Talking Proud Archives --- Military

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

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

Installation of the TSQ-81: August - October 1967

I would like to address the installation of the system, but once again, there is a
very good web site addressing that subject. I commend this site to you. I simply have too much to cover and they do a great job.

SecordRichardCaptA ClinesThomas

Major Richard Secord (left as captain in RVN) along with CIA member Tom Clines (right) were tasked to implement the TSQ-81 system, code-named "Commando Club." Clines at the time was the deputy to Ted Shackley, the Chief of Station (COS) in the US embassy. Secord arrived at Udorn in mid-1966 and was detailed to CIA, and then quickly transferred to the CIA staton at Vientiane, Laos. While in Laos, he worked for Bill Lair. Implementing the system meant they had to make sure everything was available and accomplished to install the system. Secord did not see any challenges in bringing the equipment to LS-85 and setting it up. He did see challenges in the area of security which I will come to later; Secord played a huge role. Let's first get the system installed, tested, and up and running.


Lt. Colonel Douglas Farnsworth, USAF (right) was the commander of the TSQ-81 installation team. CMSgt. Andy Born, USAF, his right hand man, shown here on the left side of the photo, led a 20-man installation team to Udorn and then on to LS-85 in mid-summer 1967. The installation team came from multiple elements of the USAF's 1st Combat Evaluation Group (1st CEVG). The 1st CEVG belonged to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Its mission was to provide radar bomb scoring and electronic warfare services to aircrews. The two are standing at the edge of one of the cliffs of Phou Pha thi Mountain.

Farnsworth turned out to be an important man in assessing the security situation. I'll mention him on this score later.

The installation began in August 1967. It involved a lot more than just dropping a box on the site.


The system came to the site in pieces, some of which are shown here. It had to be assembled, installed and checked-out. Here you see a CH47 Chinook delivering a container with system parts.


Installation was no trivial matter. For example, the base and pedestal for the radar dish weighed 2,000 lbs. Steel girders were employed to hold it, as shown here. The radar went on top the section with the vertical beams.

The installation team left in September 1967, leaving a few men behind to assure the system remained operational until the operations team arrived.

In early September 1967, somewhere around September 6,
Capt. Julian Higgins, USAF, CWO4 Bill Sapp, USAF, Larry Hootman and Ben Billings, all experienced astro observers from the 1381st Geodetic Survey Squadron, and a group of High Frequency Ranging and Navigation (HIRAN) operators were flown to Udorn. Their job was to accurately locate exactly where the TSQ-81 was positioned in geodetic terms. For the layman, they were to do a very precise land survey, using very specialized technical means.

They were all from the USAF's Aerospace Cartographic and Geodetic Service (ACGS) at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. Shortly after arriving, Higgins, the team chief, was called into see General Lindley, the Deputy Commander 7th/13th AF. Lindley was responsible at his level for getting the TSQ-81 up and running. Lindley emphasized the urgent need to get the system working, but understood the requirement for air and ground surveys.

Lindley told Higgins he Higgins would brief General John Ryan, the commander-in-chief PACAF and his staff who were visiting Udorn, the next day. Ryan replaced Hunter Harris in February 1967. Higgins was to explain in five minutes how he would be doing the survey. He would then travel with Lindley to Saigon to brief General Momyer.

I mentioned in the
"Challenges to Rolling Thunder" section of this report that General Ryan was deeply involved with finding targeting and weapon guidance systems for bombing at night and in bad weather. The need for the MSQ-77/TSQ-81 was mentioned as one of many possible solutions.

The Geodetic Survey Team went in civilians clothes to Phathi. The team was told it was to discuss nothing with anybody outside the program, and was given Lockheed identification cards, its cover. For our purposes, the interesting part of their trip was CIA briefed them before going in about the level of hostile activity around LS-85 over a period of time. Higgins remarked:

"It clearly showed the number and the intensity of skirmishes between the Hmong and North Vietnamese ground troops had increased significantly since the bad guys had learned of increased activity on the LS-85 mountain top."

So that's in September 1967.

It took the team three weeks to do their survey and put their HIRAN equipment in place. The HIRAN data was accepted by the first week of October 1967. I noted a few 1st CEVG people remained behind. They had to tie the TSQ-81 to the TACAN, and then compare its data to the HIRAN established position. Everything went smoothly.

I've included this ACGS information for two reasons. First, I wanted to underscore that the TSQ-81 and TACAN both required this survey to assure accuracy for the pilots who would do the bombing. Second, I wanted to emphasize the sensitivity among CIA analysts at Udorn regarding enemy activity in the area, enough that they felt compelled to brief this team.

With that in mind, let's get back to Farnsworth, the 1st CEVG installation team leader. Once he got to LS-86 in August 1967, he raised multiple issues. First, there were no communications. All communications were to be relayed by written message delivered by helicopter. Farnsworth said:

"In an emergency I could use a non-secure radio owned by Federal Electronics located in the TACAN maintenance shed. Neither method of communications was adequate or reliable. Even worse, there was absolutely no plan for evacuation in the event of hostile action or other emergency. I relayed my concern to 7/13 AF and Randle (his boss). In reply I was told, in so many words, not to worry."

Randle was Lt. Colonel Alan C. Randle, USAF, the 1st CEVG Director of Logistics. He was charged to get the installation done. But Farnsworth was the on-scene installation honcho, and he was worried. In my view, Farnsworth had foresight. He felt that the sheer cliff drop offs "were climbable." That turned out to be very prescient.


Talking to this photo of the installation team and on-lookers, Farnsworth said:

"This picture is most revealing. Revealing in the fact that we could not keep any of the native population away from the area. Look at the picture and ask yourself the obvious. How many of the spectators were infiltrators?"

He added:

"My personal belief is that we were continually under observation and a summary of our progress was provided Hanoi on a daily basis. Security was non existent … As to emergency evacuation, I took several helicopter rides about the area talking with the pilots about an alternate pick up point in the event our site was overrun and we managed to escape. We found an area in the vicinity of the range marker but it still appeared that pickup would always be chancy. Remember, we had no weapons and these men had no training in E&E (Evasion and Escape). As a crew member I had undergone extensive E&E training, knew the odds but felt an alternate pick up point would increase our chances. I continued to voice my concerns about this and numerous other matters but they were ignored. All of them! "

I'll talk more about Farnsworth's security analyses later.

By 1967 Operation Rolling Thunder had substantially ramped up in tempo. The TACAN alone was not good enough. The USAF said a command-guidance system such as the TSQ-81 was urgently needed, and was considered a very high priority.

PACAF briefed Admiral Sharp in September 1967 on the benefits of this system in Laos. Plunkett noted the benefits briefed by PACAF as follows:

"Although deteriorating weather will continue to degrade strike efforts for the next several months, operational status of Site 85 in northern Laos will allow strike forces to exert continuous pressure against important targets in NVN as well as targets in the Barrel Roll area. Site 85 is scheduled to be operational on 12 October. The present ECM (electronic countermeasures) and strike tactics will permit a sizable strike force to fly formation in high threat areas during daylight hours. Maximum ECM support will be employed in conjunction with the MSQ missions. Weapons available in support of this effort include all high explosive bombs as well as CBU (cluster bomb unit) munitions. Bombing altitudes of 18,000 to 25,000 feet are most suitable for all targets out to 175 miles from Site 85. The briefing listed eight targets that PACAF considered suitable for bombing using the radar at Site 85. Five of the targets were on the JCS target list."

Plunkett quoted the PACAF briefer saying this:

"We feel that the application of air power under MSQ control during the forthcoming period of poor weather will add to the disruptive effects of the air campaign. The appearance of bombs raining through the clouds will certainly have a unique psychological effect, which will present a new problem for the enemy."

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