because of their inability to land on the tiny clearing. The Air America Hueys went in repeatedly and extracted the two CIA officers, the FAC, and five of the technicians who had hidden in the craggy rocks on the cliff face. One technician was hit during the extraction, and he died on the way to Udorn.

"Return flights were able to recover or account for eight of the 11 Americans killed on Phou Phathi, as well as some wounded Hmong defenders. The other three, who were among those who scrambled over the side of the cliff after abandoning the TSQ, were believed blown off the cliff by the constant artillery and mortar fire and airstrikes. Later in the morning a counterattack was contemplated at Udorn, but this plan was temporarily set aside in favor of continued search and rescue."

Furthermore, Secord has said there was only one CIA officer at the site, picked up by Phil Goddard flying an Air America helicopter. Secord affirmed only Air America helicopters were involved in the evacuation. I do believe, however, that the Air America helicopters got the four off the ledge and another got the three at the helipad.

John Tarn, an Air America pilot, was involved and said that were three Air America helicopters and two Jolly Greens involved in rescue operations.

As you'll see, I'm pretty sure both Air America and USAF Jolly Greens were involved.


The photo shows a helicopter used by JTF-FA hovering over what was said to be "Ledge Number 1." This ledge was pretty far down the cliff so I do not think it was the ledge on which some technicians went to hide. The JTF-FA people had thrown down some dummies from the top to see where they might land, see how much damage would be done to them, and then look in those areas to see if they could find evidence. They did that because there were allegations the enemy had thrown American bodies over the cliff. That's why these guys were there. I show the photo to give an idea what it was like for a Huey UH-1 helicopter to hover over a ledge to pull up survivors, which is what they did as you shall now learn.

I'll now try to nail this all down. I apologize. I have had such a hard time with this that my counting below may be overdone, but I have to do it this way. Just prior to publishing I found I had made a mistake, so please bear with me here. If any reader thinks I still have it wrong, please holler (, I'll study it again, and make corrections as needed.

Okay, here we go.

Sliz said an Air America helicopter picked up him and Daniel. Daniel confirms that and added Etchberger was also picked up by this same helicopter. Dr. Joe F. Leeker,
"Air America in Laos II - Military Aid, reported Air America Captain Ken Wood and his Flight Engineer L.M. "Rusty" Irons hovered on the western edge of the mountain in an Air America UH-1 "Huey" helicopter during the first hours of March 11, 1968 and they saved several men. Wood and Irons crewed the helicopter that picked up those three: Sliz, Etchberger and Daniel. So that's three rescued. Hold on, there's more to this story.

The American Heritage Series honoring Chief Etchberger described this rescue in some detail. It said Wood and Irons spotted survivors on the side of the cliff at 0735 March 11, 1968. There was an early morning fog that helped conceal the survivors. It went on to say:

"Etchberger assisted the semi conscious (John) Daniel onto the hoist seat, and the UH-1's flight engineer L.M. 'Rusty' Irons hoisted Daniel up and into the helicopter. With Daniel aboard the Huey, Irons again lowered the seat to Etchberger, who then assisted Sliz into the seat. Irons brought Sliz into the helicopter and again returned the seat to Etchberger."

Okay, that jives with what Sliz and Daniel said. At this point we have
three rescues: Sliz, Etchberger, and Daniel. But there's still more to this story.

The American Heritage Series continued:

"Just as Etchberger was about to be hoisted up, Bill 'Willie' Husband, a diesel mechanic (referred to as the generator guy in Starling's memoir) who had been hiding since escaping the Dac Cong's machine gun assault early six hours earlier, appeared from the brush. Etchberger grabbed onto Husband in bear-hug fashion, and Irons started hoisting them up together. With the men clinging together on the hoist seat beneath the helicopter, the Huey was strafed by enemy ground fire forcing the pilot to pull the Huey away from the ledge. Irons managed to drag Etchberger and Husband into the helicopter. Suddenly a half-dozen armor-piercing bullets tore through the helicopter floor, right beneath Etchberger. One of the bullets entered his lower body."

Daniel had already mentioned Etchberger being picked up. American Heritage has added Husband, who you might recall was reported to have earlier been yelling "don't forget me!"
So that's a total of four survivors rescued: Sliz, Etchberger, Daniel and Husband.

My assessment of the data I have is that Husband was not on the ledge with the others, but instead was on top the mountain hiding, as was SSgt. Jack Starling. Husband was picked up by this helicopter piloted by Captain Wood, but Starling had to wait.

Etchberger was in critical condition, having lost a great deal of blood. The Air America helicopter touched down at LS-36 and the survivors were transferred to a C-123 transport which flew them to Udorn. Etchberger was alive when they started. Former CMSgt Merkel A. Bailey tried to make the wounded as comfortable as possible. He was not a medic. The C-123 landed at about noon. Etchberger had died from excessive loss of blood, probably having been hit in an artery.
So we have four survivors rescued. One of the three died on the way out, Etchberger. But he was rescued off the mountain-top.

Regrettably, of the total of four USAF-contractor survivors picked up from and near the ledge, only three survived by the time the helicopter got to LS-36 and the C-123 to Udorn: Sliz, Daniel and Husband.
Four rescued, three survived.

At about 0820, March 11, 1968, another Air American helicopter came in and picked up Hmong and Thai wounded. CIA's Freeman went with them.
So now now we have four technicians rescued (one died), and one CIA officer, Freeman, taking us up to five rescued, four survived.

A web site entitled, "
Combat Control in Laos?", said a USAF HH-53 Jolly Green helicopter came in twice to bring out more Hmong wounded. Another Air America helicopter picked up Spence and Huffman. That totals two more rescued, one USAF and one CIA, bringing the total up to seven rescued, six survived.

Willie Husband, who had been rescued by Captain Wood and Rusty Irons, told the rescuers there was one more American on the mountain, SSgt. Jack Starling. The web site I mentioned said a USAF Jolly Green went in to pick him up at 0946.
That raises the total rescued to eight, seven survived.

A bit more on the Starling story. Kelly Deichert, Air University Public Affairs, wrote a story for Maxwell AFB published on March 18, 2011, "
Chief's bravery on secret mission saved lives." Deichert wrote about the Starling rescue:

"Captain Russell Cayler, pilot, and then-Captain Panza, co-pilot, flying their HH-53B, call sign Jolly Green 67, searched Site 85, looking for Sergeant Starling. 'We saw what we thought was a signal. It was a flashlight,' Mr. Panza said. They lowered Sgt. James 'JJ' Rogers, the pararescueman, who had a hard time finding Sergeant Starling. 'We could see quite a few dead bodies,' Mr. Panza said. 'We didn't see anyone alive.' As Sergeant Rogers was about to return, he felt a tug on his right shoulder. Sergeant Starling found him, and Sergeant Rogers secured him to the hoist. Worried the enemy would target the helicopter, the pilots flew away and didn't pull up the hoist until at a safe distance. 'We gave 'em a hell of a ride,' Mr. Panza remembered."

The pilot, Russ Cayler, said, "We knew the site was going to be overrun. We knew the night before that we were going in." Talking about Staring, Cayler said, "(A man who played dead) popped up on one elbow and was flashing a light at me." Cayler's recollection is a bit different than that of Panza. Cayler said, "They (NVA) didn't shoot at us and we didn't shoot at them." Cayler recalled as soon as they had the survivor on the sling, he pulled Jolly 67 away from the mountain, reeled the two men in and flew off. Was I think happened here is they were reeling the hoist in as they were flying away. That synch with Panza's recollection.

All together, this adds up to eight rescues out of the 19 men on the mountain at the time, seven survived. My count, supported by documentation, is there were 16 USAF-contractor technicians on the mountain, one USAF combat air controller, and two CIA officers, totaling the 19. Of those, eleven USAF-contractors were killed on the mountain-top: Blanton, Calfee, Davis, Gish, Hall, Holland, Kirk, Price, Shannon, Springsteadah, and Worley. That's 11.

One other USAF-contractor was killed on his way out on a rescue chopper. So there were 12 USAF contractor losses out of 16. Four of the 16 USAF-contractors survived: Sliz, Daniel, Husband and Starling. Three of the remaining 19 were also rescued, Freeman, Spence and Huffman. A total of eight were rescued and seven survived: Sliz, Daniel, Husband, Starling, Huffman, Freeman and Spence.

I believe I have found one glitch that shows up in most reporting about the losses at LS-85. Most sources say 11 USAF-contractors were lost. I count 12. Those other sources, I believe, are not including CMSgt. Etchberger. That is probably due to the fact that Etchberger was rescued and technically did not die on the mountain-top. However, he was struck by hostile fire from the mountain top as he was climbing into the helicopter. He was an Air Force technician, he worked in the TSQ-81, and had worked very hard to get three technicians off the ledge and mountain, along with himself. Had he not waited and grabbed Husband, he might have survived. But he did wait, he did grab Husband, and they went up into the Air America helicopter together, and were pulled aboard.

Etchberger was struck by hostile fire after being dragged into the helicopter. He died on his way to Udorn. I count him as the 12th USAF-contractor loss. Counting the loss of Captain Westbrook, USAF, the A-1 pilot shot down during rescue operations, the USAF lost a total of 13 on that day.


I need to talk a moment about Major Donald E. Westbrook, USAF, shown here. Westbrook was a Naval Academy graduate. He led a four A-1E Skyraider task force to conduct search and rescue of possible survivors at LS-85. His callsign was "Sandy 1." He was assigned to the 602nd Air Commando Squadron, moved from Udorn RTAFB to NKP RTAFB during March 1968. On March 13, 1968, two days after the attack was finished, his flight was tasked to fly on a stand-by search and rescue orbit. It was then directed to LS-85. His flight flew over the LS-85 area for about 2.5 hours. The dense fog required him to fly close to the ground, banking left and right. The Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) then called Sandy 1 (Westbrook) and instructed him to take his flight back to home base. Westbrook did not acknowledge the call. Shortly after that, pilots in his group spotted white phosphorous smoke rising on the southeast slope of the mountain. They determined his aircraft had crashed. A rescue helicopter was brought in and spotted the wreckage, scattered all over the area, with no sign of life. The helicopter received some hostile fire. There was no parachute seen, no emergency beacon, and no calls from his survival radio. It was presumed he was shot down. His remains have not recovered. Several Lao refugees reported seeing the crash and the crash site. One Lao refugee reported witnessing other Lao burying Westbrook.

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: Houaphanh Province
NVA plans attack
NVA moves to attack positions
US threat assessments - actions taken
The NVA attack
The aftermath