Talking Proud Archives --- Military

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

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

Situation assessment: Houaphanh Province through January 1968

Studying the ebb and flow of combat in Laos, especially in northern Laos, and the ebb and flow of politics in Laos are challenges I cannot undertake here. I therefore will only focus on that relevant to LS-85.


Recall that LS-85 was located in Houaphanh Province, in the heart of enemy territory, a location were the enemy was its strongest. LS-85 was about 21 miles west of Sam Neua City, 12 miles south of NVN at the closest point, 60 miles southwest at the farthest point, and about 120 miles southwest of Hanoi all the way the crow flies.

Major Wayne M. McDonnell, USA, wrote a thesis for his Master of Military Art and Science for the US Army Command and General Staff College entitled, “The NVA in Laos:1951-73.” It was classified “Secret” but was released to the public in 1981.

McDonnell reported that during 1963 the RLG had taken control over much of Houaphanh Province, much to the dismay of NVA Major General Tran Van Tra of the NVA High Command, shown here. General Tra held an open-air meeting in Than Hoa Province, NVN. He noted the RLG had taken control over Houaphanh Province, and the Pathet Lao, as a result, withdrew about 12 miles into NVN from Laos. General Tra told the troops that kind of action would have to end, and told them this situation would change in 1964.

In early 1965, the NVA took the offensive in the Laotian Military Region 2, which encompassed Houaphanh Province. It deployed new units to the province. The Hmong fought the NVA in Houaphanh fiercely, and caused the NVA to pull back north of Sam Neua City. For his part, Vang Pao advanced from the PDJ to Phou Pha Thi Mountain. Hmong force strength was about 30,000 at this time, “a quilt-work of ethnic groups" as described by the Air Commando Association (ACA).


Nonetheless, General Vang Pao could see what was happening. He told the New York Times on August 19, 1965 that the military situation in this province (Houaphanh) was "serious." He told the paper the NVA and Pathet Lao had moved into the province in force, attempting to open Route 6 that extended from the NVN through Sam Neua City to the PDJ, as a replacement for Route 7 which air power had severely damaged.

Largely because of the war in Vietnam, the USAF executed its greatest expansion at the air bases in Thailand during 1966, adding more F-105s and F-4 Phantoms, with some 400 aircraft in Thailand by year's end.

While Laos had always been viewed as a buffer state between Vietnam and Thailand, the NVA was so determined to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail that it created buffer zones extending from its borders into these northeastern Laotian provinces. The NVA had earlier placed enormous emphasis on the Trail passing through southern Laos into the RVN, but now the Northeast presented challenges as well.

I'll note here that Laotian Prime Minister Phouma viewed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos as an American problem, not his. He was more concerned about enemy advances in the Northeast and toward Luang Prabang, the royal capital.

The Hmong Army of Vang Pao recaptured Phathi in 1966. CIA set up an airstrip. CIA used it much like the French did, as a stepping off point for Hmong guerrilla activity against the NVA and Pathet Lao. Recapturing the mountain meant Van Pao had his hands on a valuable piece of real estate for a drive against Sam Neua and for later use, to wit, air navigation facilities at LS-85.

With the Hmong holding Phathi, they were able to set up forward bases to within 10 miles of Sam Neua. That posed a major threat to enemy forces located and headquartered there. The RLA decided to move four battalions from its base at Phou Pha Thi Mountain and raid Pathet Lao and NVA positions in the province. They surprised the enemy and achieved some good successes.

The NVA were not going to stand for this. By February 1966 the NVA in northern Laos launched a full-fledged spring offensive. The NVA committed the most forces it had ever committed to that region. There were an estimated 39 enemy battalions in northern Laos in July 1965 and 63 in July 1966.


Between February and April 1966, the NVA employed one battalion and two regiments to capture the RLAF airfield at Thamla, 41 miles south-southwest of LS-85. It also employed three regiments, one battalion, and heavy weapons to take Muong Hiam, about 33 miles southwest of LS-85. The Hmong took very heavy losses. Furthermore, in early February 1966 the NVA overwhelmed CIA's LS-36 at Na Khang. This was a huge blow, since Na Khang was a keystone in the control of Route 6. Fortunately, Vang Pao took it back in May 1966.

I highlight these victories to underscore the NVA meant business when they went after a specific objective. Furthermore they employed overwhelming force. However, the NVA withdrew all but one NVA battalion and one Pathet Lao battalion, an action that proved to be a mistake. Shortly thereafter the Hmong came charging in and received considerable USAF air support. Fighting would be intense, but broadly speaking the Hmong held off the enemy offensive.

By this time, the NVA had its fill of the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. The NVA took more and more control over the war there and employed more and more of its own forces. Kenneth Conboy, writing
“Vietnam and Laos, A Recent History of Military Cooperation,” reported that by 1966, the NVA had taken over the war against the RLG in Laos, relegating the Pathet Laos to the sidelines. The NVA moved out of the support business and took the dominant combat position. Furthermore, an evolution would develop quickly wherein the NVA was no longer satisfied with limited objectives. It would now start organizing heavy infantry campaigns against key terrain targets.

Relevant to that point, in August 1966 the NVA command and control system in northern Laos grew in response to increased tactical activity in the region. Years earlier, in 1959, Hanoi had created Military Specialist Group 959, later called Command Headquarters 959 and Front 959. Headquarters 959 was located at Gia-Lam, about seven miles west of Hanoi central. Initially it was an advisory group supporting the Pathet Lao Headquarters and General Staff. It also organized the movement of logistics and supplies to the Pathet Lao units in Houaphanh and elsewhere. Moreover, Group 959 supervised NVA and Pathet Lao forces in Sam Neua.

But now in 1966, Group 959 created two new units, Group 766 and Group 866. Group 866 was primarily a logistics outfit. Group 766 was a tactical combat unit responsible for all tactical operations in northern Laos, controlled largely by Group 959 in Hanoi.

Recall the USAF TACAN at LS-85 reached operational status in September 1966. So the TACAN went in to LS-85 at about the same time as Group 766 was organized.

We'll focus on Group 766, known in Vietnamese as Doan 766, ”Doan” meaning “Group.” Conboy told us that in July 1966 NVA Group 766 was a four battalion group. Keep Group 766 in your mind: four NVA battalions at the Sam Neua Headquarters, about 21 miles east of LS-85. A typical NVA battalion would range from 400-600 men organized into three infantry companies. So Group 766 had from 1,600-2,400 men, perhaps more.


There were many battles fought during 1966 and early 1967. Air power proved to be decisive in many of them. However, one lesson became apparent to all intimately involved: The locations of LS-36 at Na Khang and LS-85 made their continued security questionable. They were about 30 miles apart by air. Any of these remote sites in the heart of enemy territory could fall at any time the NVA made a determined effort committing sufficient forces. This was the thrust of Bill Lair's concerns expressed to General Hunter in 1967.

In late 1967, the NVA for all practical purposes set the Pathet Lao aside and committed very large numbers of regular forces to fight in Laos. That coincided with its plans for the Tet Offensive in the RVN in January 1968.

Recall the TSQ-81 guidance system became operational at LS-85 in November 1967.

In December 1967 the enemy overran a TACAN station at LS-61, Muong Phalane in southern Laos. Helicopters going into the site after the attack came under heavy fire. Billy G. Webb said LS-61 was also part of a classified program known as “Muscle Shoals,” which employed electronic and acoustic sensors implanted on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Webb wrote the NVA suspected the TACAN site and the sensor program were linked. As a result, the NVA sent in an infantry battalion and a company of Dac Cong sappers who quickly disabled the site and killed two Americans along with one Philippine National and three Thai workers.

As a result, a new TACAN system was installed in Thailand across the Mekong River in the town of Mukdahan. Webb said the USAF did that “out of an abundance of caution.” He remarked the US “should have removed the USAF technicians from Phou Pha Thi out of an abundance of caution” as well.

Interestingly, Thomas Fosmire, CIA's chief of unit at Savannakhet, Laos commented, he and his people did not know Americans were at LS-61, saying "Air Commandos/Air Attaché, whoever was running the TACAN site had not informed us until the message from headquarters." LS-61 was in his area of responsibility.


It's now January 1968, and the NVA overran an important government garrison at Nam Bac (Bak) in Luang Prabang Province, about 57 miles north of Luang Prabang, the royal capital, and 82 miles west northeast of LS-85. Nam Bac was on Route 13 which went directly south into Luang Prabang.

The RLA had set up a garrison in Nam Bac in August 1966 to block a traditional Vietnamese invasion route into Luang Prabang. It also served as the location for CIA's LS-203. Unfortunately for the RLA, the village was only 45 miles from NVN. The NVA wanted Nam Bac and it committed one regiment (perhaps 1,800 men), elements of a division, and a Pathet Lao battalion to the fight. The battle that would ensue here was among the major engagements of the Lao Civil War.

It's January 1968. CIA reported:

"(The) Air Force and CIA directed numerous airstrikes of F-4, F-105, and A-1 fighter-bombers from Thailand and Vietnam, many using the new radar at Site 85, against the massed columns of enemy appearing to encircle the site (Nam Bac). The strikes were increased, even using Air Commando A-26 Invaders to attack at night, in an attempt to turn the twin advances on Routes 19 and 6. This air campaign peaked at 45 sorties on 3 January 1968, but it succeeded only in weakening the North Vietnamese and PL (Pathet Lao)."

Vang Pao's forces were stretched, just as Lair had predicted. CIA said, "The battle around Nam Bac intensified in early January, and on the 14th the base was taken by four NVA battalions. There were no survivors, and a massive amount of material and documents were captured." Hmong forces there took heavy losses but managed to escape. Vang Pao was trying to help but the garrison at Nam Bac fell. The NVA's attention now turned toward LS-85.

The point of raising Nam Bac is that the NVA employed a large force, much of the 316th Division and part of the 335th Independent Regiment. Conboy wrote that "this was the first evidence of the NVA focus on northeastern Laos.

The RLA outnumbered the NVA about 7,500 to 4,100 at Nam Bac, but the NVA took to the mountains, set up artillery positions and attacked. Anything that could be wrong or go poorly for the RLA did so. The RLA virtually collapsed at Nam Bac during the fight and its morale declined markedly thereafter. As I mentioned earlier, the RLA was not really a very strong army prior to this event.

I have deliberately made this situation assessment as brief as I could. The main points are the NVA took over fighting against the RLG and Hmong in Laos, it committed significant forces, and it employed those forces against specific targets with overwhelming force. It was obvious to many, including the men on top the mountain at Phou Pha Thi, that the situation in Houaphanh Province was getting worse every day.

The NVA attack against LS-85 was next on the NVA’s docket. It occurred about 6-7 weeks later.

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