Talking Proud Archives --- Military

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

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

US tackles the Vietnamese - Laotian linkages

In the previous section, I said there were three Vietnamese-Laotian linkages relevant to LS-85. Each impacted LS-85:

  • Stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Assure Laos does not become a communist country
  • Take the Indochina War to the NVN

I'll run through these quickly.

Ho Chi Minh Trail: Stop resupplies and reinforcements

The NVN decided to unify Vietnam through war against the RVN. The NVN decided the VC alone could not handle the job. As a result, the NVA sent forces into the RVN to overthrow that government.

HoChiMinhTrailMap

The challenge for the NVA was the long logistics line required to support NVA and VC forces fighting in the RVN. It was too hard to supply them across the 17th parallel, later called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and it was a very dangerous enterprise to move men and supplies by ship or boat. As a result, the NVA chose to build the Ho Chi Minh set of trails from NVN through Laos to the RVN. After all, Laos was supposed to be neutral!

The NVN’s main objective in Laos was to protect the trails. It stationed forces in Laos to establish “safe zones” westward from the trails. It did not trust this job to the Pathet Lao. The trails and safe zones became one of the dominant relationships between Laos and Vietnam.

The challenge for the US and its RVN ally, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and RVN Air Force (VNAF), was to stop that flow. Attempting to do this would become one of the top US war-fighting priorities.

HoChiMinhTrailBombed

The US now had a challenge. It was not going to invade the NVN on the ground. It would not send US ground combat forces into Laos, other than for small covert missions. After all, Laos was neutral!

That meant the US would have to stop or at least impede the flow by conducting air attacks against the trails. It based USN fighter-bombers on aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and USAF fighter-bombers in Thailand to handle that job. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) authorized bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. This is a photo of the trail in Laos shortly after USAF aircraft attacked it. The trails were not always that visible.

BarrelRollSteelTigerMap

The USAF began "Operation Barrel Roll" for that purpose on December 14, 1964, mainly in northeastern Laos. On April 3, 1965 the USAF launched "Operation Steel Tiger" to bomb the trail in southeastern Laos. Initially, the Laotian government approved the targets and routes. Over time the US ambassador in Vientiane would take the lead approval-disapproval role.

ThailandBasesMap

My discussions in this report will focus on USAF attack aircraft. That is mainly because navigational aids were installed at LS-85 to support mostly USAF aircraft flying over NVN and Laos. This graphic shows the location of Thai Air Bases used by the USAF.

Royal Government of Laos: Keep communism out


Savang_Vatthana SouvannaPhouma
During the period we are covering, Laos was a constitutional monarchy. King Savang Vatthana (left) was the head of state. The RLG's governmental leader was Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma (right).

The Pathet Lao’s main objective was to overthrow the RLG. The NVA’s primary concern was keeping the trails active. The NVA did, however, support the Pathet Lao objective. The NVA quickly learned it would have to take the lead to make anything happen. It determined the Pathet Lao could not overthrow the RLG on its own. And it knew it would have to exert a certain level of control over Laos to keep the trails open. Therefore, the NVA concluded it would have to insert large numbers of NVA forces into Laos to fight against the RLG and extend protection for the trails deep into Laos.

GenevaPathetLaoProvinces

Th Geneva Conference of 1954 bestowed a gift on the NVA and Pathet Lao. It directed the Pathet Lao to "regroup" in two northern Laotian provinces, Houaphanh and Phongsaly, each marked by the red circles, "pending a political settlement." Both provinces were in the Northeast. Both bordered the NVN. The red arrow points to Sam Neua City, which would serve as Pathet Lao headquarters. Recall LS-85 was about 21 miles west of Sam Neua.

The overall communist objective in Laos was to capture Luang Prabang, noted by the white circle, the Royal capital of Laos. Vientiane, shown by the red dot, was the political capital.

The Pathet Lao saw the Houaphanh and Phongsaly northern provinces as theirs. That gave them a base area bordering the NVN from which they could build their forces and political strength. They could recruit, attack into Laos, and if required, rush back into the NVN as a safe haven as well.

USEmbasstVientianeduringwar
US Embassy Vientiane, Laos

SullivanWilliam
Vientiane was the location of the US Ambassador to Laos, who was William Sullivan, shown here, during our period of interest. He replaced Leonard Unger. Sullivan was assigned in 1964 at the recommendation of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, foreign affairs advisor William Bundy, and General Maxwell Taylor, CJCS.

He would remain until 1969. Sullivan strongly advocated conducting combat operations in Laos, but it had to be done in secrecy and with him in charge.

220px-Richard_V_Secord
In his book, Honored and Betrayed, Major General Richard Secord, USAF (Ret.), said the CIA guys in Laos referred to Sullivan as the "Field Marshal because he constantly micromanaged military ops." While Sullivan wanted to run the war in secrecy, he just as strongly advocated having no regular US ground combat troops in Laos. That meant he'd have to get ground forces from somewhere else.

KennedyLaosPresser
The US tolerated a lot in Laos. It knew Laotian politics were turbulent. A political settlement was unlikely. It was always tough for the US to figure out whom to support. The Americans also knew the NVA had significant numbers of ground forces in Laos, especially in the northeastern Laotian provinces bordering the NVN. And it knew NVA troop levels were increasing significantly over time. Furthermore, it determined saving Laos was central to saving the RVN. Said simply, at the time, the US would not tolerate a communist takeover of Laos. President Kennedy was especially adamant about that. The photo shows him speaking to reporters about communist advances in Laos at a news conference on March 23, 1961.

I'll emphasize, however, the war in the RVN was the top American priority; Laos came in second, except when considering the NVA's logistics line over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos: that was a top American priority because it was woven into the war in the RVN. Priorities were important because they impacted resource allocation.

I mentioned "Operation Barrel Roll" and "Operation Steel Tiger." During 1964, US, Lao, and Thai pilots flew limited air attacks against the trail. This impacted US policy long-term. The US now saw even more reason to maintain the RLG as a constitutional monarchy free from communism. Defense of the RLG rose in importance for the defense of the RVN, and the commitment of air resources to attacking the Trail increased as well.

The US had a policy problem in Laos: How would it fight the Pathet Lao and NVA on the ground in Laos without sending in US ground combat forces?

One might think the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) would handle the nation's defense. The US worked through covert means to train them, and met with some successes, most notably with the RLAF. But the RLA and RLAF were not enough to defend Laos from the NVA and Pathet Lao. The RLA especially proved to be inept.

BillLair
Building an indigenous army working for CIA evolved to become a full time task for James William “Billy” Lair, an American WWII war veteran who worked for the CIA after the war. He had been assigned to Thailand in 1951. He organized a Thai special forces outfit known as the Police Aerial Reinforcement (or Resupply) Unit (PARU). Its mission was to defend Thailand's border from the Chinese or any other communist insurgency. Because of turmoil in Laos, that mission expanded to defending Thailand's border with Laos. In a paper entitled "Air America in Thailand, since the days of CAT," Dr. Joe Leeker talks about Lair. He said Lair built PARU from being a "counter-insurgency elite group into a mobile force of highly skilled communications, intelligence and weapons experts who could train others."

You will hear a lot about Lair during this report. Keep him in mind.

Early in 1960 Lair’s PARU force set up positions at three outposts in Thailand across the Mekong River from Laos. During an August 1960 coup against the RLG, Lair took his PARU force into Laos. Following that, he convinced his CIA superiors that paramilitaries such as the PARU could easily blend in with Laotians. As a result, Lair used PARU to support the RLG and overthrow a coup leader, bringing the RLG back to power.

Lair had heard about a RLA officer and Hmong leader named General Vang Pao. Ethnic Hmong people in the mountainous regions of Thailand had recommended Lair seek him out. Lair had integrated many Hmong living in Thailand into the PARU and had great respect for them. Not only that, but Lair could see the Thais and Hmong looked a great deal alike: perfect for forming an indigenous Hmong ground force.

VangPao
So Lair followed the Hmong advice. Richard Holm, writing "Recollections of a Case Officer in Laos, 1962-1964," published by CIA, said Lair first met with Vang Pao in December 1960, though Thomas Ahern, writing a since declassified document, "Undercover Armies, CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos," opined the meeting was on January 10, 1961. Dr. Joe Leeker, writing "Air American in Laos II, Military Aid," agrees with Ahern. The meeting according to Ahern was set up by Stu Methven, a CIA case officer. Richard L. Holm, a CIA case officer in Laos, said the meeting was held in 1960.

In any event, the meeting was held. Lair had no authority to talk to Vang Pao about military support to the Hmong. And Vang Pao was concerned about whether the Americans would stay the course. The two would meet several times again. At some point, Vang Pao, shown here, impressed Lair he was eager to fight the communists, telling Lair, "If you give me the weapons, we fight.”

paruteachhmong

Furthermore, Lair's PARU teams went into Laos to recruit and train the Hmong, something Vang Pao wanted to see done. Here you see a Thai PARU instructor (back to you) briefing a Hmong Auto Defense company at Phou Vieng (LS-6), Laos during the spring 1961.

DominoTheory
You might recall President Eisenhower believed in the domino theory with regard to the spread of communism. That is, if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. But, in the case of Laos, he preferred not sending in US ground combat forces, though he told Kennedy during the changeover in command that Kennedy might have to put them in. Advisors suggested to President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) that US ground forces enter Laos but the idea never sold, except for some covert activity.

In 1961, President Eisenhower approved "Operation Momentum," a CIA plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos."

Lair was bright and aggressive enough to realize he could build an alliance, using the Hmong to fight on the ground, the Thai PARU to help train the Hmong and to fight, and the US to provide the weapons, funding and air power.

From where I sit, one more issue had to be addressed. Who was going to control this Hmong army?

The answer turned out to be: Assign the task of saving Laos to the US ambassador in Vientiane. He accepted that task, but directed CIA through the Chief of Station (COS) to operate as executive agent for the tactical conduct of the war, ground and air. The COS during this report's period of interest was Theodore "Ted" Shackley, 1966-1968.

CIA did not have an army. In fact it was arguable whether it had the expertise to run an army. Indeed it had shown in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that it not only did not have an army, it did not know how to operate one. Nonetheless, the president instructed it to build a covert indigenous army employing mainly the ethnic Hmong. This would be a whole new ball-game for CIA in this region, and for the US military. CIA, at least in Laos, was stepping away from its intelligence gathering mission to a military combat and command and control mission.

You will see, over Sullivan's tenure, the influence of the ambassador and CIA would often outweigh that of the military. The military of course did not take kindly to that and slowly but surely got more and more involved.

hmongfighters1965

Eventually, Vang Pao with Lair’s support built a fairly small group of 5,000 in 1961 to an army of 40,000 by 1969, of whom 15,000 were full time war fighters. Vang Pao integrated a mixture of ethnic people, many of whom came from Houaphanh Province. A photo of some of them in 1965 is shown here. Obtaining the support needed by the Hmong was no easy chore for Lair. But as time passed CIA's Hmong Army in effect became the main ground force protecting the RLG. The RLA pressed on, but the CIA with its Hmong Army relegated the RLA to footnote status, at least in northern Laos. The Hmong did most of the fighting, especially in the North. You'll see that close air support was a constant requirement for the Hmong. I'll talk more about that in a moment.

Ahern commented:

"The rapid evolution of the Hmong as the main barrier to communist encroachment from the northeast reversed the normal relationships … in the war zone … The Program Evaluation Office (PEO: a covert Defense Department paramilitary mission in Laos located at the embassy) still controlled aid to the 30,000 troops of the RLA, but now found itself supporting CIA in directing a Hmong force whose relatively small size belied its growing importance to the survival of a noncommunist Laos. The PEO was told to direct Department of Defense funding through CIA to arm the first 2,000 Hmong."

I will highlight here that estimates are the Hmong, while they chalked up many victories, nonetheless lost about 30,000 men in the war, and ended up with perhaps 100,000 refugees in Laos. The US owes them a great deal of gratitude.

The bottom line was military responsibilities in Laos were not assigned to the US military, but rather to the US Embassy Vientiane, and, in turn, to the CIA.

The next question was who will provide the air support?

There were two main entities in the mix.

Let's start with Air America.

HeioCourierThakekWest

CIA's Air America, working with General Vang Pao, had established a number of what were called Lima Sites (LS) throughout Laos. Its predecessor, Civil Air Transport (CAT), had supported the French in the first Indochina War. The French lost that war in 1954. CAT began air dropping food supplies from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) to several famine threatened provinces in Laos in 1955. It established a permanent presence in Laos in 1957 and transitioned more to military support for the RLA. CAT's name was changed to Air America in 1959, and it air operations in Laos would expand greatly. Here you see an Air America Helio Courier departing the primitive LS-40A airstrip at Thakhek West, Laos. Many such airstrips were not even this good.

AirAmericaUH34

Air America, working out of Udorn RTAFB, just a bit south of Vientiane, had quite a mix of aircraft including all kinds of helicopters and fixed wing transports. It also had T-28 fighters. This photo shows two UH-34s at Sam Thong, Laos in 1961. Air America's aircraft could be positioned at Udorn RTAFB in Thailand, outside Laos, and at covert CIA Lima Sites inside Laos. They would ferry supplies from Thailand to where needed in Laos. They would also insert and extract RLG-friendly forces, including Hmong and Thais, to meet ground combat requirements. USAF Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters would often sit alert at Lima Sites, such as LS-85, ready to go into NVN to rescue a downed air crew. For the most part, however, USAF helicopters, fighters and bombers would stage from bases in Thailand.

T28Firefly

The story of T-28 fighters for Laos can get complicated. The US gave the RLG eight T-28s in 1963. More arrived over time. USAF trainers were sent as well, at first mainly for maintenance, then to train pilots.

The T-28s could attack enemy targets while the transports and helicopters inserted Hmong ground forces into Laos, extracted them, and supplied them. The T-28 was well suited to supporting ground troops, a good counter insurgency aircraft, and trainer. There would later be a furious debate as to whether this aircraft type, and a similar one known as the A-1E Skyraider, were preferable to jets.

Air_America_headquarters_at_Udorn_RTAFB

Udorn RTAFB was Air America's Asian headquarters. You can see a variety of Air America aircraft parked to the right of the buildings. It was also the headquarters for the 4802nd Joint Liaison Detachment, which was CIA's command and intelligence analysis center for military operations in Laos. Bill Lair was in charge.

Let's switch to the USAF.

The USAF's 1st Air Commando Wing (ACW) grew out of a need that began in 1961 for counter-insurgency aircraft and aircrews under the "Jungle Jim" program. The 1st ACW quickly became available for deployment worldwide. In 1964 the USAF set up Detachment 6, 1st ACW, codenamed "Waterpump," at Udorn. Its job was to train the RLAF. There was a similar program named "Farmgate" in the RVN. One can get tangled up in all the covert programs in the Indochina War, so I'll work to slow it down here.

The T-28s were either flown with no markings or RLAF or Thai markings. They were flown by either Air America, USAF, RLAF, Hmong or Thai pilots, or a mixture. They flew out of Udorn, Wattay airport near Vientiane, or landing strips in Laos at the Lima Sites.

The USAF had established a significant presence in Thailand at Thai air bases. Takhli RTAFB was one. When I arrived at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB in 1972, we were still not to talk openly about the US airbases in Thailand, especially Takhli.

The USAF aircraft in Thailand were used to attack targets in Laos, NVN, and in some cases RVN. The Thai government was nervous about this, but aggressive supported the operations from their homeland. There was debate on command and control of these aircraft. In the end, the ambassador approved or disapproved all air operations in Laos, including USAF, but it had to coordinate those requirements with the USAF's 7th/13th AF at Udorn, which would in turn task or frag the USAF units to fly the missions.

In part this debate was the result of the USAF complaining about CIA running a war in Laos that was so closely related to the war in the RVN. The 7th AF ran the air war over RVN. The nuances of the US desire to maintain some level of neutrality in Laos made it CIA's war when in Laos. Consequently there was always haggling between CIA and 7th/13th AF and even 7th AF officers over who was in charge of what and who would be responsive to what. You'll see that impact LS-85 when the going got rough up there.

LindleyWilliam
The 7th/13th AF was and frankly remains an oddball command to figure out. Fundamentally, the aircraft in Thailand were under 7th AF control from Saigon, but the bases were in 13th AF territory. The 13th AF was headquartered in the Philippines. Perhaps more important, the Deputy Commander 7th/13th AF, in our case Major General William C. Lindley, Jr., was the primary liaison for the 7th AF commander in dealing with the ambassadors in Thailand and Laos. That said, he also had to answer to the commander 13th AF in the Philippines. He served as a deputy commander to the 7th and 13th Air Forces. And he was the conduit for CIA air operations in Laos.

Complicating this, the ambassador in Vientiane, in our case William Sullivan, controlled all US military activities in Laos. His air attaché at least on paper operated as an air commander since he could determine 7th AF employment in Laos through the authority of the ambassador. But wait. It gets more complex. Add in the commander, US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), commander-in-chief Pacific (CINCPAC), commander Strategic Air Command (SAC), commander 7th Fleet and commanders-in-chief Pacific Fleet (PACFLT) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the whole wiring diagram becomes a pile of spaghetti. Each had their hand in the command and control pie in some fashion. And, of course, LBJ was often reading the maps and selecting and rejecting targets and aircraft types authorized for use against those targets.

Peter Davies, in his book,
F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War, commented on this problem:

"For USAF operations this chain of command often presented a Gordian knot of conflicting orders, multiple levels of decision making and delay that was to hamstring much of its initiative in the war against North Vietnam."

These command relationships violated a long-held military rule demanding unity of command. John T. Correll wrote a good article on the subject for
Air Force Magazine, "Disunity of Command."

Bombing North Vietnam

My reading of early Indochina War history is the NVN held most of the cards. Its forces were actively inside "neutral" Laos fighting alongside the Pathet Lao, an effort which would increase over time. It was moving men and supplies through "neutral" Laos to its forces and the VC in the RVN. It was actively inside the RVN fighting alongside the VC. The NVA was seeking to overthrow two governments, the RLG and the Government of RVN. Yet, to start, the NVN operated free from attack in the homeland. And the US would not invade.

The NVN was getting a free ride. The US decided it would have to take the war to the NVN without invading. Air power again was the only way. So, on February 13, 1965 LBJ authorized US bombing of enemy targets in NVN and Laos. This was about six months after the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

OperatinRollingThunder

This bombing campaign was known as “Operation Rolling Thunder.” It ran officially from March 2, 1965 through November 1, 1968. The campaign was and still is a controversial one. It was modest to start but its intensity and the number and kind of targets grew over time. Aircraft from the carriers at sea and from bases in RVN participated. But USAF fighter-bombers, mainly the F-105D, stationed in Thailand, did most of the bombing and suffered the greatest losses. The USAF F-105D in Rolling Thunder is the focus in this report.

The Rolling Thunder campaign was beset with all kinds of politically driven problems. Its effectiveness is argued to this day. I’ll not go into that issue here. But in the next section I will address the challenges to USAF F-105 pilots. There were many.

FlightRoutes

For my purposes in this report, I want to focus on the fact that USAF F-105D bombing flights originated from bases in Thailand, then overflew Laos and then overflew NVN, attacking targets in NVN and in Laos, the latter in separate operations. F-105 aircraft from Korat began flying "Operation Whiplash" attack missions in Laos in July 1965 to support the RLA and attack the Trail. This was one of several similar programs: Operations Tiger Hound, Cricket, and Commando Hunt are but a few.

Summary thus far

Let's tie all of this together.

  • The NVA's top priority was to get the Ho Chi Minh Trail up and running and keep it running to supply the effort to overthrow the RVN government. The US had to stop that flow.
  • The US would not tolerate a communist Laos. It had to protect the RLG. It would not send in ground combat forces. It had to build an indigenous army using the embassy as the cover.
  • The US saw the NVN held most of the cards. It could not be a safe-haven. The US would have to take the war to the NVN without invading. Air power again was the only way.

The US, as a result, wandered its way into the following approach:

  • Bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop the logistics flow.
  • Task US Embassy Vientiane to fight the war in Laos, and in turn, authorize the CIA to build a Laotian Hmong Army to fight, train the RLA and RLAF to fight, enlist the support of Thailand, and provide US, Laotian and Thai air power to help those fighting on the ground in Laos. Do all of this covertly.
  • Take the war to the NVN employing air power. Conduct "Operation Rolling Thunder" as an air campaign over NVN as a means to force the NVN to stop its wars in the RVN and Laos.

LS-85 was involved in all three of these approaches.
__________

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