LS-36, “The Alamo” in Laos
November 18, 2012
This is a story about a place known as Lima Site 36 at Na Khang, Laos, LS-36, during the Indochina War. In this photo, there are two USAF Jolly Green H-3’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters left of center. There are also two fixed wing aircraft center, and it looks like a helicopter off to the right. We all know there was a secret war in Laos that actually started before the war in Vietnam. What many of us do not know much about is the role of these “Lima Sites.” I selected LS-36 as a means to convey their importance.
We are going to cover a lot of ground. I never heard of LS-36, even though I was stationed at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP RTAFB) and plenty of aircrews from my base used LS-36 and knew it well. So I decided to tackle the questions where was it, why was it there, and what happened to it. It turned out these were no easy questions to answer.
Just a quick note. “Victor Sites” were sites that could be used in Vietnam, to house troops, to use as airfields, and to operate as transit points among other things. At best, they were bare-bones. “Lima Sites” (LS) meant they were sites that could be used in Laos.
Every time I tackle a story about the Laos war, I grow anxious because it was so complicated, there were so many personalities, the command relationships were often so tangled, the men fighting were from so many walks of life, civilian and military, and they belonged to so many masters. Such is the case with LS-36. Its story, and the stories associated with so many Lima Sites in Laos are fascinating and filled with risks, sacrifice, hardships, heroism and valor beyond belief. I confess I found it very hard and time consuming to assemble the various parts of the LS-36 story --- if you find elements of the story to be off the mark, holler my way and I’ll work to get at it.
Na Khang was located in northeast Laos, not far from the North Vietnamese (NVN) border. It was just a bit north of the Plaines des Jars (PDJ), a highly embattled region, and southwest of Sam Neua, a Pathet Lao communist headquarters. Just to the east, running southwest to northeast to the NVN border is Route 6, a crucial route for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to move men and supplies. This was the most hotly contested area in Laos.
This is an aerial look at the PDJ. It was a center for fighting for most of the war in Laos, a prized possession that changed hands multiple times.
I am going to skip around a lot but try to provide background in some kind of chronological fashion so you can better understand the subject of this report, Lima Site 36. I can warn you ahead that what I will present are pieces of a puzzle that you’ll have to put together in your mind to get a real grip on why Lima Site 36 existed and why it did what it did.
As always in my stories, we need to start with some basics. Like, what is a Lima Site?
“Lima Site” stood for “Laos Site.” There were almost 200 of them in Laos during the Indochina War. Each one of them was numbered. “LS” was the acronym. In our case, we will study LS-36 at Na Khang.
A few Lima Sites were rather large, with fairly sophisticated runways, but most were barebones, nothing more than dirt landing patches with some huts or tents, trucks or jeeps, and people, civilian and military, who could move friendly ground forces, equipment and supplies to those fighting against the NVA regulars and Pathet Lao indigenous forces who were intern fighting against the Royal Lao Government (RLG). In some, perhaps many, cases they also served as sites hosting critical communications and navigation equipments to help facilitate coordination of the air and ground war in Laos and over NVN. They were also used to conduct SAR for aircrews downed mostly over NVN or Laos, because of its proximity o the NVN. LS-36 was all of that and maybe more.
Cates told me this:
“Originally Air America was a project that progressively elaborated into an ongoing operation. Its purpose was to conduct military operations posing as a civilian air carrier in areas the military could not go due to public and treaty restraint. Most of the work conducted by Air America after 1959 was for the US Army, US Air Force, US Agency for International Development (AID), the Civil Operations andRevolutionary Development Support (CORDS) and of course the CIA. COORDS was a pacification program of the US military during the war. All of it was intertwined, but Air America took orders from the president just as did any of the armed forces.”
Allen also stresses that Air America, while a CIA entity, was generally run by its own employees. None of the managers were CIA people, not even the president, Hugh Grundy. There were some CIA employees embedded with Air America, but they were few --- Bill Andosevic was one. The CIA employees were paid differently than the Air America employees.
That said, most of the Lima Sites were set up by Air America under CIA oversight.
I’m going to get a little away from the subject of LS-36 here to explain an important historical point highlighted to me by Allen Cates.
There were two companies nicknamed “CAT” that one can find confusing.
First, there was CAT, Inc. It was a US corporation and a subsidiary of Airdale Corp. For our purposes, Cates tells us that “Air America and CAT, Inc. were one and the same.
Second, there was the Civil Air Transport Co., also known as CAT for short. It was a Chinese company that grew out of Claire Chenault’s work to support the Chinese Nationalists and Chiang Kai-Shek, who were fighting Mao Zedong and his Chinese communists. This is a photo of Chennault (left) sitting with Mrs. and General Chiang Kai-Shek.
You may recall that Chennault formed the “Flying Tigers” of WWII who provided air attack support to Chinese forces fighting against the Japanese. This is a photo of a group of Flying Tigers in flight. Their mission would later be taken by the US Army Air Corps and integrated into the 14th AF.
In 1950, CAT, Inc. bought 40 percent of the Chinese company, Civil Air Transport. The Republic of China, ROC, maintained 60 percent ownership. CAT Inc. was always owned by the US government. The CIA wanted the US government to buy Civil Air Transport but the powers in Washington rejected that idea. As a result, the CIA developed a plan to buy the company indirectly and presented that plan to the National Security Council (NSC), which approved it. As a result, CAT, Inc. was set up to buy part of Civil Air Transport. All of the pilots were transferred to CAT, Inc. CAT Inc., in turn, set up a wholly owned Chinese company to own all the aircraft and the maintenance facilities. That company was named Asiatic Aeronautical Co., Ltd. Its name changed to Air Asia Ltd. in 1959. CIA initially operated this company.
The corporate-government structural actions for all this thereafter are too confusing to summarize here. The point to be made is that CAT, Inc. and Air America were one in the same. Civil Air Transport, Inc., was partially owned by CAT, Inc. but remained majority owned by the ROC. So when we talk about CAT, Inc. we are talking about Air America and vice versa. Indeed, on March 26, 1959 CAT Inc’s name was changed to Air America.
You might wonder why all this is important. Well, it’s good to be historically correct. But for the Air America pilots, crews and their families, it is more important than just that. The importance has to do with the remaining Air America US national employees or their surviving spouses to receive Federal retirement benefits because Air America as a corporation owned and operated by the US government, called a “proprietary corporation,” authorized under presidential authority and owned and operated through holding companies by the CIA to support US government operations during the Cold War, mainly in the Far East.
CAT had gained a permanent presence in Laos in 1957 and, as mentioned, CAT was renamed Air America in 1959. Air America would continue operating from there until about 1974. It was dissolved in 1977.
Let’s get back to the Lima Sites.
USAF aircrews and to a lesser degree aircrews from the other services, Laos and Thailand, also used these Lima Sites, almost always covertly. All air operations over Laos were conducted under the authority and usually direction of the American Embassy, Vientiane, Laos, usually by the ambassador himself. We’ll address this later, but there was also a military involvement here and command and control friction between the military and CIA.
You cannot discuss Lima Sites without discussing CIA, and for that matter, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) which as often used to cover for CIA. In fact, there are a multitude of entities you must consider when discussing Lima Sites, and I’ll try to cover the most important ones as I see them. This can all get dizzying, but it is fascinating and alluring to study.
The main logistical base for CIA operations in Laos was at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), Thailand, not far from Vientiane. This was a large, multi-faceted, multi-mission air base. At a top level, I’ll simply say the USAF was the largest contingent, but the Thai Air Force and Army used it as did the Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF) and, as I mentioned, the CIA. The next photo shows Air America’s-CIA’s special location on the base. Please note the locations of other USAF-RTAFB bases in Thailand during the war.
Thailand had a gentlemen’s agreement with the US to allow USAF flight operations from its bases, initially intended to be covert, but after a while impossible to hide. Udorn RTAFB became a front-line facility for the USAF from 1964-1976.
As mentioned, the host USAF organization was the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW). This was an unusual wing.
RF-4C Phantom II
It had two reconnaissance squadrons, the 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS - replaced by the 14th) and the 11th TRS, originally flying the RF-101C “Voodoo” and then the RF-4C Phantom II aircraft.
F-4 Phantom II fighter
It also had two attack fighter squadrons, the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) and the 555th TFS, known as the “Triple Nickel.”
7th ACCS EC-130 ABCCC
The wing also hosted the 7th Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC) squadron, the 7th Airborne Command Control squadron (7th ACCS) …
AC-47 “Spooky” Gunship
AC-119G “Shadow” Gunship
… and the 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) flying the AC-47D “Spooky” gunship, C-47 “Goonie Bird” transports, and the AC-119G “Shadow” gunship.
Air America C-7 Caribou delivering supplies to friendlies in Laos
Air America C-123 at Thakek, Laos
CIA, and the US military pilots flying on their behalf in civvies, flew just about everything you can imagine in this war in and out of this base, often with no markings or with Laotian markings. Most of the Lima Sites could only receive helicopters or short take-off landing (STOL) aircraft, or you could take your chances in something bigger like C-7 Caribous and C-123 Providers and hope you either do not run out of runway or hope that you can climb fast enough to get over the rough, jagged and high terrain.
In addition, Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) and Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) pilots flew aircraft usually in RLAF markings from Udorn. Their aircraft were maintained at Udorn. Furthermore, USAF and Air America pilots flew RLAF marked and unmarked aircraft from Udorn as well. All of this was covered with heavy secrecy. This photo shows an unmarked Air America T-28 fighter on take-off.
I’ll pause for just a moment. Project Firefly was initiated formally in June 1964. The T-28 shown in the previous picture was being piloted by Air America pilots and they were going on an reconnaissance mission in Laos. They were known as the “A Team.” The embassy was very worried about Americans being captured by the enemy after flying missions in Laos, so it looked for an alternative. The RTAF stepped p to the plate. Its 223rd Squadron was sent to supplement the A-team pilots. They flew under what was known as Project Firefly. They were known as the “B Team.” They used the call sign “Firefly.” The two T-28s shown above, one with RLAF markings, are being flown by RTAF pilots. Later, when the USAF A-1Es started flying ground attack missions in Laos, or when USAF pilots were flying T-28s with RLAF markings, they too used the call sign Firefly. You’ll see them come up in later discussion.
Employing RTAF pilots in the Firefly program was also sensitive, so they were stationed at Udorn RTAFB and flew out of there. They were given Laotian names and RLAF identity cards. RLAF pilots, being trained under another program called “Waterpump,” supplemented the Firefly combat missions and flew from Vientiane.
Firefly pilots operated as ground attack fighters and FACs.
CIA also had a major intelligence analysis facility at Udorn.
The stories behind all this are many which I cannot cover here.
There were multiple wars that ensued in Laos:
- There was a seemingly constant civil war, about as complicated a study as you can enjoin.
- There was a war against the Pathet Lao communists and the NVA who were trying to defeat the RLG.
- There was the war of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passed through multiple mountain passes from the NVN into Laos to send men and supplies to fight the war in the RVN. This trail, and all its supply depots, extended from northeastern Laos all the way into Cambodia, with many branches into the RVN.
- And there was the USAF and USN war against the NVN that required the USAF to stage form Thailand and fly over Laos into the NVN, while for the most part the Navy staged from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Pathet Lao briefing
Royal Laotian Army (RLA) soldiers
When you mention the Pathet Lao and NVN, you do so with the understanding that the bulk of their support, overt and covert, came from the USSR and to a lesser degree from Communist China. When you mention the preservation of the RLG and the war against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, you do so with the understanding that the bulk of support came from the US and to a lesser degree from Thailand. In this respect, then, there was also a Cold War battle between the US and USSR that was so deep in intrigue and private understandings that your hair almost stands up.
From a US perspective, preventing the overthrow of the RLG and at least inhibiting the movement of men and supplies through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were the top priorities. From a resource stand point, they were competitive priorities, especially for the USAF. The main war from a US perspective was in the RVN. That gave the highest priority to stopping the logistics flows on the trail. However, there was also a strong contingent of people in Washington who feared a communist takeover not only of the RVN, but of Laos and even Cambodia. Stopping this from happening was assigned to the State Department and the US Embassy Vientiane, to wit, the ambassador, the CIA, USAID, the Thai military, US special forces, USAF forces, Royal Laotian forces, and indigenous Hmong war fighters who hated the communists passionately.
Don’t get wrapped around the axle here, but do remember there were two competing wars that demanded US resources and each war was directed at a different objective and to a large degree controlled differently.
One has to at least briefly address command and control in Laos. This can be agonizing and risky, because it was so convoluted. I wrote a fairly detailed report on this in an article about EC-47 electronic reconnaissance aircraft flying over the RVN, also and Cambodia, entitled, “The Electric Goons of Naked Fanny.” I commend the section on “Organizational Lashups” to your attention as they apply here as well.
To my mind, the dominant point to understand is that the commander, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV) in Saigon was in charge of only part of the Indochina War, and only part of the Vietnam War. It was responsible for all ground operations in the RVN, all air operations in RVN airspace and in Route Package 1 (RP-1) over NVN just north of the DMZ to the 20th parallel. MACV was also responsible for coastal naval and interior riverine operations.
It is important to understand that MACV’s authorities were limited. MACV had no authority for air operations over NVN. Instead, the commander-in-chief Pacific (CINCPAC) located in Hawaii was in charge of air operations over North Vietnam. He exercised that authority through the Pacific Air Force (PACAF) and the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT) also in Hawaii, and the Strategic Air Command (SAC), located in Nebraska. Please note MACV had no authority for the strategic bombing forces of SAC, the B-52s.
MACV had no authority over the 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77 (TF-77) operating in and around a location in the South China Sea known as Yankee Station, in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was subordinate to the 7th Fleet, which in turn was responsible to PACFLT which in turn reported to the commander-in-chief Pacific (CINCPAC).
MACV had no authority for the war in Laos. Much of the air war in Laos was controlled by the US ambassador, Vientiane, Laos. However, as time evolved, and the US military got more deeply involved in Laotian air operations, the lines of authority became entangled. This is because neither PACAF or PACFLT would give up total control over their aircraft and pilots to the embassy. In addition, SAC would give up no control of its B-52 operations to the embassy either. To make a long story short, each of these commands, through their subordinate units, would take embassy requirements and do the mission planning and execution.
USAF air is a complicated subject. Let me simply say that the Indochina geographic area fell under the 13th AF in the Philippines. So 13th AF was responsible for all air bases used by the USAF in Thailand. However, all the USAF aircraft, except the strategic air B-52s, were flown by 7th AF pilots, with 7th AF a component command subordinate to MACV. So the USAF set up a Headquarters 7th/13th AF at Udorn RTAFB to coordinate the 7th AF assets when flown in support of Laotian requirements or over the NVN north of the 20th parallel as tasked by PACAF.
I’m going to leave it at that. I could spend days on this subject.
I do not want to minimize the important role played by the ambassador and his staff on the air war in Laos. The embassy, and particularly CIA, especially for northern Laos, expected the USAF to strike the targets as directed by the embassy. The USAF would do its best but remember this: the embassy’s number one priority as to preserve the RLG, while the USAF was focused on NVN and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The dominant problem was the level of support that would be provided to the Hmong. It took a few years but the two sides finally worked things out.
The ambassador also controlled most of the Air America flights and attack sorties flown by Thais, RLAF, Air America, and USAF “sheep dipped” pilots. Sheep dipped meant the USAF guys in their uniforms and military identifications and became “civilianized,” to wit, or they might even be given RLAF commissions. This is an U.S. intelligence term for camouflaging or disguising the true identity of equipment or individuals, especially for the use of military equipment or services--including personnel--in clandestine intelligence activities, generally under the direction of a nonmilitary sponsor. Keeping up with it all is a massive task.
Just imagine all the front and back door politics that ensued between all these entities at multiple levels within the theater and outside.
In March 1953 (prior to the Geneva Conference of 1954) the Viet Minh, an indigenous militia force known as the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the predecessor to the NVA, invaded northeastern Laos with 40,000 troops. They married up with 2,000 communist Pathet Lao. They were opposed by 10,000 RL) troops and 3,000 French regulars. The enemy attacked into Phongsali and Houaphanh Provinces. Many refer to Houaphanh Province as Sam Neua Province. That is not correct. Sam Neua was the capital city of Houaphanh Province, and was the major objective of the enemy thrust into this region. It would ultimately serve as the Pathet Lao headquarters. As an aside, this province joined Laos only after French colonization of Indochina. Prior to that, it had either been independent or a Vietnamese vassal state.
The Pathet Lao set up their base area in Sam Neua. They built fortified positions throughout the Sam Neua area countryside which allowed them to stay in close touch with the Viet Minh. In effect, the province was communist. They also lunged at Luang Prabang but did not succeed. The blue dot shows the location of Dien Bien Phu, where an intense battle marked the end of the French hold on Indochina one year later, in 1954.
The Pathet Lao intent was to set up the region as a Lao state. As a result, its leaders joined with the NVN and Cambodian liberation groups.
After being beaten back in December 1953, the NVA launched another offensive and almost reached Luang Prabang. Once the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the NVA became more bold and joined with the Pathet Lao with the hope of liberating all of northern Laos. The NVA helped them expand their activities all the way to the Bolovens Plateau in southern Laos, especially as the Ho Chi Minh TRail grew into that region and into Cambodia. This strategy, employed through the Indochina War with the US, enabled the NVN to move troops and supplies south out of the NVN through Laos to Cambodia and into the RVN by way of many entry points along the way, a thorn in the side for the MACV and its forces.
A Geneva Conference was convened in 1954. This conference concentrated on Korea, but did produce the “Geneva Accords” which brought an end to the French Indochina War. The accords divided Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh, the southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam. An election was to be held by July 1956 to create a unified Vietnamese state. Neither the US or the State of Vietnam signed these accords. The US had no intention of seeing a reunified Vietnam as it knew the communists and Ho Chi Minh would win any election held across the country.
As I read the tea leaves, there were three agreements on the “Cessation of Hostilities for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia” within the Geneva Accords. One of these is very important to our story:
“Pending political settlement, fighting units of ‘Pathet Lao’ to move into provinces of Phong Saly and Sam-Neua (Houaphanh) and to move between these two provinces in defined corridor along Laos-Vietnam border.”
I want to show you a map here that underscores the importance of this provision.
Phong Saly is in the northern-most province, and “Sam Neua” is in red below that. As mentioned previously, Sam Neua was actually not a province, but rather a city within Houaphanh Province, roughly marked by the white dot. It also served as the provincial capital. Note both provinces abut North Vietnam. The province in between is Luang Prabang Province, which hosts the city by the same name, historically the royal capital of Laos and a place the RLG and US wanted to defend. I’m jumping ahead just a tad, but I have marked the location of LS-36. As you see, it is in a Pathet Lao designated province and is close to Sam Neua, the Pathet Lao headquarters.
This concession was made, I believe, because ownership of those two provinces was de facto by the Pathet Lao following the 1953 invasion by the Viet Minh described earlier.
The year 1955 was a busy one in Laos.
You will recall they had invaded Phongsaly and Houaphanh Provinces in 1953. You will recall they had pushed into Luang Prabang but failed. In 1955, the Viet Minh launched from Houaphanh Province into neighboring Xieng Khouang Province. They did this at a time when the RLG was negotiating with the Pathet Lao to bring the fighting to a halt.
RLA troops were sent to Sam Neua and Phongsaly.
French forces were to have withdrawn from Indochina following the 1954 Accords, but under a special exemption, a French military training mission continued to support the Royal Lao Armed Forces. French advisors started training the RLAF. But the French could not handle the job and left. Thailand supplied H-19 helicopters and pilots, and trained Lao officers in Thailand on how to use various weapons.
The back and forth fighting and the politics that occurred through the 1950s are subjects for separate research and analysis.
The US by 1957 covered 100 percent of the RLG’s budget. The US was now in charge of protecting the RLG.
In 1962, however, the US, Soviet Union, NVN and others signed a peace treaty ending the fighting and declaring Laos a neutral country. The treaty also called for withdrawal of all foreign forces. The US withdrew its advisors, but the NVA remained. This turned out to be a pivotal agreement that caused the US to develop incredibly convoluted relationships and rules for fighting in Laos.
None of the signatories to the agreement had any intention of abiding by it. The NVN was quite open about violating it. The Soviet Union openly supplied the NVA with everything it needed. The US did its best to support the RLG, but did so with so many restrictions that one could hardly figure out what to do. Each time some significant other in the US chain came up with an idea, there would always be anguish and wringing of hands to figure out how they would be violating this 1962 agreement and anger the Soviets.
In reading many documents on this issue, again a subject worthy of separate study, I saw repeated references to designing US support operations such that they would not embarrass the Soviet government, particularly Mr. Nikita Khrushchev. Actually, you would learn that each side looked the other way at what the other side was doing, hardly a way to win.
In January 1961 Kong Le and his forces, the NVA and Pathet Lao invaded the PDJ Plateau roughly outlined by the red box. In addition, the NVA continued using and improving the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the NVN through Laos and Cambodia into the RVN. Together they occupied a main junction controlling traffic between the old capital of Luang Prabang to Vietniane which included the PDJ. Soviet aircraft airdropped supplies to them both in a massive airlift. Indeed, the Soviet airlifts transformed the PDJ into a very large enemy base. The Timelines of War, Laos, a Country Study, said:
“For the first time, the Pathet Lao were equipped with heavy weapons allowing them to play a major role in their military alliance with Kong Le's troops in support of Souvanna Phouma's government. There was, moreover, another and more important factor: the commitment of significant numbers of North Vietnamese troops to the fighting. Kong Le requested four battalions of North Vietnamese troops on January 7, 1961. The Neutralists were now aligned with the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies.”
Now just as a reminder, LS-36 was just northeast of the PDJ.
The Americans, fighting in the RVN, had to resist all of this but would not employ ground forces inside Laos other than special forces, instead using RLA, RLAF, the Thai Army, several indigenous Laotian groups, and most notably the indigenous Hmong to fight on the ground. The US also decided it would have to provide them air support and do so covertly. Air America was the main tool for doing this, employing civilian and military crews and aircraft. Eventually, the USAF had to bear down, trying to keep its bases in Thailand a secret, and their missions over Laos a secret, but that was an almost impossible task. The best the USAF could do was not talk about it. The USN also conducted missions in Laos, and had to keep those secret as well.
The NVA built an incredible logistics trail from the NVN through Laos and Cambodia to the RVN, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US employed overt and covert air and certain special ground operations against the enemy moving troops and supplies down this trail.
All of this demanded covert air fields and staging bases throughout Laos, which became known as the Lima Sites. LS-36 at Na Khang was one such Lima Site and is the focus of this report.
As mentioned earlier, the NVA’s main interest in Laos was the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Just about anything it did in Laos it did to either divert attention away from the Trail or protect the Trail. Beyond that, the NVA and NVN saw Laos as a second-class citizen. The Pathet Lao, NVA trained, saw themselves as freedom fighters trying to topple the regime at the Royal capital in Luang Prabang and the political capital at Vientiane. The NVA never completely trusted the Pathet Lao and did its best to keep them away from the Trail and occupied with fighting inland. The main emphasis of the Indochina War for the US was to protect and save the RVN from communist control. The US knew it could not completely destroy the NVA and Pathet Lao in Laos. It wanted to engage as many of them as possible so the NVA would have to divert manpower and supplies to the fighting in Laos instead of in the RVN.
I want to return to the Hmong. I did an extensive historical article on the Hmong on my sister web site, “Wisconsin Central, the people, land and culture.” It is entitled, “The Hmong, a gallant American ally, a ‘people in exile,’ a people of dignity.” It covers their history in East Asia, Laos and during the Japanese invasion.
The Hmong are a very important component of the friendly forces fighting on the ground in Laos. They were fierce fighters, and they prized their freedom. This photo shows a group of them in 1965. The Hmong were largely people who preferred to live in the hills and mountainous areas, in part because it was cooler such as they experienced in China, much of the lowlands were already occupied by others, and the hills were more defensible.
Some refer to the Hmong as the Meo. When the Hmong were in China, they were ethnically seen as a subset of the Meo. That said, the Hmong resent being called Meo so I will refer to them not as Meo but rather Hmong.
At the time, there were concerns China might cross into Laos and Thailand. The PARU was to conduct guerrilla warfare operations against the Chinese should they enter. The Korean War was in train at this time and the US and Thailand worked together on counterinsurgency operations.
Long Tieng was the unofficial and unacknowledged headquarters for the US-RLG war in Laos. At times it was seen as the busiest airport in the world, handling some 500 sorties per day.
This is a photo of the runway and facilities at Long Tieng. I never landed there but flew over it many times. The karst at the end of the runway is still a conversation piece among those who went in and out of the field. Weather was often not too hot, and everyone had to not only get airborne, but had to avoid smashing into that karst at the end of the runway. My sense is there were many close calls.
President Kennedy tasked Lair in 1961 to establish Hmong Special Guerrilla Units (SGU) who would work with US special forces in Laos. Lair used the Thai PARU program to train Hmong SGU for special reinforcement operations. The Thais liked the Hmong in large part because of their fighting skills, but also because they knew how to operate in the mountains while the PARU did not. The US promised weapons and supplies and VP said he could put together a Hmong army of 10,000. Lair and the CIA developed a concept of operations and, wanting to avoid US ground forces in Laos, Washington agreed.
The 10,000 Hmong came from the local defense units.
This photo shows a Hmong SGU class after completing US training.
This photo shows a Thai PARU instructor (back to you) briefing a 100 man Hmong Auto Defense company at Phou Vieng (LS-6) during the spring 1961.
This photo shows General Vang Pao organizing his Hmong SGU forces. His army became known as L’Armée Clandestine. In his paper, “Air America in Laos III --- in Combat,” Dr. Joe F. Leeker wrote this about the SGUs:
“The SGU was a battalion made up of three line companies and a HQ unit, armed with bazooka and mortars, and later 75mm and 105mm howitzers, which moved from hilltop to hilltop by Air America helicopters. These SGUs were a sort of strike force that reported to Vang Pao and were used for major offensive and defensive purposes.”
Soon, with President Kennedy in the saddle, a decision was made to put Air America in charge of supporting the Hmong. Fourteen Marine Corps UH-34 helicopters (an example shown here) were dispatched to Air America along with Marine, Army and Navy “volunteers.”
The Hmong force grew to 9,000 by July 1961 with another 4,0000 recruits waiting in the wings. As the Hmong force grew, so too did Air America.
I am compelled by loyalty to the Hmong who fought with us to present a quote from the SGU Veterans & Families Development of the USA, Inc.:
“The SGUs—who were recruited, trained, fed, clothed, armed and directed by the CIA—answered America’s call. In Northern Laos, the SGUs controlled the Plain of Jars region which was of key strategic importance. In Southern Laos, they engaged 80,000 NVA troops in Laos who could have otherwise fought in Vietnam, tracked NVA troop movements on the Ho Chi Minh trail, disabled substantial quantities of equipment headed for NVA troops in Vietnam, and rescued many downed American pilots. In short, the SGUs were critical to America’s war effort in Vietnam.
“Some 60,000 Lao Hmong, individuals indigenous to Southeast Asia, served in the SGUs. They suffered tremendous casualties through their service on behalf of the United States. Of the approximately 350,000 to 500,000 Hmong who lived in Laos before the Vietnam era began, 35,000 men, women, and children died during the war, a fatality rate that was triple that of American military forces in Vietnam. When a Communist government assumed power in Laos after the war ended, the Hmong were severely persecuted. Many were thrown in forced labor camps. Several thousands were able to flee and seek refugee status in the United States.”
In 1962, the US and others signed a formal “Declaration of Neutrality of Laos” in Geneva. The US withdrew its nearly 700 military advisors and support staff, and Air America stopped dropping weapons to the Hmong. Air America was reduced to providing only food and humanitarian supplies to the Hmong.
I’d like to pause for just a moment or two for some background that should interest you.
Prior to 1961, Air America had been moving CIA, the Thai PARU, and American “White Star” advisors along with supplies for Hmong soldiers and their families throughout Laos. They used H-19 and H-34 helicopters under a contract with the US International Cooperation Agency, the ICA. The first photo shows two Air America H-34s at Sam Thong, Laos. The second shows another Air America H-34. Note no markings.
Initially a team of 107 soldiers from the 77th Special Forces Group (SFG) arrived. They were in civvies as part of a clandestine operation. They would transition to military clothing and their numbers would rise to 433 by July 1962. They operated out of Luang Prabang (north), VIentiane (central) and Pakse (south).
Operation White Star was terminated when Laotian neutrality was formally declared in July 1962, but special forces operations similar to it pressed forward.
Air America received four H-34s in December 1960 and another 16 in March 1961, the latter based at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. Lt. General Andrew Boyle was in charge of US advisors in Laos from January 1961 to May 1962. He would become the chief of the Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) in Laos.
In May 1961, Boyle urged the USAF’s Far East procurement agency to consummate a contract with Taiwan-based Air America to “fly airplanes where I want them, when I want them, and with no interference.” This contract came to be known as “Mad River” and was signed in July 1961.
In reality, the Mad River contract did not significantly change what Air America was doing before 1961, but it certainly received a lot more helicopters with which to do it when it got this contract. The contract was, by the way, sole source.
During the period 1961-1962 the RLG forces took a beating from the Pathet Lao and NVA. They were in control of much of northeastern Laos and nearly all southern Laos. It was partly because of this reality that the US and RLG signed the Geneva Accord of 1962 declaring Laotian neutrality. The government ceded the two northeastern provinces to the enemy but was able to form a government. All foreign forces were to leave. I wish to highlight that there is a lot of fascinating history during these years involving CIA, Air America and the “civilianized” USAF guys. I wish I could go into it here, but cannot. I will say this, however, as it affects LS-36. The idea of mobility really took form. Air America’s job became one of moving RLA and SGU soldiers from hill to hill, from location to location, constantly harassing enemy positions and supply lines. This was extremely dangerous flying, always subject to ground fire, lousy weather, and awful airfields. This kind of fighting would become the hallmark of the war in Laos.
So, the neutrality treaty was signed in 1962. As should have been expected, the nearly 7,000 NVA troops in Laos did not withdraw even though the US did. They began attacking RLA and Hmong outposts throughout the country. The photo shows a Hmong outpost in Laos --- nothing extravagant here. I might also remark, this would be a typical outpost that had to be resupplied: heavy stuff came into places like LS-36, then smaller aircraft carried it in smaller doses to these outposts.
The NVA sent in more troops, such as shown here, in 1963, so Kennedy authorized CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army, now headquartered at LS-20A at Long Tieng (Cheng). The conflict expanded and Air Americas operations ramped up. So the 1962 agreement was thrown in the garbage, well, sort of. The US remained ticklish about its contents largely because of worries over the Soviets.
The NVA and Pathet Lao launched a major attack across the PDJ in March 1964 and took control of much of the area.
By 1964, Kong Le called himself a neutralist and changed sides, now forming up with the RLG. He warned the RLG the situation was hopeless without considerable air support. The net results were stepped up Air America flying and notable introduction of US military reconnaissance flying, along with stepped up USAF Raven FAC missions. Air America was deeply in the throes of moving ground forces, RLA, SGU and Thai all around the country for their attacks. Speaking for Kong Le, he took on the Pathet Lao in the PDJ and air support missions helped him and those fighting in southern Laos.
So, with all this background, you see the importance of mobility and the birth of Lima Sites to serve that purpose. But the Lima Sites would serve many purposes.
So, I want to turn to search and rescue, SAR.
The picture is after a successful USAF Search and Rescue (SAR) pickup. The survivor is zipping his pocket. He is 1Lt. George "Bob" Zesinger, 555th TFS. The officer standing to the left of Zesinger is the Jolly Green HH-53 rescue aircraft commander, Capt. Holly Bell. To the right of Zesinger is Capt. Bob Horne, the co-pilot, and to his right is Sgt Hartman, the flight engineer (FE). Kneeling down in front, right to left, are the Pararescuemen (PJs) Tony McFarr and Sgt Lester. From, “Hey, that smilin’ pilot is me!”
Given that Air America was being tasked with extremely dangerous missions over Laos, the issue of who will do SAR in Laos came to the fore officially as early as 1960. At that time, Air America had no SAR capabilities and CIA had no control agency in Vientiane. Major Heinie Aderholt supervised the development of Air America’s Air Helio Program which was used for CIA infiltration missions, exfiltrating downed aircrews, and providing light aircraft to supply paramilitary activities in the rugged areas of Laos and elsewhere. In 1960, to convince Air America pilots they would be looked after if anything went wrong, Aderholt set up a control center in Vientiane and provided the pilots with rudimentary equipment in case they went down.
But the truth was this would take time to evolve. In 1961, the US had nothing in Southeast Asia to provide a professional rescue force for downed pilots. No matter who was flying, chances of rescue were very limited. Major Russell Ochs, USAF, in his Air Command and Staff College paper, “The Evolution of USAF Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-1968,” he wrote:
“Survival relied heavily on friendly forces seeing the aircraft go down, and being nearby either on the ground or in the air. Survival was also somewhat dependent on their ability to perform an immediate recovery, because evasion was at best, only temporary. The longer a person was on the ground, the less chance they had of successful rescue. In addition, if large numbers of heavily armed enemy forces were in the area, the danger to any rescue aircraft increased and the possibility of success dropped even further. Due to the formidable terrain and wide-spread hostile forces, no downed airman could simply ‘walk out’ of the jungle.”
Charlie Weitz, an Air America pilot, said they were not required to pick up downed military crew members, and then commented:
“We’d pick up their radio channels. We’re not heroes, it was something any one of us would have done for each other … Those SAR missions were scary, because the bad guys knew when they shot someone down there would be a rescue helicopter coming in to pick up the downed pilot. The trick was to get in and out fast before the bad guys got to the spot.”
That was an Air America advantage. Quite often, they were already near the scene, and could get their, in and out, quickly.
For the record, the State Department designated Air America as the primary SAR in 1964, obligating it to do this job. President Kennedy had earlier instructed the Marines to provide HH-34 Husky helicopters under Operation Millpond in 1961. The US military was not allowed to fly into Laos for SAR operations during these years.
Prior to 1964, the USAF Air Rescue Service (ARS) could not do the job for a combat situation. In fact, the ARS leadership felt it did not have a combat mission, its crews were not trained for such a mission, and its aircraft were not capable of providing effective retrieval in the dense jungles or mountain areas. Their primary vehicle was the Husky HH-43. As an aside, the HH-43 did become an important SAR vehicle in Indochina over time, known as the “Pedros.” I have done an article about them, “Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel.” One is shown in the photo at Bien Hoa, RVN.
Added to all this, the US was leery of sending in a large SAR contingent because it would bring too much attention to US activities in Indochina. The job fell to friendly forces in the RVN and Laos, and by CIA pilots flying for Air America. This is an example of how the US, which was defying all the agreements signed by Laotian neutrality, let some of those agreements get the better of them --- the enemy simply disregarded them all.
Nonetheless, in December 1961 a small contingent of USAF men arrived in Saigon to establish Det 3, Pacific Air Rescue Center. They set up a SAR Coordination Center in Saigon. But Thailand, Laos and Cambodia presented problems. There were questions about the legality of deploying such people and aircraft to these countries. But Washington developed “workarounds.” It is worth studying why Washington opposed introducing SAR forces into Indochina, despite the calls for it to do so from USAF officers in Indochina itself. I cannot do that here.
HH-43s did go into Laos on SAR missions during these early days. But the first dedicated SAR units arrived in Indochina in 1964, the first positioned at NKP RTAFB, Thailand, for SAR missions into the RVN and Laos. They supported Navy Yankee Team reconnaissance missions flown over the RVN and Laos. The first to arrive were the HH-43Fs, reconfigured to better handle the jungle environment.
The year 1964 was pivotal in air operations over NVN and Laos. As the result of many events, the JCS authorized the initial employment of limited US, Lao and Thai air power in Laos. I use the word limited loosely, as the number of missions ramped up quickly. The net result was an increasing emphasis on SAR.
In 1964, the USAF and USN began flying “unarmed” “Yankee Team” reconnaissance flights from Udorn, the RVN and the Gulf of Tonkin to provide intelligence for friendly Laotian forces including assessment of RLAF bombings, determine the extent of Communist infiltration and aid to the Viet Cong, encourage allies, and demonstrate U.S. resolve to check communism in Southeast Asia. This of course, underscored the need to conduct SAR rescue way up in northern Laos and western NVN.
Our ambassador to Laos, Mr. Unger, asked for authority to use Air America pilots in T-28s for SAR operations. In August 1964, the State Department approved. Such missions would be flown until the late sixties.
Taken from the cover of Honor Denied: The truth about Air America and the CIA, by Allen Cates
But even before 1964, Air America UH-34Ds, such as shown in this print donated to the University of Texas by Allen Cates of Air America, flew SAR missions, the first mission flown to pick up a downed military pilot Thai Boonrat Comintra, shot down in his RLAF T-6 in March 1961. Comintra flew out of NKP RTAFB, flying helicopters, T-6s, and Helio aircraft.
To my knowledge, the Klusmann SAR effort in 1964 was Air America’s first occasion to attempt a rescue for a downed US military pilot, though it’s always risky to cite a “first.”
They ran into all kinds of problems. Enemy fire forced an Air American helicopter to abandon its SAR effort for Klusmann. Another one was hit and had to make a forced landing. Two Air American crew were hit and critically wounded. The enemy had set up a flak trap around where they thought Klusmann was located. The Pathet Lao captured him, but he was able to escape with several Lao prisoners in August 1964 and reached a government camp after two days in the jungle. He was then rescued.
While this Air America rescue failed, the company would quickly become a leader in SAR efforts in Laos, actually picking up more pilots than the military could. For quite a while, Air America SAR missions formed the backbone of the SAR effort in Laos. Part of the reason was they were there, they often were close to the shoot downs and bailouts, they had almost no rules of engagement, they knew the areas, they knew where they could recover once the rescue was done, and, taking nothing at all away from the military SAR crews, who were brave beyond brave, these Air America crews were just a bunch of tough, rugged guys. Several sources say the Air America program was shut down in 1966, when the USAF finally got itself organized. However, Allen Cates, a former Air America pilot, says he was in Vietnam and came over to Laos in 1969 and was involved in five SAR operations at that time.
Cates has told m:
“Whenever a SAR situation developed 7th/13th AF contacted Air America Operations and (it) contacted an asset in that area. The helicopter contacted the (C-130) airborne command center, which was usually Cricket and Cricket coordinated the Air America helicopter, fighter escort and/or Raven FAC to effect the rescue. While it is true the AF took over the primary role after 1966, Air America was still obligated and called upon to assist when it was deemed necessary. One of the largest SAR rescues in Laos involved Spectre 22 (March 1972) and Air America was involved picking up two survivors on the road along with Air Force rescue helicopters. Air America was involved with many rescues after 1966 and most of them were conducted with Air Force assets.”
Just a moment on the restrictions imposed on the USAF SAR resources. As opposed to the “fly by the seat of your pants” Air America SAR operations, the USAF Jolly Green HH-3 helicopter crews had to have permission from Washington to fly a SAR mission into Laos. The rationale is they were not supposed to be in Laos and not supposed to be flying such missions in Laos, yet another example of how the suits stuck too closely to agreements they had no intention of honoring. Often, by the time they received permission, the Air America crews had already picked up their man. Air American pilot Charlie Weitz, an ex-military pilot, said:
“We liked to yank their (USAF) chain a little bit. We were good at what we did and I have no problem saying that. We were all ex-military pilots. But we had no restrictions with our flying. They gave us an aircraft and said ‘here’s your job, go do it,’ “ acknowledging their advantage over the USAF crews.
In January 1964, HU-16 amphibious aircraft jerry-rigged to be command and control aircraft for SAR missions arrived at Korat RTAFB, eventually replaced by HC-130s in 1966. All kinds of intrigue, debate and arguments evolved with regard to the rules of engagement (ROE) for SAR command and control aircraft over Laos. Air America was in the debate with its C-123 “Victor” control ships. You might wish to study all this carefully. It is very interesting.
It was about at this point that Sullivan proposed deploying USAF HH-3s to Lima Sites close to the NVN border. General Moore, the 2nd Air Division Commander (7th AF predecessor) hated the idea. General Harris, commander Pacific Air Forces (PCAF) got into the debate. He was willing to turn the whole job over to Air America. Admiral Sharp would eventually support this position.
But as time passed and flight operations over Laos and the NVN increased, the idea of positioning USAF SAR aircraft at Lima Sites prevailed. LS-36, located the farthest to the northeast near the NVN, would play an important SAR role which I will discuss a bit later.
In 1965 the USAF began deploying SAR HH-3 Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters (example shown here). It took some time to reconfigure the CH-43s and train crews. As a result, the USAF sent two CH-43s, a cargo helicopter, to NKP to replace the HH-43s and help out. They used LS-36 because of its proximity to the NVN. They came from Thailand, stayed during daylight hours, and returned to home base at or before nightfall. They were close to the NVN and could get over there lickety-split if a crew was shot down. Similarly, they were positioned well to get pilots who made it to Laos for bailout or were shot down over Laos and managed to get out.
It’s worth noting that the early Jolly Greens had no refueling capability. Please note in the photo that that HH-3 does have a refueling probe. Often they would loiter over the NVN-Laos border at about 10,000 ft. waiting for the “go” to enter NVN for a pickup. LS-36 as a result became a critical refueling point for them as they would frequently get involved in difficult rescues that ate up most of their fuel. This was especially true for the Jollies launching from bases in Thailand or the RVN which had a long trek to the rescue area.
At the time, Naugle said no US helicopter had ever flown into this area of the NVN, but the skipper decided to go in. Two helicopters launched, but the second helicopter reported engine trouble and had to abort. Naugle said:
“Normally this would have been the end of the mission. We had been instructed that we would ‘not’ proceed on a mission if we did not have both helicopters to provide cover for each other. Normal procedure was that other helicopters would be launched from Vietnam or Thailand to perform the rescue, if possible, but we knew that would have caused hours of delay in getting to the pilot’s assistance.”
The F-105’s wingman reported he had sighted the downed pilot, but the Crown C-130 communications aircraft called the King Rescue Center in Vietnam which ordered that they discontinue their SAR mission and return to base (LS-36). However, two A-1Es, such as the one shown here, met up with them to escort them in at 10,000 ft., out of range of ground fire.
The A-1Es took heavy ground fire and one was shot down. The pilot bailed out. So now there were two pilots on the ground. The cloud ceiling was below 10,000 ft. so the A-1E and CH-3 (the photo shows an A-1E and HH-3C) drove through the clouds and encountered blistering enemy fire at about 7,000 ft. They had not expected such fire, thinking they were high enough, but their problem was the enemy was situated on locations at 4,000 ft. altitude, leaving only 3,000 ft. separation.
A navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin provided navigation data on the downed pilot, but the guidance data was off the mark and the rescue aircraft found themselves too far north, some 35 miles southwest of Hanoi. The CH-3 then began getting hit by tracers and armor piercing shells, hitting the engines and a fire broke out inside the aircraft. Then the pilot reported he lost a rotor blade and ordered his crew to bail out. This was a tough position for the crew, as they were in civilian clothes with no identification. The auxiliary 450 gallon tank exploded so they had no choice. The crew bailed and the helicopter crashed. Now we have six men on the ground deep in the NVN.
While on the ground, Naugle said he saw USAF and Navy aircraft overhead trying to conduct a rescue, but they took heavy fire and another A-1E crashed. After a while, Naugle was able to contact some Navy aircraft heading back toward the Gulf of Tonkin, and one heard the call. Then Navy Sea King helicopters such as the one shown here arrived, Naugle contacted them, and they reported fighters were on their way in.
A-1Es arrived and began their attack against the enemy forces which had Naugle virtually surrounded. After coordinating his position with the Sea Kings using his cigarette lighter, one came in and picked him up. The Sea King was short on fuel and the crew had already thrown out as much equipment as it could to lighten the load. They approached a destroyer which had no place to land, but they used their sling to attach to a gasoline hose on the destroyer and pumped enough fuel into the Sea King to make it to the carrier. Naugle said after landing the Navy guys really gave him a funny look on the deck. Here was an USAF sergeant, filthy and dressed in civvies. Naugle was the only one successfully rescued.
Sgt. Bill Jaynes, a Jolly Green flight engineer, said that while his unit was at Udorn --- he arrived in December 1966 --- they were flying to LS-36 on a regular basis. He said that in July 1967 his unit moved to NKP and they still went up to LS-36 and remained for about a week or so, sometimes longer if required. He said his orders read, “Air Embassy Laos” for these trips.
“Our little piece of heaven (at LS-36) was a plywood shack (shown above) with a door, no windows, and a parking area where we could refuel and sit when on alert. The shack had a radio that the pilots monitored from after dawn to just before dark. The base had Hmong troops that looked like school kids, but they were a tough bunch and I continue to have all the respect in the world for them … At the end of the day we would fly back to Alternate 20 (Long Tieng) and spend the night, then do it all over again the next morning. The volunteer maintenance crews would usually stay up North (as we called it) for two to three weeks at a time, taking care of any servicing and aircraft problems we might have. On arrival, we would fly low and fast over 36 and make sure the right flag was flying before we would commit to landing. I never found out if the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese knew what flag was supposed to be flying, but needless to say, we never got caught. I guess we were lucky. In our daily routine, after refueling we would put the
helicopter in a quick start configuration so we would be in the air within minutes of the scramble alert.
“There would be the days when the MAYDAY call sounded and we would be off and running to get the helicopters ready for flight. The pilots would get the information on the shotdown crewmen’s locations. After engine start, we would taxi to the top of the runway
and make a turn to line up for a running takeoff since we had a full fuel load. We would roll down the hill with max power and gain transitional flight just about three quarters of the way down the (LS-36) runway, always hoping we would make it over the hill in front of us. I had to drop the tip (auxiliary) tanks on one trip so we could make it.”
On a light note, Kyron Hall reported that while the Udorn crews were at LS-36 waiting to be called, they were known as the “36 for lunch bunch.” GI humor, dry but always first-rate. He also remarked that the crews ate a lot of C-rations, and would use the empty cans, fill them with JP-4, and use the cans as a stove to warm up the C-rations! He presented a photo of a Jolly Green crew with their helicopter resting and eating their C-rats! Not sure if all my readers fully comprehend the danger they would be flying into once the call was received. I could never get over how calm they would seem to be when I saw them at NKP. What a courageous bunch of men is all I can say.
In addition, WWII A-1 prop fighters were there to fly combat air patrol, or defensive patrols, to protect the Jolly Greens when they went in. The A-1 Skyraider arrived at Bien Hoa AB, RVN in May 1964 and proved to be a most capable war fighter in this environment. Initially, escorting rescue helicopters, known as RESCORT missions, was a secondary mission for the A-1s. The requirement was for four A-1s for each H-3, a requirement very difficult to meet. Finally, in August 1965, the 602nd Air Commando Squadron of A-1s moved from Bien Hoa to Udorn RTAFB. For the first time, eight A-1s were scheduled each day for RESCORT. For the most part, they used the call sign “Sandy,” a nickname that would hold. It was the nickname for the 602nd operations officer’s dog at home.
It’s now 1965 and the war in Laos is going full speed ahead. Dr. Leeker wrote:
“But in a more general way, 1965 marked the beginning of major military activities in Laos. When in 1965, the North Vietnamese troops operating in Laos were increased to about 40,000, they not only tried to protect the construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail system, but they also attacked Laotian government forces in the south. Supported by Air America, Royal Lao Government troops were able to repel these assaults.”
While NVA and Pathet Lao forces fought throughout the country, the reality was that the NVN was most interested in the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So too the US, since for them both the main battle ground was the RVN, with Laos only being significant to them because of the trail’s location. Protection of Laos as a sovereign state was the main concern of the US embassy.
The importance of the trail to the NVN grew rapidly because of the long supply line to southern RVN.
By 1965 the US began bombing it and provided air support to RLA troops trying to disrupt it and other enemy activities. The US also began bombing NVN on March 2, 1965 and continued through November 2, 1968 in what came to be known as Operation Rolling Thunder. The photo shows USAF F-105 Thunderchiefs, affectionately known as “Thuds,” radar bombing the NVN under the direction of a B-66 leader over the NVN in Rolling Thunder. B-52s were also used, as were other aircraft types. This was a significant bombing effort designed to get the NVN to stop the war and to destroy its transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses, as well as stop the flow of men and supplies on the Trail. Attacks were flown by both the USAF and USN. The attacks into most of NVN were conducted by fighter-bomber aircraft.
Starting in July 1965, the USAF placed fighters on special alerts to provide close air support and rapid response in Laos. The codename for the F-105s (top photo) sitting alert at Korat RTAFB was “Whiplash,” while for the F-4Cs (bottom photo) it was “Banjo.”
Udorn RTAFB became CIA’s and Air America’s headquarters and command center for air operations over Laos (shown in photo). Gen. Vitoon Yasawatdi commanded "Headquarters 333" at Udorn, the Thai organization in charge of that country's forces in Laos. He would become one of the leaders of operations in Laos.
WE have surely covered a lot of ground. I’ll now turn to specifically to LS-36 and its rile on all this, why it was were it was, why it was so important, and then finish by telling you what happened to it.
I happened to run across a report by Robert E. Lester and Blair D. Hydrick that talked about Na Khang in 1957, when Souvanna Phouma was prime minister. At that time, Na Khang served as a Pathet Lao command post. This was at a time of incredible upheaval in Laotian politics, too hard to handle here. One point I will make is that even at this time, forces hostile to the government held the PDJ and were being supported by the Soviets. The Hmong were fighting against the communists with the help of the US. When you study this era of Laotian politics, the history is absolutely mind-boggling and twists all over the place. It is hard to keep track of who is who and what side they are on at any given moment. Okay, this said, we’ll press ahead with LS-36 at Na Khang when in friendly hands.
Na Khang was established as the headquarters for MR II in 1962, with General Vang Pao in command. WE’ve mentioned him previously. Vang Pao, also known as “VP,” joined the French colonial army to fight against the Japanese and then against Laotian nationalists. CIA and others chose Major Vang Pao from the RLA to command a mercenary army of Hmong forces supplemented by 10,000 Asians, including Thai regular soldiers, Chinese Kuomintang, Burmese and Filipinos. He ran the CIA's secret army from 1962 to 1975. By those who understand the war in Laos, he was among the war’s greatest heroes.
I do not know exactly when the US started using LS-36, but at the least we have shown US people were using it in 1963 or 1964, probably earlier.
The PDJ is highlighted in white. Note the red arrow at the top pointing to Na Khang, LS-36, the next arrow pointing to Route 6, and the lower arrow pointing to Long Tieng, LS-20A, the bid daddy of them all. I have also annotated LS-32 at Bouam Long which will enter the conversation later; fundamentally it was a fall back location when LS-36 got into trouble.
Lima Site 36. Note the two Jolly Green H-3’s left of center. We will talk about them in this report. There are also two fixed wing aircraft center, and it looks like a helicopter off to the right.
As a reminder, here she is, at least the runway, village and military compound off to the left, in all her splendor!
One Air America pilot described the airfield this way:
“South is the PDJ. To the east is Sam Neua (Houaphanh) Province, which is the headquarters of the Pathet Lao. And to the north are rugged mountains all the way to border with North Vietnam, some forty miles away.
“Dirt runway about 2,000 ft, carved out of a flat sloping area on the west side of a 5-6 acre former rice paddy.
LS-36, Na Khang, 1966, “The VIllage”
"Helio Pad Alpha at Village" LS-36, Na Khang, Laos - 1966
LS-36 in December 1966. The runway is mid-photo.
LS-36, people sitting by the runway below the village
“On the north end of the strip is a small collection of ramshackle buildings called the village of Na Khang. Many of the buildings are roofed with flattened 55-gallon gasoline drums. Runway is at elevation of about 4,000 ft; surrounding area of rolling hills and secluded valleys. Rolling hills become more rugged with several jagged limestone peaks to the north and the south. Headquarters of military adjoins northern part of the runway near village. Several wood and tin buildings, with one large canvas tent as combination storage area and Air American crew quarters. There are about a dozen cots with mosquito netting. You throw our sleeping bag on a cot and tuck in the netting. Lots of soldiers. Officers have a separate tent for their mess and Air America crews usually were invited to eat evening meal there.”
This photo shows a young Hmong lad looking over at an Air America UH-1 flying out of LS-36. You can make out the buildings behind it.
Recall that the Viet Minh invaded northeastern Laos in 1953 and through the Geneva Accords of 1954 essentially gained a recognized possession of the two northeastern provinces of Laos. During the years following the French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords, Hmong strength grew and so did the presence of Air America in Laos. So now the US authorities in the Vientiane embassy, the RLA, the Hmong and their American special forces advisors had a logistics problem --- “how to” resupply the scattered Hmong outposts in very mountainous terrain.
LS-36 was located in the far northeast of Laos, in Houaphanhh Province. This province is, these days, often referred to as the birthplace of the Laos People’s Democratic Republic, the communist state formally established in 1975. Note that I have pointed out the location of LS-36 with respect to Sam Neua, the Pathet Lao HQ.
Laos was divided into five military regions (MR). LS-36 was located in MR II, the northeastern most region and the one closest to the heart of the NVN. This turned out to be very important for SAR operations to rescue pilots downed in the NVN or who bailed out over northeastern Laos.
Here you see a map of significant locations within MR II. Na Khang was located just a bit north of the PDJ, and southwest of Sam Neua. Just to the east, running southwest to northeast to the NVN border is Route 6, a crucial route for the Hmong to attack. This was the most hotly contested area in Laos.
For operational purposes, the US created several sectors or air operations. Na Khang was in the Barrel Roll Area. Much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was in the Barrel Roll East and Steel Tiger East. I would note that the southern sector of Steel Tiger East was also known as Tiger Hound.
This shows the main USAF air bases in Thailand. Don Muang AB outside Bangkok and Utapao AB, which was really a Royal Thai Naval Base, were both to the south off the map. Utapao was significant in that it was the major base in Thailand from which the B-52 heavy bombers and KC-135 tankers flew. For purposes of LS-36, these USAF bases were important. The USAF flew its missions over Laos and the NVN from these bases, while the USN flew its attack missions against the NVN from aircraft carriers offshore in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Navy largely used navigation direction provided by the TF77 at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. The USAF needed some kind of navigation direction to get to their targets, that meant they needed it form within Laos, and LS-36 played a huge role here which I will discuss later.
LS-36, it was strategically located as far as the US and Laotian allies were concerned. It was 150 miles west of Hanoi, about a 150 miles northeast of Vientiane, and 100 miles east of the Royal Capital, Luang Prabang. Originally, it was the village of Ban Na Khang. For purposes of the RLA and Hmong, LS-36 was their eastern-most LS, perfect for staging troops to go even further east directed at Sam Neua and other targets. Its location also dominated Route 6, which was a primary transportation route used by the NVA to move troops and supplies. And it was about 40-50 miles north of the important PDJ. Indeed, LS-36 fast became a crucial refueling hub for helicopters and other STOL aircraft operating over the region. It was a key refueling point for SAR missions in the NVN, and as previously indicated, a place from which USAF SAR helicopter flights could stage into the NVN.
The weather was a problem. The airfield was long but was set up the only way the terrain would allow. Fog was a huge problem in the winter. But worse was that the strip had tailwinds, making take offs very dangerous and landings tricky. Several aircraft simply flipped over. Ernest Kuhn mentioned that C-123s came in only if they had extra jet pods so they could take off with a lot of power and quickly.
The region was basically a rice paddy area, flat rolling hills with very little tree vegetation. The French, in the first Indochina War, used the wide valley here to construct an airstrip. The best records I can find reflect show that Air America started using the airfield a lot as early as June 1965, when it flew in support of the USAID Public Works Division (PWD).
On the surface, USAID PWD missions like all other USAID activities in country were humanitarian. It should be noted that according to the Laotian neutrality agreements, USAID, as a humanitarian effort, was allowed in Laos, but CIA and the US military were not. As a result, USAID often operated as a cover for CIA operatives. This photo, from the Judy Porter collection, shows PL-480 noodles being unloaded from a USAID truck at Ban Pak Xuang, northeast of Luang Prabang. The village of Pak Xuang was the distribution point for seven villages in the area consisting of 95 families with a total population of 468 people. PL-480 simply means Public Law 480 which is the authority for either selling or donating US agricultural commodities to foreign countries.
Air America flew most of the resupply and humanitarian flights in Laos. They flew everything from rice to fuel drums. Interestingly, once the fuel drums were emptied at LS-36, the people there flattened them and used them as construction material. Former Air America pilot Joe Hazen commented:
“The last time I flew [Caribou] 392 was on 22 December 1965. I was bringing a load of sheet metal from LS-36 (flattened gasoline drums) to either LS-20 or 20A when the right engine failed and I had to shut it down. The load was quite heavy and we were losing altitude, so I had the load jettisoned and proceeded to Vientiane. When the load was jettisoned, the flattened sheet metal sailed through the air, twisting and turning and acting like a scythe when it hit the jungle.”
In 1965, daily flights were flown from Vientiane to LS-36, usually by C-123s. Even though assigned to USAID, they carried a lot of military equipment and supplies. By 1966 such Air America flights on behalf of USAID carried mostly military equipment and supplies, though humanitarian flights continued.
Quite often the humanitarian supplies, especially rice, were air dropped to villages. The photo shows an Air America transport dropping rice to a Hmong village. Sometimes even the fuel drums were parachuted to the target spots. C-7s and C-123s did the heavy work, but some of the drops would have to be transferred to helicopters to get to the more inaccessible areas. Added to all this were refugee flights and flights carrying medical supplies.
The PWD was also in charge of constructing the Lima Sites. But it did so largely under the supervision of CIA and General Vang Pao. In 1961, Major Aderholt was with Detatchment 2, 1045th Operational Evaluation & Training Group at Takhli RTAFB, reporting directly to CIA headquarters. He teamed with Bill Lair who honcho’d the Hmong Project and General Vang Pao to organize and construct small STOL landing strips on mountainsides in northern Laos, to wit, Lima Sites.
The Air American pilots would survey potential areas for the fields, VP would outline a plan for building the field with Hmong villagers, and the villagers would build the strips with their primitive tools. When ready, an Air American pilot would try to land on it. This photo is an artist’s rendition showing General VP with Bill Lair at LS-367 to discuss establishment of LS-85 at Phou Pha Thi in 1966. Lair just stepped out of his Porter STOL aircraft to the right to meet with VP. You can get a feel for what a LS looked like here, a Hmong village at the end of the runway. LS-85 was important to the story of LS-36 and we will address that later.
As mentioned earlier, LS-36 was once a rudimentary French airfield. This is a present-day Google Earth shot of the area and the field. USAID/PWD lengthened and rebuilt the field employing a small bulldozer, dismantled and flown to the site. Maintenance of the site was a problem throughout its existence. First, the terrain was difficult. Perhaps more important, the weather, according to Air America pilots, went from rainy, to windy to smokey. The rainy season would last 5-6 months, not good for a dirt strip. An RLA officer named Colonel Thong was the area commander until he was killed in June 1965.
Air America C-7 Caribou delivering supplies to friendlies in Laos
An Air America pilot, Charlie Mosely, said the river and the town reminded him of going fly fishing on the Elk River of southwestern Oregon! He also said the site was a “melting pot, bringing together the Hmong led by VP, the neutralists led by Kong Le, and the USAF.” He said the landing strip was a bit short, but good enough for the Caribous, with some provisos that’ll wake you up. He said this:
“The landing strip at 36 was a little short, but fine for our Caribous; if you could successfully ease over the top of that last limestone karst mountain; flutter down the steep slope with full flaps and the stall warning horn screaming--give a little jolt of power to get over that last deep irrigation ditch--then slap both props into full reverse a couple feet off the ground--and hope no people or water buffalo had wandered out onto the runway since your over-flight five minutes ago.”
“During the dry season of 65-66, Tony Poe and associates decided they needed C-123 flights into LS-36. They proceeded to elongate the strip, fill in the ditches and use C-4 to cut down most of the trees up to the top of the mountain which blocked any decent approach. The finished product looked real cute from 8,000 ft. up, but ugly as sin face on.”
As mentioned previously, Air America started using LS-36 in a serious way as early as June 13, 1965. In late 1965, USAF HH-3E Jolly Green Giant SAR helicopters from NKP were based at LS-36 during daylight hours, after which hey returned to NKP or went to LS-20A and came back at dawn the next day. Later on, crews and their aircraft might remain at LS-36 for several weeks. LS-36 became a regular destination, called by Charlie Mosely as a “hub of our war efforts north of the PDJ.”
Let’s talk a bit about the USAF’s Butterfly Program. The USAF, in 1963, sent four sergeants from Combat Control Teams (CCT) to Laos. They turned in their uniforms and military identifications and became “civilianized,” to wit, “sheep-dipped.” They then began flying in the co-pilot’s seat of Air American Helio Couriers (top photo, USAF version used in RVN) and Pilatus Porters (bottom photo), often accompanied by a Thai or Lao interpreter in the back seat. They were known as the “Butterflies” because they used the call sign “Butterfly.” These sergeants then directed air attacks against enemy targets in Laos. The program expanded to six sergeants.
The Porter needed only 640 ft. for takeoff and could land within a distance of 427 feet with payload. Immediately after takeoff, it could literally stand on its tail and climb out. The photo shows a Helio Courier doing just that. They came to NKP a lot, and watching them take off and land was quite an experience. I had never seen anything like that before.
The Butterfly Program ran from 1963-1966. I am going to assume these Butterflies used LS-36 in 1964. I say that because Roy Dalton was the first rated officer to augment the Butterflies and he was stationed at LS-36 in November 1964. He directed RLAF air attacks while riding in Air America helicopters.
Reports indicate that Michael S. Lynch, a CIA man who joined at the age of 23 in 1963, spent a good deal of time at LS-36 over the years. General Vang Pao took over security for LS-36 feeling that the RLA could not handle the job. Lynch, in the report I have, is credited with starting the forward air guide (FAG) program at LS-36. The first FAG, according to this report, was a Hmong named Moua Chong, call sign “Tallman.” USAF Jolly Green helicopters or Air America aircraft would insert a Hmong team, and Tallman worked with USAF B-26 Nimrods to help them hit their targets during their night attacks.
At the time, there were also USAF weathermen there, and a medic.
Charles L. Jones and James J. Stanford, both USAF, were trained as FAGs at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Jones served with Special Forces “A” Teams, the forward teams out on the prowl, and felt that this effort led to the Butterfly program. Jones and Stanford trained Hmong teams to go out on long patrols and they only had to speak a few simple English phrases, like “I have a target.” Air America helicopters would insert them into northern Laos. Jones or Sanford might leave Long Tieng at dawn, land at LS-36, speak with the locals, and take one or more of them to a target area. Once there, they would listen for aircraft and then, when they spotted enemy, call for air in the target. Takhli-based F-105s, Thai-piloted T-28s, and USAF A-1Es would be used. They would then return to Long Tieng and debrief General Vang Pao and plan the next day’s activities. For these two men, this activity occurred in 1966.
The activities of these kinds at LS-36 were many, and it is hard to piece the many reports together. Suffice to say that a small number of Americans were mightily involved along with larger groups of Hmong SGUs. I must say that those who have endeavored to put authoritative books together on all these subjects deserve great praise.
The Butterfly program was replaced in 1966 by the USAF Raven Program of Forward Air Controllers (FAC), and I suspect they used LS-36 as well.
The Ravens flew the O-1 Bird Dog to find enemy and direct air support against him. The photo shows a Raven Bird Dog with Laotian markings. It was an USAF aircraft, operated under the control of the US Ambassador Vientiane, Laos, flown by Raven USAF pilots Ed Gunter, Larry Sanborn out of Luang Prabang, Laos, and then by Erik Carlson out of Long Tieng, Laos.
Hate to confuse you, but also in 1966, along with these actions just described, the USAF established the Palace Dog Program. It had two parts, the Raven FACs and Project 404. Project 404 was the program that supplied the support personnel for the USAF fighter pilots who flew under the Raven call sign.
As an aside, all these men, Butterfly, Raven, 404, were USAF people who were sheep dipped. The term meant the men were given an alternate identity. In a Discovery Documentary done in 2004, “Ravens: Covert War in Laos,” sheep-dipped was defined as “Stripping a soldier of his military uniform and identification so he can pose as a civilian during a covert mission.” In these cases, they were assigned to the US Embassy Vientiane.
For Laos, please recall that all this sheep dipping was being done because the US made agreements making Laos “neutral.” Neither foreign side to the war and fighting in Laos was to have military forces on the ground or in the air there. Both the NVA and the US ignored this, the NVA in the wide open, the US trying to be covert, in retrospect, an impossible objective.
By 1965, the main function of LS-36 was to supply airstrips and outposts in Houaphanh Province, and anything north of the PDJ.
You have sort of seen this map before. The area in red is Houaphanh province, which you will recall hosts the city of Sam Neua in the north. The white dot is the approximate location of LS-36. The green dot is roughly the location of PDJ. Please remember that Route 6 runs just to the east of LS-36 to the northeast to the NVN border. All of this was the most hotly contested area in Laos. So, to repeat, by 1965, the main function of LS-36 was to supply airstrips and outposts in Houaphanh Province, and anything north of the PDJ. “Supply” included inserting RLA and indigenous forces like the Hmong deep into enemy territory and picking them up when they completed their mission.
STOL aircraft were prime users of LS-36. After the airfield was expanded, Air America C7 Caribous (top photo) and the C-123 Providers (bottom photo) transport aircraft could bring in ammunition and supplies in larger amounts than could be carried by helicopters and the STOL aircraft. In these photos, both showing CIA transport aircraft in Laos, you can get a feel for the “runways.” One C-123 accident report remarked that the pilot “touched down 30 feet short of the first usable portion of the runway at Na Khang (LS-36), Laos, and struck a two foot high embarkment at the end of the runway on 23 May 68, so that the main landing gear collapsed.” No one was seriously hurt, but “the aircraft received substantial damage; both main landing gears jammed into the wheel wells; extensive damage to the fuselage, which was broken and actually separated at the top aft of the wings.” So there was no fooling around on these landings.
Once the larger C-7s and C-123s dropped off their men and supplies, smaller helicopters, Helio planes and the Porters would pick up the loads and take them to small RLA and Hmong outposts. This photo shows an Air America Bell 205 (civilian version of the military UH-1 Huey) leaving a Hmong Fire Support Base atop a hill in the south-eastern portion of the PDJ in 1969.
Moving troops and supplies were top priority missions at Na Khang. So was SAR. In fact, all the missions at Na Khang were top priority, which is why it was there.
When you even skim the surface of went on in Laos, you are immersed and entangled in more projects than the average mind can handle. Here’s another one.
LS-36 was a centerpiece of a major operation planned in 1965, called “Operation Duck Soup.”
NVN transports were flying aerial supply and bombing missions from the NVN to Laos. It is worth mentioning that Soviet transport aircraft deployed a mixed transport regiment to the NVN to support the Pathet Lao and Neutralist forces inside Laos as well. Operation Duck Soup was directed at NVN transports flying resupply or bombing missions into Laos. The NVN Air Force (NVNAF) would often use the Russian AN-2 biplane (model shown). It could carry a one ton payload. The NVNAF outfitted these AN-2s with twelve 57 mm folding fin aerial rocket pods, mounted under each of its lower wings. It also carried twenty 250 mm mortar rounds set with aerial bomb fuses ready to drop into tubes mounted vertically on the floor of the cargo bay. They were dropped through holes cut into the cargo floor. Bomb bay doors were hinged up, would be opened and the pilot could dump a large load over an enemy target. The photo is of a model NVNAF AN-2 and you can see the 57 mm rocket pods under each lower wing.
The Duck Soup plan was intercept and shoot down these NVNAF flights.
The idea was to employ four Whiplash F-105s at Korat from the late afternoon to dusk. When scrambled, they would fly into Laos at low level, stay clear of enemy radars and known flak batteries, and be supplied with data needed to avoid civilian flights. A FAG team at LS-36 would help direct the fighters to the resupply flights.
In September 1965, the State Department told its embassy in Laos, ”Reports of enemy air drops in Laos are quite intermittent and seldom confirmed. Few actual sightings of drops have in fact been reported and all recent reports of enemy aircraft activity have been at night. During the last five months neither the Lao Armed Forces nor Souvanna Phouma has raised this subject with U.S. officials, as they might have been expected to do if air drops were materially affecting operations in the Sam Neua area.” So there was concern that Duck Soup was a waste of time and resources.
There were also concerns that friendly aircraft would be mistakenly shot down. All kinds of problems developed because of conflicts in flight schedules for Air America C-47 and C-123 aircraft resupplying Vang Pao at LS-36 and many other outposts. The end result was the F-105s ended up with such a small window, about two hours before sunset, that the operation was canceled.
However, Ambassador Sullivan wanted to save the program and recommended using RLAF T-28s stationed in Laos, and two were sent to LS-20A at Long Tieng. Air American pilots were to do the flying. The State Department objected to using the Air America pilots unless the aircraft were marked with the US insignia.
Finally, the JCS and Ambassador Sullivan agreed to employ the F-4C Bango aircraft at Udorn RTAFB. Everything had to be timed to make sure Air America was finished with its daily resupply flights throughout Laos. The Bango aircraft started their alert at 1700 hours each day. If the LS-36 FAG did not call for a scramble, the F-4Cs would launch anyway, at dusk, and loiter near Na Khang. If a NVN transport showed up, a FAG would call for an attack. However, there was still desire by some military leaders to use the Laotian T-28s with Air America pilots, along with the F-4Cs.
Quite a bit of time passed and interest in the operation started to wane. A decision was made to try to attack the NVNAF aircraft on the ground at Dien Bien Phu. Over in Vietnam, two F-100s (F-100D shown here) made a very close pass to an International Control Commission (ICC) C-46 and the entire project was dropped, in large part out of fear of taking down friendly aircraft as dusk was falling.
I spent time on this operation to highlight the politics and many different options and obstacles involved in planning and executing military operations in Laos. I also wanted to show the key role that would be played by LS-36.
The year 1966 saw the greatest USAF expansion in Thailand, with about 25,000 people and 400 aircraft there. During 1966, the USAF flew 6,416 air strikes in northern Laos while the Navy flew 900. This photo shows a B-52 bombing the NVN for the first time, targeted at the Mu Gia Pass connecting the NVN with the Ho Ci Minh Trail.
FAC missions were not a formal mission for Air America pilots. But they had a few pilots with FAC experience from their USAF days in Vietnam. Most of Air America’s FAC missions, however, were flown from LS-36, usually in Helios or Porters. The pilots will tell you they often felt like taxi drivers because they most often carried a Lao or Hill tribe ethnic to communicate with the ground troops, convey his information to the pilot, who in turn would call for fighters. One such pilot, named in a report as only “Utterback,” but I believe he was William “Willie” Utterback, flew a mission north of the PDJ and spotted a NVA camp on top of a flattened mountain top. He returned to LS-36, spent the night, and then launched the next day at dawn. He orbited below the mountain several miles away, and directed a flight of F-105s with Cluster Bomb Units (CBUs) through the valley to the target. They made two passes, killing hundreds of enemy. I think this mission occurred sometime in 1966.
I mentioned earlier the Helio program was used for CIA infiltration missions, exfiltrating downed aircrews, and providing light aircraft to supply paramilitary activities in the rugged areas of Laos and elsewhere. This photo shows a Helio, probably at Vientiane. These aircraft were heavy users of the Lima sites. I came across a most interesting document by Dr. Joe F. Leeker that addresses the kind of accidents these aircraft experienced at LS-36. I mentioned earlier that flying in and out of LS-36 could get dicey.
Paul Severnson crashed his just northwest of LS-36 in June 1965 when his engine blew up, thankfully no injuries. Another one crashed at LS-36 in November 1966 injuring three passengers and sustaining substantial damage. Yet another one crashed at LS-36 in February 1966 after ground looping to the left on landing, damaging the right wingtip, aileron, landing gear, and part of the fuselage. Quite often, these aircraft were repaired and put back into service. Throughout Laos, these aircraft experienced control malfunctions, were hit by small arms fire, experienced bad weather including poor visibility and cross winds, were quickly forced on go-arounds because of horses on the runway, made hard landings miscalculations resulting in hitting tree tops in box canyons, had failed brakes, overshooting the runways, skids, landing gear failures, ground looping, engine failures, taxied into a fuel drum and construction area, and the beat goes on and on. My sense is a lot of harrowing flights to and from these Lima sites were the norm.
The Helios were not the only ones facing a tough flying environment into and out of the Lima Sites. An Air America C-123 touched down short of the runway at LS-36 in May 1968, no injuries but the aircraft was a complete loss, as an example.
We’ve been through multiple reasons why LS-36 was important. But we have not yet discussed what was central to US war fighting over the NVN up until 1968 --- bombing the NVN. LS-36 hosted a USAF operated TACAN site, a Tactical Air Navigation site used by attack aircraft headed into and coming out of the NVN. Basically, a TACAN site transmits ultrahigh-frequency signals.
Aircraft equipped with the proper receiver and readout equipment can ascertain their bearing and distance from a transmitting station. There were multiple TACAN sites throughout Laos. This TACAN cockpit readout was aboard a F-4J. The pilot knew exactly where the TACAN site he was using was located. In this case, the TACAN site to which he is tuned is on his 210 degree radial (a line from his aircraft to the TACAN site), and it is 109 miles away from the TACAN site. That tells him where he is when he looks at his map, or at least gives him an idea of where he is if he is a more seasoned pilot and has run this route more than once.
The decision to place a TACAN at LS-36 was made in November 1965.
It was to be installed by the 1st Mobile Communications Group (1st MOB) based in the Philippines. The 1st MOB operated all the TACAN sites in Laos. The MOB selected a TRN-17 TACAN unit for LS-36. It was not automatic, and required two people to operate and maintain it.
The photo shows an AN/TRN-17 TACAN in place at Kwangju, Republic of Korea, 1968. A unit had been shipped to Udorn RTAFB, and this was the one installed at LS-36. LS-36 was supposed to be the first to get a TACAN in the northern Barrel Roll area of Laos. But the problem was it was a highly dangerous area at the time, and installation could not be done. So the first station was set up at Phou Kate (L-44) near Saravane in southern Laos, and the second at Long Tieng (LS-20A) in the Barrel Roll, VP’s HQ.
There were to be five units set up in Laos. About 24 USAF people were trained in Thailand to operate all five TACAN stations. The USAF wanted to turn over operation and maintenance of the TACAN stations to civilians under contract to Air America, but I do not think that happened.
About 30 miles to the northeast from LS-36 was LS-85, even closer to NVN than LS-36. LS-85 was located at Phou Phathi. It is marked by the red arrow. The green dot marked by the green arrow is the approximate location of LS-36.
The TACAN site at LS-85 became operational in October-November 1967. The photo shows a major TACAN component being airlifted from LS-36 to LS-85. It started with an AN/TRN-17 but was upgraded to the TSQ-81. It was far more sophisticated than the TRN-17. It actually was a MSQ-77 Bomb Scoring System used by SAC reconfigured to be a tactical system. It was a high resolution radar slightly modified to guide bomb-dropping aircraft to their prerelease position. However, this site was overrun and destroyed.
I hate to do this to you, but I am going to switch gears and talk a bit about LS-85. Its story is incredible, and I will try to be brief.
LS-85 was a mile-long karst with an air strip, LS-198, located at the bottom of the cliffs, built by CIA. On top of the cliff, the USAF installed its TACAN site in August 1966. The mountain top was 5,600 ft. high, a mile high.
The enemy climbed this steep cliff and got to the top to attack. If you want to know how they might have done that, have a look at this photo.
In 1967, the TACAN was upgraded to a TSQ-81, which allowed the operators to direct and control attacking fighters and bombers to their targets and provide precise release points. This became operational in late November 1967. A team of 19 American USAF men was sent to the mountain top site to operate this equipment. They had to sign paperwork that temporarily released them from military service, and to work in the guise of civilian technicians from Lockheed Martin. One would think, by looking at it, that it was impenetrable. Not so.
During the period November 1967 through March 1968, LS-85 directed 27 percent of the air strike missions, 507, against targets in Laos and the NVN, even when the attacking aircraft had to fly through bad weather. It was crucial to the Rolling Thunder air operations from Thailand over Laos into the NVN. During the period from the start, August 1966, through March 1968, LS-85’s radar directed 55 percent of all bombing operations against North Vietnam. This most certainly caught the NVA’s attention.
Enemy forces started moving into the area in January 1968, and two enemy, Soviet made AN-2 Colts conducted strafing attacks but did no damage to the site. I believe one was shot down by a helicopter. The graphic is a painting showing an Air America UH-1 Huey firing on one of two AN-2s that had been dropping 120 mm mortar rounds on LS-85,
On March 10, 1968 enemy forces attacked with mortar, artillery and rocket rounds, an attack that lasted for about two hours. The off-duty men on top the mountain took their sleeping bags, weapons and radios and hid through the night on a cliffside ledge partially protected by a rocky overhang. However, enemy forces were climbing up the cliffs, discovered the hiding place, and began shooting down and throwing grenades down at them. Two Americans were killed, and two more seriously wounded.
Word was that the Thais who were to provide security for the USAF people and TACAN equipment there had left. Estimates were made by those watching through binoculars that the enemy had about 200 troops, which after action reports say was much higher than the actual number. Those who were able to observe what was happening could see that an attack was underway, they called everyone they could to obtain help, but most of the people they called were in disbelief and were not ready to help.
Vang Pao flew over to LS-36 to try to find out what was happening. The men at LS-36 confirmed LS-85 was under attack. Air American choppers went in and out of the pad at LS-198 removing wounded. SGUs remained on the mountain top to fight. In the mean time, Vang Pao ordered troops be brought to LS-36, and then inserted to reinforce LS-85. Interestingly, while Vang Pao wanted to do everything he could to save LS-85, the USAF was slow to react, and CIA promptly considered the site lost. As a result, Vang Pao was not able to execute his desired mission. One of the problems for the USAF was that it had limited air resources, and these were mightily involved in fighting off Tet 1968 and the enemy attacks against Khe Sanh.
The efforts that went into saving LS-85 were many, too numerous to describe here.
Of the 19 Americans on the mountain, only seven got out alive, while twelve were lost.
Vang Pao, worried now about the massive buildups of enemy forces in northeastern Laos, decided to try to retake LS-85. His Hmong along with RLA forces tried but were forced to retreat. LS-85 was now just a memory. The USAF then began bombing the site, conducting 95 strike sorties using B-52s and F-111s against it between March 12-18. On March 19, an A-1 Skyraider fighter destroyed every building at the old site. Regrettably, the KIAs were left behind and lost to the bombing.
With the loss of LS-85, the USAF decided to install a TACAN at LS-36.
This is a 1968 photo of the TACAN site at LS-36. The TACAN was at elevation 4,400 ft. The yellow arrow points to the antenna, and you can sort of make out the shelter with electronic equipment and operators at its base. The Civil Engineering Squadron from Udorn RTAFB cleared the hill and set up a pad. In the upper right hand corner is the village of Na Khang. Most of the trees were cut down with chain saws, axes and machetes. The round clearing to the lower right of the center of the photo was a helicopter pad. An Army CH-46 brought in a Caterpillar D2 tractor to help clear the rest.
The helicopter pad just below and to the right of the center was really only good enough to handle an UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, the Iroquois.
Some time in January 1969, a CH-3 helicopter out of the 20th Special Operations Squadron, Udorn RTAFB brought in a TACAN maintenance man, some others, and 10 barrels of diesel fuel. An Air America UH-1 was using the runway for a mission, so the CH-3 decided to use this pad at the TACAN site. It was dangerous for such a large aircraft because the pad was very small and the winds were unpredictable. During landing, something went wrong, the chopper rolled forward and went over the edge of the hill, which was more like a cliff, tipped over and exploded. Three people were thrown out or jumped clear and survived. There were eight souls aboard.
Here’s another look at the TACAN site in 1968, looking from the east to the west.
Just in a bit closer, yet another look.
The TACAN at LS-36 consisted only of a radio navigation system as I described above. Interestingly, LS-36 was more heavily defended than was LS-85, even though the TACAN was less capable. This was probably due to the numerous other forward missions conducted from it and the fact that the Hmong and RLA were taking a beating elsewhere. I read one assessment that said it would take seven enemy battalions to take it. That I believe was too high an estimate. Regrettably, the only interior shot of the TRN-17 I could find was this photo taken by the NVA after they overran the LS-85.
Well, we have most certainly covered a lot of ground, and I am sure we have missed a lot of ground. Hopefully you have a good idea of what LS-36 did, why it was where it was, and why it was important.
We must now switch to the eventual loss of the site, to wit, what happened to LS-36?
Everyone, including the NVA, understood the importance of LS-36.
As a result, Na Khang’s LS-36 saw plenty of action, action that would ultimately do it in. The enemy wanted this place shut down. Prior to its fall to the enemy, strong willed battles occurred to keep it afloat, and successes were achieved, but at great cost to the Allies and certainly to the NVA and Pathet Lao.
LS-36 was attacked and harassed frequently. Three major attacks stand out, two were repelled, and during the final one the site was lost.
Attack Nr. One - First Defense of LS-36
In late 1965-1966 much of northern Laos was falling to the enemy. The NVN had decided to step up its involvement in Laos. The NVA, which had been supporting the Pathet Lao, now took charge and dominated specific operations. The truth is the NVA didn’t trust the Pathet Lao much, and as time went by, would not them near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I have a report that the NVA 168 Regiment of the 316 Division departed Phu Yen, NVN in early February 1966 and two days later overwhelmed Na Khang.
In his oral history of 1995, Ernest C. Kuhn addressed what is known as the “First Defense of LS-36:”
“The perimeters around Na Khang were probed nightly. They had flare ships up there at night to try to give some protection at night. Finally, Na Khang did fall, was overrun. (In January 1966) General Vang Pao went up there to see what was going on. I don't know whether this story is exactly correct or not, but Don Sjostrom, who worked with me in AID, was up there. He said they went out to a chopper pad with General Vang Pao and they saw a Vietnamese who was still alive and coming up the backside of the pad. They flipped a hand grenade down over the side, hit the guy and it blew his head off and his head came flying past Vang Pao. General Vang Pao saw the head and when it came to a stop he walked over to examine the head, supposedly, and a sniper fired a round at him. He was hit in the elbow and grazed his neck.”
Vang Pao ordered his troops to reinforce the Laotian soldiers defending it. Vang Pao would note only two of five enemy soldiers would even have weapons. In these days, one had to stick his neck out to use American air power to support friendly forces in Laos on the ground, but there were a few at Udorn RTAFB and Vientiane who did just that. They not only sent in air, but the air employed napalm. The attack on LS-36 was so ferocious that the USAF at Udorn, at the time 2nd Division/13 AF (2nd Division later became 7AF) asked urgently for AC-47 gunships to come to Udorn and help out. The AC-47s came and went to the area and did a number on the enemy but it was not good enough. The photo shows an AC-47 firing during the night at another target.
On February 17, 1966, LS-36 radioed that it could no longer hold. Chinook helicopters came in. In her book Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, Jane Hamilton-Merritt said:
“Chinooks dropped onto the ridge positions and picked up Hmong soldiers. Fred Walker helped with the evacuation. The loaders piled them in those choppers upright, 200 men to a chopper. It looked like a New York subway at 5 p.m., but they got them all out, One American and eight Hmong were killed and 24 others were wounded.”
The photo shows a CH-47 Chinook leaving a landing zone in the RVN for Charlie Co., 1-50 Infantry (Mech), 1st Air Cav (Air Mobile), just to give you an idea of what it might have been like at LS-36. I have seen photos of harrowing CH-47 flights where they literally have only their back end close to or touching the edge of a ridge line while extracting troops, with the rest of the aircraft hovering in the air. Incredible aircraft and air crews.
Kuhn confirmed the USAF employed napalm to stop the attack. The photo shows A-1Es dropping napalm in the RVN. The NVN took a beating. Many of the surrounding villages were burned to the ground. The friendlies held overnight against a weaker attack, and overall did not take heavy casualties. The enemy retreated the next morning and the friendly forces there along with refugees fell back toward another Lima Site, in all probability because the Americans there fell back. However, the enemy took such a thrashing in this attack that it was unable to occupy the site for several days.
This report indicated the rainy season forced the NVA to withdraw toward Sam Neua City. One result was that General Vang Pao and his forces retook the site in May 1966 and held. This would be the modus operandi. The enemy would take the offense in the dry season and accomplish a lot, and fall back in the rainy season when the friendlies would take back what they had lost.
There was no question about the importance the US placed on LS-36. Colonel John E. Bridge, USAF, Director of Intelligence, 7/13AF, Udorn RTAFB, said in 1967:
"...No question about Lima 36's importance to the enemy. It is a keystone in the control of Route 6 and is subject to attack any time they want to assert control over the entire route. Also, apparently, they had some emotional involvement with Site 36--probably because they tried not only to re-take it, but to annihilate the defenders. When they took it a year ago it was at a prohibitive cost, and then (Gen.) Vang Pao took it away from them last May. They really wanted a decisive win in this one, and they thought they had it, and then the fighters came in and took it away from them."
Attack Nr. Two - Second Defense of LS-36
In late December 1966 through early January 1967, enemy forces built up at nearby Sam Neua, threatening three Lima Sites, 36, 52, and 85. The expectation was that Na Khang would be attacked yet again, and the enemy did select LS-36 for its first attack. Col. Bridge remarked:
"...They (NVA) reversed their usual procedure on this attack. Normally their assaults come during the hours of darkness; however, this time they infiltrated into position during the night and began their attack just about daybreak. For several weeks Site 36 had been covered by a very low overcast during the day, and probably the enemy figured that no tactical air could get in to give support."
Billy G. Webb, in his book Secret War, said:
“Using inclement weather for cover, the NVA began to infiltrate the site’s perimeter on the night of January 5 (1967) … As the attack began, the communist troops crept into the installation form three sides, slowly crawling up to the inner perimeter as they slowly moved towards their target, the installation’s command post.”
Most of the people at the site were asleep.
The attack then let loose during the morning hours of January 6, 1967, starting with the enemy firing mortar rounds on the base from the north. Don Sjostrom again went out there with his weapon to engage the enemy. This time he was shot and killed.
Ernest Kuhn, in his interview, described the scene.
He said the air strip had a hill at one end and friendly positions with CIA radios and bunkers at the other end. The NVA, estimated at from 600-800, surrounded the site and attacked from three directions, cutting off any escape routes. The weather was heavy overcast, 200-500 ft., limiting employment of airpower. There were about 500 defenders, including two Americans.
The hill had a ridgeline and they had a 75 pack howitzer and 50 caliber machine gun, the latter facing away from the air strip. The Vietnamese came along the ridgeline and moved toward the machine gun. It appeared they wanted to use it to sweep the airstrip and the other end of the air strip with hostile fire. The forces defending Na Khang were a mix of SGUs, FAR troops, and other tribal groups. There were also Thai road team watchers there.
The Allies charged up the hill and took the machine gun and forced the Vietnamese back. That said, the enemy started coming across the runway. Weather was bad and aircraft could not get in. Friendly forces held overnight. For the next two nights C-130 flareships, known as Blind Bats, kept the area lit up and the enemy did not attack. The site held. The enemy lost many forces and the defenders’ morale took a big boost. As an aside, I did a story some time ago about the Blind Bats, “Blind Bat, Yellowbirds, Willy the Whale, the ‘Night Intruders’ on Uncle Ho's trail.” I commend it to you. It was quite a secretive program at the time.
The lunge from the north at first failed. The assault from the south closed to within 100 yards of the compound, and by this time other enemy elements broke through from the north. A CIA case officer was in the shack and called for air.
Venom flight of four Takhli-based F-105 Thuds was diverted from an armed reconnaissance flight in Steel Tiger of the panhandle, and arrived at LS-36 along with the arrival of another F-105, call sign Hartford. Both flights tried to get through the muck of the undercast. This was a tough run, but the pilots felt if they made enough noise, they could dissuade the enemy.
A Korean war veteran, Conley would be killed on January 21, 1967 as mission commander for a two-wing strike force launched against the heavily defended Tung Tu rail yard thirty-five miles north of Hanoi. He would receive the Air Force Cross (posthumous) for unilaterally flying so as to invite intense enemy fire while the rest of his flight could sneak in and destroy their target.
"...he (Turner) said the American at the site was very excited; his contemporary at the site had already been killed. The enemy force had already overrun about three quarters of the compound, were inside the compound and firing at him. He was in a building, but he still had his radio and he had a shotgun there--he figured it was a last ditch effort to keep them out of the building. He was asking for any kind of help available."
Capt. John Haney, Turner’s wingman in Dragonfly 22, said this:
"...the American on the ground sounded to me as if he really didn't think either of us would get in there. We got in the general area of the outpost … Major Turner was able to get an intermittent lock-on with his Bird Dog--ADF--on the radio beacon at the fort. He left me on top, about 8,000 feet. Weather was solid on down to the 200-foot ceiling they'd given us at the camp.
"He (Turner) left me on top in a holding pattern so that he would know where to find me, and penetrated on down. The tops
of the mountains there, within about five miles of the camp, go on up to about 56-5,900 feet. He made this general circling approach with a vague idea where he was and managed to break out at 5,500 feet, well below the surrounding terrain but just over the outpost."
LS-36, declassified from Project Checo SEA report, “Second Defense of Lima Site 36, April 28, 1967, HQ PACAF
Turner spotted the enemy on both sides of the airfield, and on the north slope of a hill where the compound was located, in the POL storage area, and in trees encircling the west side of the field. He asked the American where to fire, and the response was let them have it, anyone outside the compound. He made several passes, firing rockets and short 20-mm canon bursts. Turner figured he could do some damage to the enemy, but thought perhaps just as important, he was buying time for the defenders on the ground.
Dragonfly 21 and 22 remained over the target area for 65 minutes which made the different. Both aircraft received heavy battle damage but were able to stay int he fight. Between the two, they sent 1,600 rounds of 20-mm canon fire, four 100-pound white phosphorous bombs, 42 high-explosive 2.75-inch rickets and eight 2.75-inch rockets with phosphorous heads down to the enemy. Those who were in the fight on the ground say the A-1Es were hitting enemy as close as 50 yards from the defenders. This allowed the friendlies to launch counterattacks.
The citation for his Air Force Cross reads:
“He (Turner) descended through 2,500 feet of solid clouds in poorly mapped mountainous terrain and made repeated attacks against entrenched hostile forces. In spite of intense and accurate automatic weapons fire and repeated hits upon his aircraft, Major Turner continued his attacks until his ordnance was exhausted and fuel was critically low. His actions forced the hostile forces to break off their assault and saved the friendly forces from certain defeat.”
Somewhere in this mix, I should point out that there was a friendly 50 caliber machine-gun (M2 50 cal machine-gun shown here) located on a ridge overlooking the airstrip, but it was pointed away from the airstrip. The NVA climbed up the ridge trying to get to it. That would have enabled them to turn the gun on the airstrip and hose it down along with troops’ positions. At this time, there were many RLA troops there along with the SGUs. The RLA commander decided to send up three groups, one to the left, one to the right, and one up the middle. The commander led the center group and was killed in short order by the NVA. That notwithstanding, the friendlies managed to overrun the 50 cal position and push the NVA out. Nonetheless, enemy kept coming across the runway. The friendlies held.
While all this was going on, Butterfly 44, a FAC, arrived and started bringing in more air. The weather started to clear, and Firefly 11 and 12, two more A-1Es arrived just as the Dragonflies and to leave.The Fireflies worked over the enemy in drainage ditches and treelines near the runway. Like the Dragonflies, they pounded the enemy with everything they had on board. Throughout the day, F-105s, A-1Es, F-104s and Laotian T-28s worked over the enemy as well.
One result was that the air power and ground forces pushed the enemy away from the airfield, and the defenders were able to reopen the field. General Vang Pao arrived during the day to take command. The FAC assessed that the defenders could hold so long as the enemy was not able to regroup and attack during the night, and the air needed more good weather in the morning.
Lt. General William Momyer, commander, 7th AF, attached such importance to LS-36 that he moved the Lamplighter C-130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) over to the Barrel Roll to cover the camp. Nimrod A-26s from the 606th Air Commando Squadron (ACS) at NKP RTAFB were put on notice that they might have to conduct night attacks.
If the enemy thought it had seen a bombardment on the day before, when morning broke and the weather was clear, in came Dragon Fly 21 and 22, Sandy 1, 2, 3, and 4, and Firefly 11 and 12, all A-1Es, to blanket the woods and other likely hideouts. The enemy tried to fire a mortar but was shut down.
Later in the afternoon, patrols were able to search for enemy bodies and they found the maps of the ingress routes. General Vang Pao concluded that the enemy really didn’t know where they were, but had been guided in by someone familiar with the territory. He ordered a FAC to explore every nook and cranny of the area to look for departing enemy. The Butterfly FAC found a group, apparently lost, in a heavy jungle canyon. They were carrying at least 100 wounded or dead.
Butterfly directed in Firefly 15 and 16, diverted from another target. Capt. John Roberts led the flight and said:
"...We arrived on scene--the weather was pretty good-- talked to the local FAC, Butterfly 44, and he marked an area, a kind of box canyon a little bit less than a kilometer from the actual compound of Lima 36. We had CBU, napalm, 'Willie Pete' (MK-47 Plasticized White Phosphorous bombs), 20-millimeter, and also we had two SUU-11 miniguns on our stubs. So, we really raked his area over--this is ideal weaponry for troops on the ground. It was a heavily wooded area, but we left it completely blazing and really weren't sure whether we'd done much or not. But later on that afternoon I spoke to one of our sources here, and he said that he got a report back that it had been quite a lucrative strike."
Incredibly, an International Control Commission (ICC) team that was to monitor Laotian neutrality arrived over the site in a C-47, which presented CIA some problems since they had some people there and many radios. So the CIA guys were taken out, and, according to Ernest Kuhn, officially an USAID worker, was sent in to cover for the presence of the radios. USAID was allowed to be there. Radios employed by CIA differed from those used by USAID, so Kuhn was instructed how to change them over to look like they were USAID radios. This was all too hard so he left them alone. The photo shows four military members of the ICC for Laos --- L-R: Captain G.E. Lawrence (Canada), Lt. Colonel A.S. Kakshi (India), Magor Kazak (Poland), and a Polish interpreter, at Xieng Khouang, Laos, 1 April 1955, just to give the flavor for the ICC --- looks a lot like a UN peacekeeping group.
It turned out the C-47 was not carrying an ICC inspection team, so Kuhn spent three days and nights coordinating air strikes in response to calls from Thai and SGU road watch team sightings of enemy. He coordinated USAF C-130 flareships, the “Blind Bats and resupply missions carrying ammunition to multiple outposts. So, while not a CIA card carrying guy, he was a CIA kind of guy under the cover of USAID. This photo is of a road watch team selecting an observation site in the Panhandle area, but it gives you a sense for their makeup. Quite often aircraft from LS-36 would infiltrate such teams and then pull them out when they were done.
For this attack, LS-36 held. And, the enemy lost a lot of men in the fight. For the moment, the battle was over.
Attack Nr, Three - Third Defense of LS-36, and the last
The year 1968 was another tough one for LS-36, and for me, a bit confusing. But I’ll try my best to unravel the highlights. For starters, the enemy took LS-85 on March 11, 1968. That left LS-36 as the northernmost TACAN site and still the best logistics movement center for MRII. In April 1968, the enemy encircled Na Khang with four battalions and by month’s end had the site completely surrounded. The weather was on the enemy’s side --- awful for flying.
“It was clear from our intelligence and from their actions that they (the enemy) were going to overrun Site 36. And it was clear that we were going to make a stand. We found ourselves by March 31 in a tremendous bind at 36. We had put a lot of Hmong in there and they couldn’t get out. The Hmong really didn’t like it because the place was surrounded by many lines of wire and mine fields. It was our last site in the north. We had to hold if we could because, if not, they would roll right on down through. We were stretching for the rainy season.”
Then, on March 31, 1968 President Johnson announced the bombing halt of the NVN and an end to Rolling Thunder. There was some controversy here. Johnson said it was okay to bomb the NVN up to the 20th parallel. Some felt this meant for the RVN and Laos together. Secord said it did not apply to Laos. He wanted and asked for B-52s to protect LS-36 and was denied, but was given up to 300 fighter strikes until April 3. The enemy left, and Secord felt the air power had inflicted a heavy defeat on the enemy and saved LS-36. He said:
“The bottom line there (LS-36) was that we really held the place for the first time, I think, in the annals of warfare through the use of air alone …This one, the siege of Site 36 in 1968, was saved through the application of tactical air power --- in massive quantities … The important thing is that in 1968 we finally blunted the NVA drive to the south.”
Well, as things turned out, he was premature.
In mid-April the 7th AF launched major interdiction attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NVA marched down Route 6 but took a heavy beating from US air. In May 1968, the NVA gave up the offensive and retreated north. But, in a marked change from past practice, the NVA did not return to the NVN, but remained in Laos and were reinforced. Troop strength by June increased from 10,000 to 13,000.
Then, on May 5, the beginning of the rainy season, the enemy attacked Hmong positions and out posts a few miles east of Na Khang and attacked RLA positions about 18 miles northwest of Na Khang. Battles raged throughout the region and the enemy remained in its positions encircling Na Khang. The rain became intense, and Vang Pao launched an offensive supported by substantial US air. His objective was to retake LS-85. His troops made it to LS-85, but there was not much worth defending, so the NVA went on the offensive again. By January 1969, Vang Pao decided to fall back to Na Khang.
The situation in northern Laos was deteriorating badly. By the end of the rainy season, the enemy held much, perhaps even most of MR II. In December 1968, the enemy had launched a strong offensive in northern Laos. The USAF provided a significant amount of air support but by late February 1969 the enemy had forced Laotian forces back across the PDJ to Na Khang. USAF AC-47 gunships such as shown here provided intense air support fire for their Laotian allies.
The enemy seemed to gain the upper hand during the first half of 1969, and then lose momentum during the wet season, August-October. Life for the Lima Sites was not good during the first half of the year. Between January 1 and May 15, 1969, thirty-four Lima Sites fell to enemy offensives. Seventh AF moved four AC-47 gunships to Udorn, placing one on airborne alert, one on ground alert. The Hmong bore the brunt of the fighting, and took a beating. Regular Thai forces were sent in, and then were replaced by volunteers recruited from the Thai Army. The US provided as much equipment as possible.
On February 28, 1969, I believe all three regiments of the 316th Division of NVA moved against Na Khang. I have seen reports that said the 174th and 148th regiments for sure attacked. The NVA had sent its 316th Division to the PDJ along with AAA and support units.
The enemy changed its normal line of attack. Instead of coming at LS-36 from the tree-line, where the Laotians had expected them and where Allied air had previously attacked them ruthlessly, they came through a large area of tall elephant grass. This caught the garrison at LS-36 by surprise. The idea was to hit the Allies hard before air could get there. The photo shows tourists walking through jungle grass, to show how the grass can cover your movements.
The NVA set up a machine-gun on the runway and pounded buildings and shacks. Two flights of USAF F-4s and then two more flights of F-105s were directed in by a FAC. Dusk started to settle in, so B-26 Nimrods from NKP and the newly introduced AC-130 Spectre gunship (such as shown here) from Ubon RTAFB joined the fray. The pilots had great problems figuring out who were NVA and who were Hmong defenders.
Fighter aircraft now including A-1s came in during the morning, one A-1 was shot down, but another A-1 destroyed two NVA machine guns. A mortar round hit the Hmong command post killing all the officers. As the word got out, the Hmong fighters slipped away from the site.
Hmong losses were staggering. They repelled the first wave, but as I indicated, the seasoned fighters started leaving the battle to young recruits, sometimes children. But even these fighters fought off a second wave. But by this time, casualties among Hmong fighters and Lao officers had risen to a point where CIA officers left, as did the remaining forces. The garrison could not hold, and abandoned the site on March 1, 1969. Several Hmong battalions were dislodged, and some 4,000 Hmong left the area, slipping past the enemy. The Lao commander who was also the provincial governor was killed. The enemy took the site and held it. The retreating Allied force, which included 4,000 Hmong, destroyed as much of LS-36 as they could. USAF fighters and gunships covered their withdrawal.
The loss of LS-36 meant SAR missions had to be flown out of Long Tieng, LS-20A, and the TACAN installed at Boum Long LS-32 (shown on an earlier PDJ map above). LS-32 was now the Allies’ northernmost LS.
I found an undated memo from National Security Advisor Kissinger to President Nixon in the State Department’s historical documents. The subject of this document is, “The War in Laos and the Significance of the Fall of Na Khang.”
Kissinger’s remarks that I wanted to highlight are as follows:
“The war in Laos took a serious turn a month ago with the fall of the Na Khang guerrilla base in Northeastern Laos … There are two levels of conflict in Laos—the more limited conflict between the RLG and the Communists and the larger conflict relating to the Vietnam War … The Fall of Na Khang in the Strategic Perspectives: This incident is not vital to either level of conflict, but it may relate to both.”
Not much of a memo, especially given the number of people who died trying to hold it and their valor and courage.
I wish to close with one final comment. Air America people were sent home in 1975, and probably because of all the politics and secrecy surrounding it, Air America people were not received with much, if any, fanfare. As an USAF veteran of the Indochina War whose unit was involved in electronic reconnaissance, mostly over Laos, I can tell you that the term “Air America” has always brought out the “haters” I will call them in the journalism and book writing businesses. My guess is none of them really understood the service, sacrifices, loyalty and valor with which these men flew, and more important, did not understand they did what they did for their country and its allies in that war. I personally tip my hat to them.