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           Talking Proud: Service & Sacrifice

Lima Site 85, Laos: Exceptional Courage Against Impossible Odds


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In March 1968, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces scaled seemingly impossible sheer cliffs of a one-mile-high karst in northeastern Laos and killed 11 USAF members contracted to Lockheed. These men operated a radar bombing system known as the TSQ-81 and a Tactical Air Navigation System known as TACAN. The karst was Phou Pha Thi Mountain, Phathi for short. It was known as Lima Site 85, LS-85.

This was a CIA-USAF site in the northeastern Houaphanh province. The NVA put it out of commission. This was the most significant ground combat loss of USAF personnel in the Indochina War. Notably, the USAF loss was in Laos, a neutral, off-limits country, inescapably woven into the American Vietnam War.

It's been nearly 60 years since the loss of LS-85. There are many accounts of its loss. Controversies remain, especially among the families of the Airmen killed in action at the site. LS-85 was a secretive US site in a secretive war run by a dysfunctional command and control system.

Timothy Castle has written an authoritative book on the subject, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. I commend it to you. I have drawn from it and many other sources.

Given the vast library of professional accounts, some done by those who lived through the events in Laos, you might wonder why I have tried to explain what happened.

I was a USAF operations officer of a unit that flew on board airborne radio direction-finding aircraft, the EC-47, mainly over Laos, mostly in response to CIA requirements, supported by the National Security Agency. The aircraft were tasked by and flown by Airmen.


The Airmen in my unit were much like those deployed to LS-85. Four of them were lost after the NVA shot down their aircraft over Laos just days after the Paris Peace Accords took effect. As a result, I am seized by the story of the Airmen who worked and died at LS-85. Their story is compelling, distressing, and tragic, yet marked by remarkable courage and bravery.

Timothy Castle says it well:

“There is no pleasure in recounting the story of Site 85. From the beginning of the Heavy Green program until the present, there is an unseemly pattern of US government duplicity.”

In his book Honored and Betrayed, Major General Richard Secord, USAF (Ret.) said, 

“…this just doesn’t happen. It never should happen. It can’t happen. But it did…”

That sums up why I am writing this—a mix of honor, indignation, and the twists of fate. The Airmen of LS-85 have left a deep imprint on my mind.


Go to next chapter: Introduction Lima 85

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