Talking Proud Archives --- Military

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

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

Introductory comments

I have arranged the narrative below in some semblance of chronological order. On occasion, the source did not provide dates so I had to guess or fit the comments in where they seemed to fit.

There are incongruities. A variety of organizations had their hands in the LS-85 pie, each operating at different levels and different speeds. It is tough to assemble a diverse set of capabilities and organizations into an effective coalition. David Alberts and Richard Hayes talk about this in their book, "
Understanding Command and Control." This is one reason the better organizations push decision-making authority down instead of centralizing it topside. People topside need to plan and look forward down the pike. People on the front lines need the authority to act.

You will see the CIA officer on site was labeled as a local area commander, but he did not have authority to evacuate. Further, Lt. Colonel Blanton, USAF, commanded the USAF technicians, and he did not have authority either. Only the ambassador in distant Vientiane had such authority, and he floundered around. Then, the commander 7/13th AF tried to nose in demanding clearance through him, and he did not want to evacuate.

American assessments and actions

FarnsworthDouglas
Recall Lt. Colonel Farnsworth was in charge of installing the TSQ-81. I mentioned in an earlier section that in late November or early December 1967, Farnsworth bumped into Lt. Colonel Clarence F. "Bill" Blanton in Bangkok. Blanton was one of two 1st CEVG officers who hand-picked the operators for the TSQ-81. He was also one of the shift leaders at the radar guidance site at LS-85. He was on duty when it was attacked. Farnsworth said he and Blanton talked for six to eight hours. Defense of the site was the main topic. Farnsworth has reported on what he told Blanton:

"I told him that I thought the defense posture was unsatisfactory as the site could be destroyed by infiltration, a small team, two or three men. To the best of my knowledge, there had never been any Site 85 plans developed to guard against such an attack. In fact, I thought a full scale attack would not be necessary. With an infiltration attack by sappers there would be no warning and thus no chance for escape or rescue. I told Blanton that I thought the attack would come at night against the main radar van with collateral fire on the men in the living quarters. I emphasized the fact that during the construction phase we were continually visited by indigenous personnel among whom there must have been numerous unfriendlies. There was no way we could keep everyone off the construction site much less the mountain.

"I advised Bill to brief the men on an alternate pickup site in the area of the range marker. And to practice how to get there, individually and in the dark. However, this would be a long shot as I didn't think many men would survive a sapper attack.

"We also discussed the ridge line. I told Blanton I had walked the ridge line for a short distance and thought it passable. I also told him I had forwarded my findings to 7/13th AF but never received any acknowledgement. I did not follow the ridge line to its end since it was one of those risky trails which are easier to climb than to descend. I felt that in following the ridge line too far I might get into a position which would require calling for outside help. This I did not want to risk for obvious reasons. I might add, I also investigated the ridges on the other side of the site and found a line which might have been useful. Again, I did not investigate it fully for obvious reasons. Blanton and I discussed hanging ropes over the side of the cliff as an escape possibility. However, we ruled this out since it would have revealed the escapees' location."

To my knowledge, Farnsworth was the first to suggest enemy sappers might climb the cliffs for the attack.

SecordRichardCapt
I have mentioned Major General Richard Secord, USAF (Ret.) in previous sections. Let me introduce you to Captain Richard Secord, USAF, later promoted to major. He is shown here when flying "Project Waterpump" missions with Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) T-28s. Later on Secord was assigned to CIA at the Vientiane embassy. He worked for Bill Lair to whom I introduced you earlier, the man responsible, among other things, for building the Hmong Army. You will recall Lair was the CIA paramilitary chief at CIA's headquarters in Udorn RTAFB. Lair was also one who worried about the security challenges facing the Hmong defenders.

Secord was the Chief of the Air Liaison Division and Commander, 4802nd Joint Liaison Detachment, which was the CIA cover designation for military activities in Laos. Its headquarters were at Udorn. It served as a CIA command center for military operations in Laos. His division had a host of responsibilities. I'll mention three: responsible for overall air support in Laos including Air America and other contractors, analysis of all sources of intelligence, and a focal point for coordination with 7/13th AF Headquarters at Udorn.

The 4802nd was formed in 1962 under Lair. It worked closely with a Thai military organization known as Headquarters 333, which provided excellent human intelligence (HUMINT). Indeed Thai officers worked at Udorn with the CIA people to coordinate and control activities in Laos. Furthermore, Thai military people fought in Laos.

YasawatdiVitoon
Thai forces in Laos were under the command of Thai Headquarters 333, General Vitoon Yasawatdi, shown here, in command. William Leary wrote, "The Thai general, who had direct, private access to both the Lao and Thai prime ministers, had been identified by one senior CIA officer as 'the single most important player in the Laos program.' " Recall Thai forces were sent to LS-85 to help defend it.

Since he was an Air Force officer, and the navigational aids were to support the Air Force, Secord bore much if not most of the responsibility for the installation of the navigational aid systems at LS-85. Most important for purposes of this story, he was tasked with security of the site. He knew way in advance this was going to be a tough assignment. Already a seasoned war veteran, he could see how the enemy was reacting to LS-85's buildup. Arguably his greatest and most frustrating challenge was he lacked the authority to fulfill his security responsibility. As you'll see, he would vest authority in himself on his own, especially when the going got tough in and around the LS-85 area. Recall he spotted the beginnings of Route 602 in November 1967, asked for air to smother it, only to find his request rejected.

While Secord had developed and maintained a good relationship with 7/13th AF at Udorn, 7th AF in Saigon was a thorn in his side. Secord was constantly fighting for scarce air resources, most of which were being allocated to Vietnam and the Trail in Laos. Keep this final comment in mind as we press forward with LS-85.

Billy Webb said this about Secord's service in Laos:

"As months passed and CIA agents departed, Secord became practically a one-man show, coordinating air activities over Laos with the 7/13th Air Force (at Udorn). He was considered to be a tenacious and pugnacious individual. One thing was always apparent to those who dealt with Captain (later Major) Secord, and that was that he always kept the best interests of the troops on the ground as his first priority, and foremost in his thoughts and deeds."

Then Major Secord was tasked to "defend the site from ground attack." He commented, "Therein lay the rub." He noted, "It would sure increase the site's attractiveness to the enemy if they ever found out what we were up to. That raised the practical problem of security."

I need to back-track a bit here with Secord. In his book he wrote that he first saw Phou Pha Thi in 1966. He commented:

"To be cautious, we assumed that even if the enemy didn't figure out the site's function, all our activity, helo flights and construction and the presence of significantly more personnel in the area, would tip the NVA off that something big was going on, and they might try to neutralize the site on that basis alone. Therefore, one of the first things I did was to formally request through channels a unit of the US Army Special Forces (even a squad would do) to guard the site. That meant going through the embassy in Vientiane, which meant a run-in with Ambassador William Sullivan … Sullivan rejected out of hand our request for even a tiny contingent of SF (Special Forces) troops to reinforce Site 85. He believed that if Washington wanted Special Forces to get in the act, it would have said so in directives, which it had not.

"With the ambassador intransigent about using American ground forces to defend Site 85, I could see no way to hold it in the face of even a moderately determined NVA assault."

I again want to highlight what Secord said about the road approaching Pha-thi:

"A second piece of bad news came to us in November (1967) in the form of throwaway data, something so minor that it is often overlooked even by diligent analysts. Aerial photos showed what looked like a 'trace,' or the beginning of a mechanically cleared path, no wider than a goat trail, in the jungle about 25 miles from Site 85 at a place where several skirmishes had already taken place between NVA and Men (Hmong) patrols.

"I immediately arranged for a FAC and CIA photo reconnaissance aircraft to take a closer look. The resulting evidence plainly showed that North Vietnamese workers were clearing brush and leveling terrain in an attempt to build a motor able road in the direction of Phou Pha Thi, a dagger aimed at the heart of Site 85. If it was allowed to get within 15 kilometers (nine miles) of the installation by the time the dry season commenced next spring (1968), artillery could be brought up to blast the facility off the map. If they wanted to absorb the losses necessary to occupy the mountain, the enemy could use the road to bring up men, supplies and munitions needed for a large-scale infantry assault. Either way, we believed, the key to preserving the site was to stop the road in its tracks."

The Americans labeled the road Route 602. Secord went on:

"Once the construction of Route 602 was discovered, Ted Shackley directed me to 'stop the road.' And that's just what we tried to do.

HQ7thAF

"Naturally, I requested 7th Air Force support as soon as we spotted the road. Our goal was to whack 'em hard whenever they cranked up a tractor, to obliterate the construction in the early stages and make it crystal clear that we wold simply not tolerate a road in the area. Since the NVA was basically a 'road-bound' army with no aerial support, this would preclude any movement of heavy artillery to the site and basically end the battle before it could start. However, the response from 7th Air Force was underwhelming. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Secord, we have higher-priority targets,' the strike coordinator told me--not once, but several times. I finally replied, 'You cannot expect us to hold this site unless you give us sufficient tac air to prevent the completion of the road!' 'Well, Mr Secord, what would you have us do--assign a whole wing to your operation?' 'If necessary, yes sir!' 'For the duration of the war? '''f that's what it takes, you're right!' 'Well, I'm sorry, we just have higher-priority targets.'"

Hamilton-Merritt said US photo reconnaissance aircraft flew over the area daily. Bill Lair studied these photos and could see that road construction approaching the mountain was progressing. I am not sure of the date, but Lair warned US officials that the NVA would take the site soon, and recommended evacuation of the technicians. Hamilton-Merritt quoted Lair saying, "Washington's response was that for each day Site 85 operated, it saved lots of Americans lives. So it should operate for as long as possible."

Please keep this Washington response in mind. I believe it bears on the question of why the site was not evacuated.

This 7th AF response was an indicator of what was to come, or not come, in the event the site were attacked. You will recall General Harris promised tactical air would be made available in such an event.

CanyonPhathiFour

Billy G. Webb said the road extended from Sam Neua City toward Phathi. The US would bomb it regularly, but the engineers would simply return once the bombing had stopped, repair the damage, and press on. Webb said, “It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that it would be only a matter of time before the road reached the mountain and that an NVA attack would come along with it.” Nonetheless, construction at Phathi continued. This is a photo taken by a friend of mine while in Laos, Chris Corbett. I showed you other photos of his visit to Phou Pha Thi in the previous section.

Secord’s eyes were glued on that road. Hamilton-Merritt quoted him saying:

“Everything was proceeding as normal in the North Vietnamese ant-like way. They are very methodical. They are easy to fight for that reason, if you have the goods to fight them.”

Webb added, "But the road's progress did not alarm many of the American leaders, because it was assumed the airmen manning the site could be evacuated and the radar destroyed should an attack take place. Ambassador Sullivan believed it also, although he didn't feel comfortable with a radar navigation facility being located on the summit of Pha Thi."

After spotting the beginnings of Route 602, in November 1967 Secord decided he was an Air Force officer and the technicians were Airmen, so he had to get them armed. He raised this requirement with the embassy. He described the response this way:

"What? You want to arm the civilian, contract employees? Forget it. Civilians don't carry guns. That's a violation of our policy."

LindleyWilliam
So Secord went to Udorn, met with Lt. General Lindley, the deputy commander 7/13th AF, explained the problem, and requested to draw 40 M-16s and ammunition from USAF stock. Lindley approved the request on a hand receipt. The M-16s from 7/13th AF, and Browning 9 mm side arms, a large stock of ammunition and M-1 grenades held by CIA were handed out to the technicians. He did not inform the embassy.

Several times photo reconnaissance of the LS-85 area would show enemy targets in the area. Secord would ask for air and often was told the target was "too close to a village." Secord tired of the requirement for embassy approvals to bomb targets that were clearly identifiable as enemy in the area. He also knew he could continue asking for US Special Forces and Sullivan would continue to deny the request.

In December 1967 Secord flew to 7th AF in Saigon and talked with the planners controlling aircraft allocations. Those planners said they could not provide additional close air support or interdiction sorties to help. You will recall that in July 1967 Secord and Lair attended the General Harris briefing addressing the TSQ-81 installation at LS-85. Lair spoke up at that time and offered that the Hmong could not defend the site against an all out attack. At that time, Lair said, "We were assured that USAF TACAIR (tactical air) would be provided."

A
CAS representative briefed General Ryan, CINCPACAF, on the following in December 1967:

"Because of his complete dependence on surface transportation, the enemy must mount all his major offensive actions during the dry season. The dry season generally starts in mid-October and continues until June. The major advantage which the enemy has is the stiffening of the PL (Pathet Lao) force by first class NVA military personnel and the fact that the enemy can reinforce at will by bringing in additional NVA units from North Vietnam at any time during the dry season.

"All available intelligence which we believe to be reliable and relatively complete indicate that the enemy plans to capture the following objectives during the coming dry season: Site 220, Site 205, Site 36, Site 85, and Site 201...…during November the enemy trucks and troops entering Laos have increased at an alarming rate."

With all this stacking up, Secord began to assemble an evacuation plan.

Part of that plan was for CIA's Technical Services Division (TSD) to seed "the entire site with claymore mines and other pyrotechnics to be activated around the perimeter when an attack began, and later at the summit if the place were declared indefensible and our people had been removed."

TSD apparently did do those things. However, Tim Clines said after inspecting their work at the base of the mountain, "With a little artillery support he could take the hill 'with a troop of Boy Scouts.'"

a1eskyraider

Secord brought several USAF A-1 Skyraider pilots over to the office at Udorn and asked them to familiarize themselves with the area. Secord's suspicion was that if the enemy attacked, it would strike the hill on the eastern side, the attack would be at night or in bad weather, and it was therefore important for the A-1 pilots to become very familiar with the area so they could defend the Hmong, the Thais and the extraction helicopters that would be brought in, then attack the enemy forces.

Secord said, "That basically was my plan for the defense of Site 85. It was less a battle plan than a non-battle plan … Nobody I talked to … gave the troops a snowball's chance in hell of surviving a determined NVA offensive, let alone one that would be conducted virtually in the enemy's own backyard."

CH3EJollyGreen

The site was supposed to be covert and very secret. However, as I have mentioned previously, there was an increased amount of air traffic in and out of the LZ supporting the installation and ultimately ferrying the operators back and forth to Udorn. Many of the helicopters supporting installation were large, ala the CH-47 Chinook and CH-3E Jolly Greens (shown here). They could not be missed.

Billy Webb summed up the US concept of defense. He said it relied on the following:

  • Remote location of the facility. It was certainly known to the NVA and Pathet Lao.
  • There would be a 200-man Hmong force on top the mountain, and another 800 or so at the base of the mountain tasked to patrol the area out to about a 4 mi. radius. A CIA case officer would always be present to act as a tactical commander.
  • Local Hmong and Lao villagers would provide intelligence information on enemy movements, plus General Vang Pao had a network of informers.
  • American air power
  • Sufficient time would be available to get the operators and if required Hmong and Thais out.
  • The Hmong would notify the embassy that an attack were coming and would provide the Americans with targeting data.
  • The TSQ operators would notify 7th AF of the probability of attack and request air support
  • As a last resort, the USAF people would be evacuated. Sullivan emphasized he would order the site closed and the operators evacuated at the appearance of any serious threat.

As you proceed, you can evaluate for yourselves how to define "any serious threat."

At the time, the feeling among some was that the sheer cliffs on three sides of Phathi would not be used to attack, partly because it would be very costly for the NVA. The view was the less difficult slope on the eastern side would be the likely avenue of approach. Therefore, the Hmong, it was felt, would vigorously defend the one slope on the eastern side that offered access to the top.

Hamilton-Merritt highlighted Xiong Via Chia, codename “Alex.” He was one of the 200 Hmong on top the mountain. He is quoted saying:

“We knew that our mission was very important. We knew that we must defend it to the last man to protect it from the NVA. We worried a lot about defending this site, but we had patrols. Another 800 Hmong patrolled lower down the mountain. Our defend side was safe because there was a cliff, straight down for about 2,000 ft. The Americans told us no one could approach from that direction.”

In addition to the Hmong, a Thai PARU artillery unit of about 100 men was brought in to provide fire support. Miskimms and Chivalette said the Thai artillery unit and a 105 mm howitzer were placed on top the mountain.

Since there was such a great dependency on the Hmong, I would like to highlight the Hmong style of fighting in the mountains. Traditionally they do not like static defensive positions.

Lair had been worried about policy changes occurring in 1967. He felt a minimum number of Americans should be involved in Laos, preferring the Thais, Lao and Hmong. However, CIA significantly expanded its operations in 1967 increasing the American presence at Udorn.
Lair commented:

"Now the Americans were taking the war away from the Lao, Hmong and Thai … The Hmong knew the terrain and could run up and down those hills without equal. They could run circles around the Vietnamese. The Hmong sitting on those mountain tops could strangle the enemy … They were fighting a true guerrilla war and the Vietnamese could not come to grips with it … Beginning in 1968 we were asking them to do more than they were capable of handling. We asked them to take on more military responsibilities, particularly conventional, set-piece military battles. Vang Pao was at his best in pure guerrilla warfare."

Lair objected to forcing the Hmong "out of what they did best." The Hmong did not want pitched battles, but instead wanted "hit and run." Vang Pao himself was not enamored with sustained battles for his troops. He had trained his forces to hit, inflict damage on the enemy, and then retreat into the jungle. Defending LS-85 from static positions, especially on the east side where the battle would be sustained, was not really in the Hmong playbook.

On January 3, 1978,
Sullivan sent a message to CINCPAC saying:

"Lima Site 85, Channel 97. CAS had done an analysis of this site....Briefly stated there are 200 (Hmong) troops in immediate vicinity of site; and additional 800 (Hmong) troops in the lower portion of the mountain...believe reasonable security exists and feel that adequate warning will be provided in case evacuation is determined necessary. An emergency plan for evacuation...…exists."

To be fair to the ambassador, the two
An-2s attacked the site on January 12 and his message to CINCPAC went out on January 3. However, the embassy seemed unperturbed even by the An-2 attack. In a January 14, 1968 message to the State Department, the embassy said this:

"We can conclude that aerial attack represented enemy effort to get at navigation facility which could be reached on ground only at heavy cost. Theoretically, enemy could resort to this technique again, either at Site 85 or elsewhere. However, it should be noted that this attack was largely unsuccessful and two aircraft were lost.

"On basis of available information we regard aerial raid as highly unusual variation in normal pattern of enemy tactics and do not believe this one incident necessarily introduces new dimension to war in Laos....we are presently reviewing questions of air defense at Site 85...."

One need only read the
7th AF CHECO Report of August 9, 1968 to see how the intelligence on enemy movements toward Phou Pha Thi built up day by day during the period January, February and early March 1968. I cannot repeat all those movement reports here, though I will mention a few that stand out.

CHECO means Current Historical Evaluation of Combat Operations, developed and implemented by Headquarters PACAF to reflect the details of USAF operations in Southeast Asia. Elements from 7th and 7th/13th AF could also prepare CHECO reports.

The 7th AF CHECO report commented:

"The enemy had made no determined ground moves against Site 85 prior to mid-January. Almost at once, following the unsuccessful Colt (An-2) attack of 12 January, this trend was reversed. On 14 January, a force of about 300 PL (Pathet Lao) and NVA troops equipped with mortars and one recoilless rifle (RR) were located only 15 km (nine miles) north-northeast of Site 85. By 17 January, 100 enemy troops had shifted to positions only 13 k (8 miles) north of Phou Pha Thi (Site 85) and enough concern was generated by these moves to include Lao refugees to begin fleeing the Site 111 area (8km-5 miles north of Phou Pha Thi)."

After the An-2 air attack on January 12, 1968, Vang Pao understood the threat to LS-85 was increasing. As a result the Thais sent in a company of men raising their number on the mountain to 400.

On January 20, 1968, a CAS report said:

"If the enemy could move in large numbers of troops into an area north of Phou Pha Thi, he would have the second jaw for a pincer movement. Probably the first indication of a serious enemy intent to take Phou Pha Thi would be the capture of Phou Den Din …"

The 7th AF CHECO Report said the enemy captured Phou Den Din on January 22, 1968. So that job was done. Based on the CAS report, that would seem to indicate a "serious enemy intent" to take LS-85.

A CIA report,
"The Fall of Lima Site 85," said:

"The strategy in early January (1968) called for (TSQ-81) operations up to the last minute, with close air support keeping the attackers away from reaching the summit until the technicians could be evacuated by helicopter … The situation at Site 85 in early January was pessimistic … The enemy in the area knew of Americans on the mountain, knew who they were, and knew what they were doing."

The CIA report further said:

"The (USAF) officers who were in charge of the detachment that continued to rotate in and out of the site had no authority to defend their troops or to order a retreat if the ridge was overrun … The local commander was never given the authority to order an evacuation or to supervise his own defense … Responsibility for the fate of Site 85 was maintained at the Embassy and 7th Air Force level."

CIA said:

"On 25 January the site conducted an autonomous self-defense exercise that apparently consisted of diverting fighters to suspected enemy positions around Phou Pha Thi. This exercise seems to have indicated that the plan for Commando Club self-defense using close air support was unlikely to succeed. This test also angered the 7th Air Force because it violated procedures and caused embarrassment. (The technicians) and CIA officers, however, felt that they were risking more than embarrassment. After the exercise, the Air Force technicians developed a plan to descend down the sheer rock face of Phou Pha Thi on ropes if the major attack came."

The position of most of those at the American embassy in Vientiane including the CIA people with regard to security for the TSQ-81 operation was that the Hmong could not defend the site in an all-out assault. The feeling was the Hmong would do their best to provide early warnings and try to delay the attack, but the expectation was the equipment would have to be destroyed and the Americans evacuated.

Ambassador Sullivan continued to contend that air rescue could come in to evacuate the site if required. His assumption was there would be plenty of time to pull the men out. However, Ambassador Sullivan said he would close the site upon appearance of a serious enemy threat. In retrospect, it appears the Americans and the Hmong did not know or even consider the NVA sappers intended to climb the cliff on its very steep side and launch a lightening attack.

Recall the July 1967 briefing at Udorn by General Harris, PACAF commander. Bill Lair and Major Richard Second were there. And Lair expressed his concern about security. He opined Vang Pao could hold it but would find it difficult to sustain in an all-out offensive. Lair was also concerned about the extra load this site would place on the Hmong. So this view about the ability to defend the site dates back to at least July 1967.

CIA, in its article
"The Fall of Lima Site 85," said:

"During this period (first months of 1968), there was ample intelligence indicating that the enemy was gradually encircling Phou Pha Thi and massing for a major attack. This information, however, did not materially affect US strategy toward the operation or defense of the site. The PL (Pathet Lao) were not hiding their intentions: numerous informers and spies reported the enemy planned to take Site 85 in late February … In late February, CIA and the Air Force FACs knew the ridge-line was in peril, but they believed it could be defended for the present."

On January 30, 1968, the
embassy issued a cable that said the enemy had surrounded LS-85. The cable said the situation had been quiet since January 22, probably because the enemy wanted to get its 105 mm howitzers in place. It added, "The enemy's operations against Phou Pha Thi appear to be one of his most carefully planned offensives in northern Laos during this war."

Furthermore, the CHECO report said enemy troops exploded defensive mines off the southern end of Phou Pha Thi followed by a thirty-minute enemy mortar attack around the southern outpost high on the ridge. After this, contact with the enemy was broken. The report said the "TSQ commander quickly reported that while there had been an attack near the site, it amounted to no more than a probe."

On February 1, 1968, a memo prepared by Robert F. Slutz, a member of the Laos country office, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, State Department, and signed by Martin Herz, his boss, was forwarded to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, William Bundy. The memo said the enemy effort to take LS-85 was imminent. Interestingly, it said:

"When the decision was made to install these facilities (at LS-85) it was understood that no last ditch effort would be made to defend them. Although the equipment is costly, it is expendable; the men who service it are not and they will be removed prior to the fall of the site, if the situation becomes hopeless."

You can see how language can adjust. First the site would be evacuated at the "appearance of any serious threat." But at the State Department, they would be evacuated "if the situation becomes hopeless." I suggested you define "appearance of any serious enemy threat." Now perhaps define "if the situation becomes hopeless."

The CHECO report said between January 31 and February 16, "enemy contacts were few … It appeared the enemy was respecting an approximately 12 km (7 mile) circle around Phou Pha Thi." The report went on to say the Attaché Office at the embassy told 7th AF there was "no special target requiring assistance," only regular daily support was needed.

To demonstrate how delays are built into the reporting systems between various echelons, you will recall Major Secord spotted the Route 602 build up way back in November 1967. CHECO reported on February 6, 1968 that CIA's CAS said the road construction had been noted since February 1. The CAS commented:

"If trafficable, Route 602 would provide the enemy with much easier access from Sam Neua to staging areas in the vicinity of Ban Hon Non (UH 812553) and Phou Chik Nou (UH 8157). It would afford the enemy the opportunity to roll in weapons for an attack on Phou Pha Thi. Interpretation of photography dated 31 January reveals intermittent road construction on Route 602 from UH 853563 northwest along the south slope of the ridge-line...The construction ends approximately one kilometer northeast of the enemy strong point at Phou Chik Nou (UH 817579)."

CHECO said "Trucks were reported rolling on Route 602 on February 11 … By 16 February, Route 602 had been extended to approximately one km east of Phou Den Din; this was only 13 km (7 miles) from Phou Pha Thi … During this period, the enemy did not attempt to hide his intentions in the area." Secord commented, "We had failed to stop the construction (of Route 602) and thereby sealed our own fate."

On February 18, a Hmong patrol ambushed and destroyed a NVA survey party near the head of the road. One of those killed was a NVA major who was carrying a map that showed where they were going to locate the artillery. CIA said the major had a notebook that "confirmed a major assault on the summit was planned, gave the strength of the attacking force, and described the timing of the attack."

Secord commented:

"On February 18th, one Meo (Hmong) patrol managed to ambush and destroy an NVA survey party near the head of the road. They quickly searched the bodies and found they had bagged a field-grade officer in possession of a map that showed the NVA's intended artillery emplacements for the upcoming battle.

"Naturally, this very valuable set of charts was whisked back to Udorn on the wings of eagles. I remember staring in disbelief at it. In elegant French, as if it had been inscribed by some student officer at
L'ecole Polytechnique, were detailed specifications for the placement of every regimental gun and heavy mortar. In the margin were hurried pencil jottings in Vietnamese; and on the crest of the hill, high atop Phou Pha Thi, was a notation in ink, written in English: 'TACAN.' It did not mention radar, so the enemy -- or at least the poor guy who drew this map -- missed the whole point of the party. Yet here we were, about to go against each other hammer and tongs: me with a catch-22 order to defend our 'highest-priority' site without dedicated air power or sufficient ground troops; and the enemy with World War II-era equipment and a lot of guts grinding out yard after bloody yard through the jungle guided by a French colonial map! Crying or laughing, you couldn't look at the thing for long without tears coming to your eyes.

"As soon as we got this rosetta stone, I had the gun positions converted to bombing coordinates and told the powers-that-be what a gold mine we'd stumbled onto. I repeated my umpteenth request for air support -- this time asking for saturation bombings, including B-52s, if necessary, which up until now had never been used in northern Laos.

"But the Tet offensive was nearing full intensity in South Vietnam. Once again my plea was rejected."

I want to remind you here of Major Do's report of the sapper team's attack plan. It was quite a detailed plan. Furthermore, we had the building of Rt. 602, the An-2 attack, and the extensive enemy reconnaissance of LS-85. All that combines with General Secord's description of the elegant French and detailed specifications of the gun placements to reflect that this enemy operation against LS-85 was "no fly-by-night operation" concocted by a stupid enemy. Like the embassy cable of January 30, said, "The enemy's operations against Phou Pha Thi appear to be one of his most carefully planned offensives in northern Laos during this war."

Despite rejection of Secord's requests for air support, the TSQ-81 technicians, starting on February 20 employed the radar system to saturate the area with bombing missions, many more than they had previously done.

On February 21 the
embassy issued a report about this captured plan, said the notebook indicated two regiments would attack, and while the embassy could not determine its credibility, the plan was "tactically sound." It added that if the enemy were to implement this plan, "He will severely challenge the ability of irregular forces (Hmong, Thai) to hold Site 85." This had long ago been Lair's contention.

In Late February, CIA noted, "CIA and the Air Force FACs knew the ridge-line was in peril, but they believed it could be defended for the present."

McDonnell said by March 11 the NVA had four battalions within striking distance: the 923rd, 927th, and 5th (also known as the 623rd). Other sources say seven battalions were there.

Also on February 21, the
embassy issued a report saying the enemy was within mortar range by late evening on February 20.

By late February a consensus was developing among the CIA people and USAF FACs that the ridge-line was in peril. Nonetheless, a message came in from CIA Headquarters saying:

"You will hold the TSQ site at whatever the cost. It is of vital importance."

So now it seemed certain that evacuation when the threat seemed serious, or even hopeless, had transformed to no evacuation at all — "hold the TSQ site at whatever the cost." That is despite Robert Slutz's memo of February 1, 1968 to William Bundy at the State Department asserting "the men who service it (TSQ-81) are not (expendable)."

Let me interject here regarding the command and control issue I raised in my introductory comments. Not only did CIA's local area commander at the site not have authority to evacuate, not only did the USAF commander on the mountain not have the authority, but this message from CIA Headquarters took away, or at least tried to take away, the ambassador's authority. The ambassador did not work for CIA, so he could have countermanded this instruction. But he likely knew such a message would not come unless coordinated at very high levels of government.

On February 21, 1968, Sullivan authorized use of the TSQ-81 to direct air attacks for its own defense. The technicians had begun to do this as early as December 1967. As retired Air Force officer, I am compelled to say this is an example of why Americans in the military are so good: they are smart, they can think for themselves, and they can figure out a way to act on their own if that is what has to be done.

Secord again asked for even just a few Special Forces troops currently employed in the RVN to come over and help out. He felt even a few could hold off an attack long enough to get the place evacuated. He wrote:

"'If we can't have Special Forces, then at least give us a couple of experienced SF officers and NCOs. I asked -- begged, practically. 'Give us a few guys right out of combat in South Vietnam, current in tactics and equipment, and let us put them on the summit. With a couple of guys like that, I'm confident we can at least hold the site long enough for an orderly evacuation and demolition of the facility.' Again, my request was denied."

ShackleyTed
On February 25, 1968, Sullivan, having read the steady flow of intelligence reports, told Shackley, shown here, they needed to "concentrate people's minds on this matter. Sullivan told Shackley to produce an estimate of how long the site could be held. In his book, Spymaster: My Life in the CIA, Shackley wrote:

"I looked at the OB (order of battle) information about the NVA in Laos, and I then consulted with our CIA OB specialists in Udorn. I also talked to Bill Lair and Pat Landry and the other experienced guys involved in managing the day-to-day, moment-by-moment war in northern Laos. And I worked out the average rate of speed at which the North Vietnamese were completing their road. I also factored in the average number of air strikes we were getting from the 7/13th Air Force to slow down the construction of the Route 602 extension. Then I told Bill Sullivan that the site couldn't be held much beyond March 10."

Also on February 25, the
embassy reported Vang Pao had sent 50 more troops, two 4.2 inch mortars, and an additional 105 mm howitzer to the site. This report reiterated that "it is impossible to predict the security of the site beyond March 10." It added the ambassador had seen this report and posed no objections.

John_P._McConnell-1
On February 26, 1968, Sullivan sent a message to General John McConnell, shown here, chief of staff USAF (CSAF), that said this:

“Enemy movements toward site 85 have been inexorable (impossible to stop) over the past few months. Neither air nor ground resources available to us appear adequate. You should be aware that we may be able to assure security of this site for no more than two weeks.”

On February 28, 1968, Thomas L. Hughes, Director of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, forwarded a memorandum to Secretary of State Rusk, "Significance of Phou Pha Thi (Site 85) in Northeastern Laos." Among other things, the memo said:

"Since then (the January 12 An-2 attack), the enemy has been completing elaborate preparations, including the building of roads, to make a ground assault upon the site (LS-85). Ambassador Sullivan believes that this will take place within two weeks. We believe that should enemy artillery come within range of the 600-foot airstrip, it would become extremely difficult to extricate the small US unit as well as the 700-man Laotian force."

Thomas Ahern reported General Momyer was briefed on March 7, 1968 that Sullivan had informed all hands that the site's security could not be guaranteed beyond March 10. Ahern said Momyer "had already essentially abandoned Commando Club's
raison d'être, guiding raids on North Vietnam." The TSQ-81 operators focused most air strikes on defending LS-85, guiding 153 missions in Laos and only three over NVN from March 1-10, 1968. So that was the position of the commander, 7th AF as the witching hour approached. In Ahern's opinion, General Momyer, USAF had "essentially abandoned" LS-85 because it was directing more bombing against Laos than NVN.

In turn, Momyer refused to evacuate the site, and Sullivan gave in to him. Indeed, the 7th AF got Sullivan to agree to send in more technicians so the site could operate 24 hours per day in its own defense. The 7th AF was adamant to keep the site open and evacuate it only as a last resort.

On March 5 the NVA conducted an artillery, mortar and rocket barrage against the top of the mountain, forceful enough to send the men to cover. Secord has written:


F4OverLaos
"Without delay, I called 7/13th Air Force on the secure phone and asked for TAC (tactical) air support ASAP (as soon as possible). Seventh diverted a flight of F-4s, and, as we had rehearsed weeks before, they made some Skyspot-directed passes and actually knocked out some guns, but the visibility was really bad and it turned out to be too little, too late. In the absence of continuous and aggressive pressure from the air, the enemy had been allowed to set up their artillery, and rounds were now landing all over Site 85, setting off the defensive land lines and damaging the generators, cutting power cables, and generally wreaking havoc. Skyspot went off-line, and some technicians had to run outside and make splices, which, as we could well imagine, was like going up on a roof to repair a television antenna during a shrapnel hurricane. To make things worse, we couldn't get firm mission commitments from 7th, so when Skyspot was up, our aircraft often weren't, and vice versa, It was frustrating as hell -- and potentially fatal.

"By now our only hope was that the weather would clear enough for us to sneak in the evacuation helicopters."

On March 9, Ted Shackley sent an intelligence report to MACV, 7th AF, CINCPAC, JCS, State Department and the White House, perhaps others as well. He sent the message out at immediate precedence, which meant the recipients would have it within a matter of a few minutes. In his book, Shackley wrote:

"The report clearly stated that the enemy had the capability to move on Phou Pha Thi without further delay. Specifically, I said, 'In view of this it must be recognized that the integrity of Site 85 as a functioning TACAN and navigational site is in grave jeopardy and it can no longer be considered that friendly ground force dispositions are such that they can assure the integrity of the site because they are outnumbered and outgunned.' "

Shackley then commented that the record reflected the "appropriate decision makers … had virtually instant access to this report."

I'm not so sure I agree with that last statement. In most cases such a message would get to the recipient, but most probably to a watch officer who is not authorized to take any startling action. My experience has been such messages usually have to make it through the bureaucracy and through people we called "gate keepers" before it would get to a real decision maker of the kind needed here. In some cases, this all might take hours, or even a day or more for those locations saturated with "immediate precedence" message traffic.

Billy Webb wrote about a cable going out from the embassy on March 9. I suspect it is the same as just mentioned. Webb quoted part of it:

"The enemy was in position to launch his attack, once sufficient ammunition was available; a mortar barrage, followed up by a ground assault and possible air assault, could take place at any time."

Then Webb commented:

"In the cable embassy officials gave the impression that the Hmong defending the mountain could hold their ground, even if the radar and other electronic devices were neutralized by the NVA."


That's Webb's perspective. If true, that was a bad interpretation of what the embassy was saying and may have misled the recipients.

Harry Casterlin, an Air America helicopter pilot was interviewed on September 22, 1990 and said Air America helicopter pilots had brought in a cargo of napalm on March 9, 1968. He said all the napalm was meant for the south side, that no one thought an attack possible from the other side.

Miskimms and Chivalette reported that Lt. Colonel Blanton and CMSgt Etchberger attended a CIA briefing on LS-85 on March 10, 1968. CIA officers Howie Freeman and Woody Spence briefed that there were large numbers of enemy near the site. Both CIA officers recommended immediate evacuation of the 19 Americans on the site.

Ambassador Sullivan did not order an evacuation of the 19 Americans.

The 7/13th AF still opposed an evacuation order. Nonetheless, Sullivan ordered nine of the men be evacuated on March 11, the next morning.

Secord has written he tried everything, including banding together with some CIA colleagues to evacuate the site on their authority. He asked for an AC-130 gunship, and 7th AF responded "It's got a high priority mission on the Trail." Not accepting that, he went to that officer's boss, General Arnold R. Craig. In a very frustrating conversation, Secord got nowhere and hung up, whispering to his colleagues: "We're gonna lose this fucking site!" Secord then sped over to the CIA building and learned the fight was on.

HuffmanRogerFortunately, Secord had arranged for Sgt. Roger Huffman, USAF, shown here, an air combat controller, to be at the site (In some of his writings Secord refers to him as Sgt. Evan Gary, a CIA cover name). There had been an air combat controller there previously, but Huffman replaced him. Huffman came on the air using his battery powered radio at the STOL landing strip. He said:

""The artillery's stopped, but, I can't believe it! We're picking up small-arms fire at the summit!"

That small-arms fire was coming from the sappers who were now on the top and attacking.
__________

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