Leaning Toward Laos

  Part Two: Subtitle  

In accordance with the Geneva agreements, the last uniformed American advisors departed Laos On 7 October 1962. To complete the farce, two or three platoons of NVA troops did likewise. The U.S. promptly transferred most of its overt operations to Udorn, Thailand, across the Mekong 40 miles or so south of Vientiane. Air America had been ensconced there for years, as had some CIA elements. The several thousand North Vietnamese “volunteers” mostly stayed put, some bothering to put on Pathet Lao uniforms, others seeing no need.

One Crisis to Another 

In Washington, the rapidly brewing Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 pushed the one in Laos to the back burner, where the CIA and the American embassy in Vientiane hoped to keep it. But the Kennedy administration was keenly aware of the need to preserve “at least the facade of a neutralist government” in Laos. Thailand was the brace propping up that façade and the Thais, while fully cognizant of the communist threat in their own back yard and the consequent need for U.S. support, were at the same time quite sensitive to being branded as Yankee imperialist puppets. Uncle Sam found himself tip-toeing on a constantly swaying diplomatic tightrope. After Kennedy’s death, the Johnson administration made no immediate changes in policy or personnel. Most of the Kennedy advisors stayed, including Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Meanwhile, conditions in both Vietnam and Laos continued to worsen. By 1964, increased communist aggression had convinced both Souvanna Phouma and Kong Le that the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese patrons had no intention of observing Laotian neutrality. But the RLG was clearly incapable of resisting PL probing, much less any serious NVA advances. Some hope was placed in a Udorn-based project calling for USAF instructors to train Lao pilots on armed T-28 trainers, although it would be months before any results could be expected.

In Saigon, COMUSMACV grew more perturbed by the steady infiltration of enemy troops and weapons into South Vietnam. Border surveillance and control now assumed high priority. Patrols from Special Forces camps and occasional cross-border forays yielded some intelligence, but more was needed. Aerial reconnaissance again seemed to be the most readily available answer. On 25 May 1964 the U.S. launched YANKEE TEAM, a concentrated recon effort that would supplement the ABLE MABLE RF-101s, now based at Tan Son Nhut, with Navy aircraft flying from carriers. Intelligence aside, the program would “demonstrate overtly to the communists our interest and our determination to stay in SEA."

Enemy fire had already downed a snooping C-47 and even the jets that followed had been pinged, one seriously, and the threat grew daily. On 6 June the inevitable happened. A Navy YANKEE TEAM recce bird was shot down over the PDJ, its pilot captured by the PL. Heretofore, Air America had performed occasional search and rescue (SAR) missions on an ad hoc basis. For appearances sake, it would’ve been convenient to keep it that way, but Air America had neither sufficient helicopter assets nor adequate communications to undertake a full-time SAR role. Barely a week after the Navy shoot-down, the Thai government granted permission to station a pair of USAF HH-34 “Pedro” rescue choppers at Nakhon Phanom, at that time a rather austere base a few miles west of the town of the same name, just across the Mekong from Takhet, Laos. Concurrently, Washington authorized U.S. fighter-bombers to escort the YANKEE TEAM missions, while USAF instructors began to fly RLAF T-28 strike sorties in support of hard-pressed RLG ground forces.

Barrel Roll