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, 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 along a 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 from Laos 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. 

That the Communist war in South Vietnam was heavily, if not entirely, dependent on the infiltration routes through Laos was obvious to all sides. But whatever happened along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Lao preferred to let be. The RLG’s concern lay to the north, around the PDJ, where NVA-backed Pathet Lao forces threatened the government’s very existence. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma was keenly aware that the U.S. was under no formal obligation to defend Lao independence. Continuing to maintain true neutrality, he believed, would convince the Soviets to support that same objective and thereby forestall any overt takeover by the North Vietnamese. At the same time he was willing to approve (or fail to notice) almost any form of American "assistance," so long as it was kept from public scrutiny—a position with which the U.S. embassy was in full accord.

The Tonkin Gulf incidents of August, 1964, fundamentally altered the course of the war in Southeast Asia. With the November elections out of the way, Washington gave the green light to a plan of phased escalation which its framers believed, or at least hoped, would force North Vietnam to cease sponsorship of the war in the South. In mid-December, approval was given to launch Operation BARREL ROLL, the aim of which would be (1) identify and attack “choke points” near the mountain passes where the Ho Chi Minh Trail entered Laos from North Vietnam, and (2) allow armed reconnaissance missions in support of RLG forces elsewhere. As originally laid out, BARREL ROLL encompassed virtually all of eastern Laos to a point just south of the DMZ. The first BARREL ROLL missions, rather low-key affairs, were flown on 14 December. When the communists appeared to be oblivious to this latest “signal,” the decision was made to attack North Vietnam directly—operation ROLLING THUNDER which, after some false starts, got under way in March, 1965. Shortly thereafter, a separate Southern Laos interdiction zone, named STEEL TIGER, was spun off from BARREL ROLL. In time, STEEL TIGER would be sub-divided into different geographical areas, each with a different project name and with differing rules of engagement. Thus, by mid-1965, U.S air assets in Southeast Asia would be shuffled among four separate and sometimes competing campaigns: Close air support of MACV ground operations in South Vietnam (priority one), ROLLING THUNDER, the bombing of North Vietnam, BARREL ROLL in northern Laos, and STEEL TIGER and its various offspring targeting the enemy infiltration system.


Despite the efforts of the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane, and the RLG itself, to minimize the spread of the war in Laos, both American and North Vietnamese presence steadily increased. While indigenous CIA road watch teams looked for targets on the Lao side, MACV’s Studies and Observation Group (MACSOG) regularly launched SHINING BRASS cross-border operations from Kham Duc and other sites in South Vietnam. Beginning in mid-1965 the Air Force began using Lima Site 36 as a “black,” or at least very dark gray, overnight refueling base for SAR helicopters which otherwise would’ve lacked the range and endurance to fly rescue missions into North Vietnam. As they inevitably seemed to, the NVA caught on and in January, 1966, began slipping a dedicated home-based regiment into Laos to remove this irritant. On 16 February the attack began. Despite devastating U.S. air attacks, including the first use of napalm in Laos, LS-36 fell a few days later.

As the pace of both U.S. and RLAF sorties picked up, the need for reliable navigation aids became acute. The decision was made to install TACAN stations in Laos, subject of course to the usual sanitizing of both equipment and technicians. Security consideration ruled out a couple of desired locations while others were found to be functionally undesirable. Ultimately, three sites were chosen. To serve the STEEL TIGER area, one unit was set up near Saravane. Up north, a second was placed on “Skyline Ridge”, near Vang Pao’s Long Tieng headquarters. The third was perched atop a mile-high rock escarpment called Phou Phat Thi, a mere 15 miles from the North Vietnamese border and only 160 or so from Hanoi. The site would be serviced from a helipad a few hundred feet below the crest, designated Lima Site 85. The location, while obviously risky, was ideal from a tactical standpoint and, given the extremely rugged terrain, considered defensible.