Part One: "The Secret War" Begins
Only serious students of Cold War history or persons of a certain age will remember that between 1959 and mid-1962 it was Laos, not Vietnam, that most often appeared in the headlines. After the introduction of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, the conflict in Laos faded into the background, replaced in popular imagination by a “secret war” managed by the CIA and featuring daring cross-border raids by special operations units that "were never there.” There were elements of this, of course, but reality was somewhat different. The "secret war" was a poorly kept secret, and Americans had been in it from the beginning.
It’s not a huge historical stretch to say that without the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail infiltration system that wound through eastern Laos, North Vietnam could not have waged a war in South Vietnam. Thus Laos, and by extension Thailand, and later Cambodia, were inexorably caught up in the American effort to keep the Southeast Asian dominoes upright in the face of a communist onslaught. The 1968 Tet offensives momentarily deflected MACV and air force attention from the ongoing efforts to interdict the flow of enemy troops and supplies through eastern Laos. But the likelihood that the bombing of North Vietnam might cease completely, coupled with the promise of further success shown in the deployment of electronic sensors during siege of Khe Sanh, brought a renewed focus on the infiltration problem. Laos would become an increasingly important operating area for the Electric Goon—and the most dangerous. Four of the five EC-47 in-flight combat losses would come while tracking enemy targets "across the fence."
The Cold War Comes to Laos
Along with modern-day Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos unwillingly became part of French Indochina late in the nineteenth century. Hardly recognizable as a nation, Laos more closely resembled a collection of tribal fiefdoms, loosely overseen by a colonial administration. The king remained ensconced in the ancient palace grounds at Luang Prebang, but those aspects of the Royal Lao Government (RLG) not directly in the hands of the French were conducted by an elected Prime minister and the National Assembly in the administrative capital of Vientiane. The country was ethnically quite diverse, but the ruling elite came almost exclusively from the lowland “valley” Lao who regarded the hill tribes, which would later figure so prominently in the war for Southeast Asia, as little more than inferior savages.
Laos was less affected than Vietnam by the war against the French, although in a prelude to the Dien Bien Phu campaign a Viet Minh column drew to within striking distance of Luang Prabang before being forced to withdraw. Left behind were the roots of an indigenous communist movement, the Pathet Lao (PL), which controlled Sam Neua and Phong Saly provinces along the border with northern Vietnam. Following the 1954 Geneva conference the former Indochinese colonies and protectorates became independent states.1 The resulting scramble played out in characteristic Cold War fashion. As the U.S. saw it, bankrolling the RLG would poke another finger in the dike holding back the Red Tide of Communism in Southeast Asia. When election results ran contrary to expectations, a cut-off of American aid usually brought about the desired changes—a technique that would be frequently employed as the U.S. attempted to shove its favorite candidates through the revolving turnstile of Laotian politics. The Pathet Lao, aided and abetted by the NVA, generally followed the standard communist playbook, blending legitimate anti-colonial grievances with intimidation and violence when it suited their purposes.
North Vietnam took a more strategic view. Having secretly determined to control the war in the south, Hanoi recognized that it would be necessary to maintain a constant supply of both men and materiel to the battlefields of South Vietnam. A primitive network of tracks and trails, much of it in Laos, had existed since the French war. Now the communists set about expanding this into a full-time infiltration route, which the Americans would call the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The task was assigned to the newly-formed Military Transportation Group 559, named after the date of its establishment, 19 May 1959.
A Crisis Builds
New Laotian elections were held in April, 1960. Guided by CIA campaign managers, the voters heartily rejected all Pathet Lao candidates. There were outcries of fraud, accompanied by occasional armed clashes with the PL, but the unsteady RLG appeared to be in no danger of toppling. That happy illusion was shattered on 9 August when a young paratroop captain named Kong Le, taking advantage of the absence of key officials, led his battalion in a surprise coup that occupied Vientiane. His motive, so he said, was to rid the country of all corrupting foreign influences. Whatever his military prowess, Kong Le knew his political limitations. Left-leaning neutralist crown prince Savanna Phouma took office as prime minister, duly installed by the National Assembly, although its members were no doubt looking over their shoulders at Kong Le's paratroopers during the vote. This in turn triggered a countercoup by U.S-supported forces based in the southern panhandle. Parts of the Laotian army, the Forces Armées Royales (FAR), now lined up against each other but only occasionally, and then not well, against the PL.
Befuddled, the U.S. embassy at first did nothing, although Washington eventually determined that Souvanna, legitimately vested or not, must go. Thus the U.S. found itself in the awkward position of “maintaining relations with the legal Laotian Government while giving covert support to a force in rebellion against it.” When American aid to his government was again suspended, Souvanna turned to the Soviet Union, which was all too happy to support such “wars of national liberation.” U.S. pressure failed to produce results and on 4 December Russian IL-14 transports, staging through Hanoi, began delivering fuel, arms, and ammunition to Kong Le’s forces at Vientiane's Wattay airport. There was fear in both Laos and Washington that without U.S. intervention the RLG might not hold. CINCPAC unwrapped existing plans for the activation of Joint Task Force (JTF) 116, the wartime U.S. tactical strike force in the Pacific.
Call in the Gooney Birds
Tensions eased somewhat when the covertly supported right-wingers managed to retake Vientiane on 16 December. Yet another government, this one unmistakably pro-U.S., was sworn in. Kong Le’s troops retreated northward, expected to link up with PL forces. The Soviets shifted their aerial replenishment efforts towards parachuting supplies to this group as it advanced. Lack of solid intelligence, always a concern to American military commanders and advisors, now became a critical issue. Airborne photo reconnaissance was the obvious short-term remedy, but the barely functioning Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF) was manifestly incapable of performing the task and the distances were too great for Thai recon aircraft. The JCS urged launching navy photo-recon jets from carriers in the South China Sea, but this was rejected as being too much of a threat to ongoing diplomatic efforts.
While not an ideal technical solution, a politically acceptable alternative emerged in the form of the humble Gooney Bird. A VC-47 accredited to the U.S. Air Attaché in Saigon could fly in and out of Laos without violating international agreements. Ostensibly a VIP transport, the Goon also packed well-disguised cameras which could shoot through openings in the rear fuselage that, when closed, were indistinguishable from the many similar panels on any “stock” C-47. The VC-47 missions revealed much about PL positions, the Soviet airdrops, and even managed a long-distance peak across the border at Dien Bien Phu, On 21 December the Gooney Bird pilot buzzed to within a hundred feet or so of one of the Illyushins and snapped a photo. The shot, clearly showing CCCP (Cyrillic for USSR) and the “bort” number of the aircraft, was promptly passed on to U.S. news outlets as proof of communist meddling in the affairs of neutral Laos. An attempt to duplicate this feat a few days later drew machine gun fire, evidently from the usually unarmed IL-14. None of the crew was hit and the old Goon, considerably damaged, limped back to Vientiane. All concerned agreed that although the C-47 was ill-suited as a recon platform, results justified the risks involved.
With TF-116 still standing by, another intelligence shortfall came to fore, and the always adaptable C-47 would be again be involved. Russian voice transmissions from or about the Soviet IL-14s were an obvious high-interest intel target, as was any North Vietnamese radio traffic connected with the airlift. And there was the ongoing need to monitor communication networks that would reveal an uptick in Chinese air activity. COMINT ground sites in the Philippines and elsewhere had had worked these “problems” for years, but air-ground VHF signals were almost impossible to hear at that distance. During the Korean War, local USAFSS units had come up with an interim solution by converting several C-47s used as radio relay aircraft into airborne intercept platforms. First nicknamed BLUE SKY then ROSE BOWL, the Korean Gooney Birds had gradually been replaced by more capable aircraft but were still available. Amidst a diplomatic flurry over where in the target area to base the airplane, a ROSE BOWL crew arrived at Clark airbase, Philippines, on 20 January 1961. Another two weeks of wrangling ensued before the Gooney Bird flew its first mission out of Udorn. Thanks to weather, high humidity which played havoc with the electronics, and terrain which blocked the line-of-sight contact necessary for VHF intercept, the “take” was minimal. In a couple of months the C-47 flew back to Korea, but two of the ROSE BOWL birds would emerge again in Vietnam as the highly successful DRILL PRESS project.
The Cork in the Bottle
As events unfolded in Laos, in Washington John Fitzgerald Kennedy prepared to enter the White House. On his last day in office, President Eisenhower and some of his cabinet met with JFK and his advisors. Laos, said the Secretary of State, was “the cork in the bottle” preventing all of Southeast Asia from falling to the communists. As for how to keep that cork in place, there seemed to be no answer.
Kennedy remained noncommittal, but unilateral U.S. intervention in Laos was a move he was loathe to make. Nonetheless, preparations for more aggressive military action went forward. The most notable and long-lasting of these was the forging of the CIA’s alliance with Vang Pao. A member of the Hmong clan, Vang Pao had fought with the French and was one of the handful of officers in the FAR who were not lowland Lao. The Hmong, mostly illiterate subsistence farmers, lived in the mountains around the Plaines des Jarres—the Plain of Jars—so named for the hundreds of huge stone jars, believed to be prehistorical burial urns, scattered around the landscape. Universally known to aviators and military types as “the PDJ”, who controlled the Plain controlled northern Laos and the front door to Luang Prabang. In contrast to the FAR, the Hmong seemed ready and willing to fight the communists. All they needed was weapons and logistical support, and the CIA would see to that. Laos was soon sprinkled with rough dirt landing strips suitable only for short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) aircraft or helicopters. These strips, called Lima Sites, were scraped out of whatever more-or-less level terrain happened to be near one of the Hmong settlements. Some were eventually upgraded to acceptable airfield standards but many remained in their primitive states, later to become the stuff of lore and legend built up around Air America and “the secret war.”2
As RLG fortunes steadily declined, U.S. involvement stepped up. Photo-recon was again the order of the day, and once more the ageless C-47 was called upon. Another Korea-based aircraft, outfitted with even more effective cameras, was flown in to augment the effort. Results were good, producing many targets, none of which the RLAF proved capable of hitting. But on 23 March the photo Goon, headed to Tan Son Nhut for routine maintenance, detoured over the PDJ for one more run. Hit by a 37mm round fired by disgruntled neutralist gunners, the aircraft went down. The lone survivor, Army Maj. Lawrence Bailey, became the first American PoW of the Vietnam War.
Less than a month later came the Bay of Pigs debacle. That ill-conceived and poorly executed CIA plot, although hatched on Eisenhower’s watch, left the Kennedy administration holding the bag. It also caused the president to re-think his Laos options. Despite increasingly strident calls for intervention by the Joint Chiefs, Kennedy remained wary of committing U.S. forces in a conflict that might escalate into another Korean War, or worse. Nonetheless, the demand for photoreconnaissance in Laos increased. In late April, all parties concerned agreed on a semi-clandestine project named FIELD GOAL that would allow a lone ex-Philippine Air Force RT-33 to operate from Udorn and later Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. The modified T-33 trainer did better than the Gooney Birds, but had its own limitations.
For some time there had been talk of reviving the 1954 Geneva conference; now the idea took on new appeal. The Soviets appeared to agree in principle but refused to accede to U.S. demands for a ceasefire as a condition to starting the talks. As this obstacle was being cleared, activity heated up in far southern Laos, where elements of the 325th NVA Division hustled to take the town of Tchepone before the ceasefire took effect. At the time not much more than a dusty outpost on the old colonial Route 9 just a few miles west of Khe Sanh, Tchepone would soon become a major base and staging area on the infiltration route to South Vietnam—which could now be routed down the western (Laotian) side of the Annamite mountain chain, rather than having to cross the DMZ.
The 1962 Geneva Neutrality Agreement
In May, 1961, representatives of fourteen nations assembled at Geneva to thrash out some sort of solution for Laos. Heading the list were the USSR, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Peoples Republic of China. Poland, India, and Canada, holdovers from the International Control Commission (ICC) of the 1954 conference, took part, along with the adjoining Southeast Asian states; Laos, Cambodia, the two Vietnams, and Thailand.
The ceasefire in Laos was quickly and routinely violated but it temporarily halted the FIELD GOAL missions. In October, an airshow at Saigon included a flight of four USAF RF-101 Voodoos. The supersonic RF-101 was a proper recon aircraft, and when floods inundated the Mekong Delta region the Voodoos were held over to survey the damage. Under this legitimate cover, codenamed PIPE STEM, the aircraft overflew southern Laos and the PDJ, as well as targets in South Vietnam. Among the discoveries were IL-14s parachuting supplies into Tchepone. The PIPE STEM birds relocated to Tan Son Nhut, but the Royal Thai Government (RTG) approved a replacement—four more RF-101s known as ABLE MABLE, the first increment of what would grow to be a massive USAF presence in Thailand.
In the spring of 1962, after more than a year of deliberations and negotiations, from Geneva came "The Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos," by which the parties involved solemnly resolved to "build a peaceful, neutral, independent, democratic, unified and prosperous Laos." In a personal message to the Ambassador to Laos, a high State Department official boiled the issue down to its essence: “Our job,” he wrote, “is not to confront the President with a situation requiring a decision on whether to permit Laos to be overrun by the Commies, or introduce American combat forces.” Instead, the task was to “work out how—and not whether—a coalition government under Souvanna’s leadership” could be helped to survive. In the end, the U.S. agreed to accept both Souvanna and the stipulations of the peace conference. All foreign military personnel were to withdraw within 75 days, no foreign military bases were to be built in Laos, and no country was to use Laotian territory” for military purposes or for interference in the internal affairs of other countries.” It was a fiction that the major powers, for their separate and mutual reasons, found convenient to perpetrate for the long duration of the war.
1. See "Prologue—Why Vietnam?" for a discussion of the 1954 agreements.
2. "Lima site" evidently comes from the phonetic alphabet for the letter "L" (as in Laos). The developed strips were later identified simply as "Lima" followed by a number (e.g. Lima 98, Vang Pao's HQ) wherease the unimproved dirt strips were "Lima sites", or "LS", as in LS-36. The role of Air America in Laos is so well known that there is no need to elaborate on it or its relationship with the CIA.
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Article by Joe Martin