After a two-episode break, we are going back to the narrative about the Second Indochina War in Laos, this time covering events from 1964 to 1968, with special emphasis on the battles for Nam Bac Valley and Lima Site 85.
Episode 78: The Second Indochina War, Part 6
or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 3
Greetings, dear listeners! We recently took a two-episode break from our regularly scheduled programming, meaning the narrative that occupied Episodes 74 & 75, and now it is time to get back into it! Therefore first-time listeners should listen to Episodes 74 & 75 first, in order to be up to date about what is going on in this episode.
For a quick recap, in Episode 71 I started covering the Vietnam phase of the Second Indochina War, what Americans call the Vietnam War and what Vietnamese call the American War. There, have I confused you enough yet? Three episodes of that brought us up to the end of 1963, and then I shifted the focus west, to cover the civil war going on in Laos at the same time. Like Vietnam, Laos was divided into communist and anti-communist factions, but here they made an honest attempt to resolve their differences peacefully. Elections were held more than once, and two coalition governments were set up, in 1958 and 1962, but neither government lasted very long. The real source of trouble was that the war in Vietnam fueled the conflict here. The United States, and to a lesser extent Thailand, supported the anti-communist factions: the rightists, also called royalists, and the neutralists. On the other side, the Soviet Union and Communist China supported North Vietnam, which in turn backed the communist faction in Laos, the Pathet Lao. When they weren’t part of a coalition government, the Pathet Lao usually had their headquarters at Sam Neua, a provincial capital in the northeast.
By outside standards, the Pathet Lao were poor and lazy fighters. They only succeeded in battles when North Vietnamese troops went with them. But except for the Hmong tribesmen, who received guerrilla training from the US Central Intelligence Agency, the soldiers on the anti-communist side were even worse. Only about ten percent of the Royal Lao Army soldiers had more than three years of education, meaning most of them couldn’t read, and most of them were only loyal to the officers they knew personally. Therefore, in most of the battles during the early years of the war, 1959 to 1963, the Pathet Lao were the winners. Eventually they gained control over just about all of the highlands, which make up most of the country’s landscape. That left the Mekong River valley and the strategic Plain of Jars, a flat area in the middle of the country, to the royal government. The Mekong valley remained under government control, because both Laotian capitals were on the banks of that river; the king stayed in his palace at the royal capital, Luang Prabang, while the rest of the government met in the other capital, Vientiane. Meanwhile in the east, near the Vietnamese border, the North Vietnamese built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to smuggle supplies and personnel to their partners in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.
In 1964 the ground fighting settled into a stalemate. Each year after that, the Pathet Lao launched their offensives during the dry season, which runs from November to May in Laos, and then during the rainy season months, between June and October, anti-communist forces, led by the US-trained Hmong, launched counter-offensives to take back as much territory as possible. Most of the fighting was over the Plain of Jars, because both sides now felt they must have this area to win.
In the air, the Americans conducted first reconnaissance missions over communist-controlled territory, then secret bombing raids over the same areas. Here the first objective was to help anti-communist forces on the ground. The anti-communists were organized into three armies: the Royal Lao Armed Forces (which included those neutralists who had not gone over to the Pathet Lao), CIA-backed Hmong mercenaries, and the Thai border patrol police, who were then called the Volunteer Defense Corps. The second objective was to stop the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Consequently the lion’s share of the bombs fell on the Plain of Jars, and in the provinces the Ho Chi Trail ran through. From December 1964 onward, the bombing runs were called Operation Barrel Roll by the Americans.
During the air war, there were few Americans on the ground in Laos, and most of those present were civilians. This was done because foreign military personnel were not permitted in Laos, according to the Geneva cease-fire agreement. Likewise, most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand, and the US Air Force trained Lao pilots at an air base in Thailand, instead of Laos; this activity was called Project Water Pump. On the other side, the North Vietnamese also kept quiet about their activities in Laos, because they were not supposed to have any soldiers there either, but when the Geneva Accords called for them to leave, North Vietnam withdrew no more than 40, leaving thousands more in the country. As a result, both the United States and North Vietnam would have liked to publicize the enemy’s violation of the accords, but both had more to gain by keeping quiet, so as not to reveal their own activities.
Finally, I pointed out that the bombing of Laos was simply overkill, no matter how you look at it. Besides striking military targets, bomber crews came here to drop the ordinance they failed to drop on Vietnam and Cambodia, because it was safer to get rid of the bombs than it was to come back to an air base with them. This meant that almost any place in Laos could get hit by bombs, and most of my sources pointed out that Laos is the most bombed country of all time; the Americans dropped more bombs here than they did everywhere in all of World War II. And this hazard is not a thing of the past; a lot of the bombs landed without exploding, and since the war ended, they have killed and maimed thousands of civilians who were unlucky enough to find them. Efforts have been made to find and disarm the unexploded ordinance, but there are so many bombs lying around, especially on the Plain of Jars, that it doesn’t look like the danger will go away any time soon.
All right, we have caught up. Let’s resume the narrative!
The commander of US forces in and over Laos was a civilian, the US ambassador to Laos. For the first half of the air war, from December 1964 to June 1969, the ambassador and commander was William H. Sullivan. He was also the most controversial person to hold that title. Considered brilliant by most and tyrannical by many, Sullivan was despised by the American high command (both Army and Air Force) in Saigon, because he demanded complete control over every aspect of American military operations in Laos. To start with, every target the Air Force went after had to be approved by him. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, sarcastically referred to Sullivan as the “Field Marshal.” But you have to admit that the ambassador had a difficult job. He had to balance the competing interests of the CIA, the Seventh Air Force, the US armed forces in South Vietnam, and the Thais, and this had to be done without alienating the prime minister, Souvanna Phouma; by allowing US activities in the country short of an outright invasion, Prince Souvanna had become an ally in all but name.
With the intervention of US ground forces in South Vietnam in 1965, the Americans thought they would beat the North Vietnamese in a year or two. They figured Vietnam would be like the Korean War in the fall of 1950, before the Chinese got involved in that conflict, with the communists forced to retreat everywhere they were attacked. No one expected the Indochina War to go on for another decade. Therefore the Americans did not see the need to send ground forces into Laos. With Laos their principal objectives were to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to prevent a communist invasion of Thailand, so a holding action was all that they thought was needed. As US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, quote: “Laos was only the wart on the hog.” Unquote. Here is how Air Force historian Colonel Perry F. Lamy described Washington’s view of the situation. Quote:
“Since the fate of Laos did not depend on a military solution in the air or on the ground in Laos and could only be decided by the outcome in Vietnam, winning the war against the DRV in northern Laos was not the objective. Instead, maintaining access to the country was paramount and keeping the Royal Lao government in power became the primary objective.”
Unquote. By “DRV” Lamy meant the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, North Vietnam’s official name.
Laos experienced two military coups in January 1965. The first coup, on January 27, was launched by General Phoumi Nosavan, the rightist leader, who wanted to run the government again. For taking part in the unsuccessful coup attempts in 1964, Phoumi had lost his job as defense minister, and thus supposedly had no troops under his command; nevertheless, he persuaded one battalion and two companies to march on Vientiane, by telling them they were needed to stop an attack on the capital by another army unit. Then on January 31, Lieutenant Colonel Bounleut Saycocie, who was unaware of Phoumi’s coup, launched a second coup with three companies, which occupied the radio station and some other critical points in Vientiane. Five announcements were aired on the radio station before US Ambassador Sullivan got an Australian technician to sever the radio station’s connection to its antenna, thereby taking the radio station off the air. General Kouprasith Abhay, the military region commander, used the troops already in Vientiane to suppress both coups by February 4. Phoumi fled to Thailand and stayed there in exile until his death in 1985, so we won’t hear from him anymore. Two other generals were purged and one was jailed. Behind the scenes, elite families settled scores, causing several junior officers to be jailed, murdered, or dismissed from the army, further weakening the government armed forces.
In March of 1965, the first US combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. As a result, from this point onward American activities in Laos were done for the purpose of supporting American activities in Vietnam. On April 3, the US Air Force launched its second operation over Laos, Operation Steel Tiger. This operation went after targets in southern Laos, where the objective was to destroy enemy forces and supplies moving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Henceforth, the first Air Force operation, Operation Barrel Roll, would continue, but only over northern Laos. The communists responded by increasing their infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and by conducting most of their movements at night, making them harder to detect. To stop this action, in December 1965 a third operation, Operation Tiger Hound, was launched. This operation was concentrated on the part of Laos adjacent to the border of South Vietnam, and it used aircraft from the Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marines, the South Vietnamese Air Force, and the Royal Laotian Air Force.
Now let’s move to the ground war; did the Americans and the Royal Lao Army have any plans for driving back the communists? The best idea they could come up with was to take back the Nam Bac valley. This valley was located in the north, halfway between Luang Prabang and the Chinese border. It had been abandoned to the Pathet Lao in 1961, and if the government held it again, this would block the traditional invasion route into Laos from Vietnam. The problems in taking and holding the valley were the same that the French experienced at Dienbienphu, which I covered in Episode 68. The only road going to Nam Bac was controlled by the North Vietnamese, so any troops in the area would have to be supplied by air, and they would have to occupy the hills surrounding the valley to prevent communist attacks from succeeding.
In July 1966, Royal Lao Army troops, composed of three infantry regiments, one independent infantry battalion, and one artillery battalion, were airlifted to the Nam Bac valley by helicopter. This, combined with the bombing raids from Operation Barrel Roll, slowed down the Pathet Lao advance on the Plain of Jars, allowing government forces to counter-attack there as well. By August, there were Royal Lao Army troops within 45 miles of the North Vietnamese border, the closest they had gotten since the battle of Lak Sao, three years earlier. So far there had only been a few casualties, and this action was hailed as a great victory by the Royal Lao Army. In response, North Vietnamese troops were sent into the hills surrounding the valley, and they thwarted attempts by the Royal Lao army to break out of the valley in early 1967. Both sides sent reinforcements in 1967, building the troop strengths up to 4,100 for the communists, and 7,500 for the Royal Lao Army, which included 3,000 guerrillas.
Because of a shortage of helicopter pilots, government forces did not receive enough supplies, and as was the case at Dienbienphu, artillery bombardment of the valley’s airfield made it unsafe for fixed-wing aircraft to come in. But there weren’t that many planes available, either; in July 1967 the North Vietnamese staged a ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, destroying about a dozen T-28s of the Laotian Air Force. By the time the dry season began in October, the battle for Nam Bac had become a Dienbienphu-style siege, with the initiative passing to the communists. The government sent a unit of General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrillas in an attempt to lift the siege, but communist reinforcements arrived first. December saw the North Vietnamese commit their battle-hardened 316th Division, along with the 335th Independent Regiment.
On January 11, 1968, the North Vietnamese 41st Special Forces Battalion attacked the northern outskirts of Luang Prabang. Two days later, thinking that the rest of the Nam Bac valley had already fallen to the communists, the Royalist commander, Savatphayphane Bounchanh, left his command post and withdrew south. In reality it hadn’t fallen, but once the command post was abandoned, the communists routed the leaderless Royal Lao Army and quickly occupied the valley. About 200 Royal Lao Army troops were killed in action, and 2,400 were captured, of which more than 600 eventually switched sides, joining the Pathet Lao. Only about 1,400 Royal Lao Army soldiers returned to government service after the battle, meaning that a lot of soldiers simply deserted; the army never completely recovered from these losses. The communists also captured a great deal of equipment: lots of small arms, seven howitzers, 49 recoilless rifles, 52 mortars, and plenty of ammunition.
Podcast footnote: For 1968, I have estimates on the size of the forces in Laos. By this time there were about 40,000 North Vietnamese regular army troops, divided between keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, and helping some 35,000 Pathet Lao forces. The Royal Lao Army, (still entirely paid for and equipped by the US), numbered 60,000; Vang Pao’s CIA-trained Hmong guerrillas were half that number, and Kong Le’s neutralists numbered 10,000. End footnote.
The Battle of Nam Bac wasn’t the only communist victory in 1968. On Phou Pha Thi, a 5,600-foot-high mountain in northeastern Laos, the US Air Force had set up a tactical air navigation system in 1966. The mountain is located 100 miles south of Dien Bien Phu, 160 miles west of Hanoi, and just 25 miles west of the Pathet Lao capital, Sam Neua; no buildings had been on the mountain previously because the local Hmong and Yao tribesmen thought the place was a home for spirits. The new installation was a radar station and radio transmitter, used to guide American fighters and bombers to their targets in North Vietnam, and it was code-named Lima Site 85. At the foot of the mountain, a 700-foot airstrip was built so that everything needed could be flown in. Finally, opium poppies were grown near the mountain, and were a major source of revenue for the Hmong; however, we don’t know if General Vang Pao and the CIA were actually involved in the local drug traffic.
Of course all this was a violation of the 1962 cease-fire, but Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma allowed it on condition that the site not be manned by US military personnel. Therefore the Americans working here were temporarily released from military service, so they could pretend to be civilian technicians; the soldiers guarding the facility were Hmong and members of the Thai Border Patrol Police. I found a declassified report which stated that between November 1967 and March 1968, Lima Site 85 guided 427 sorties against North Vietnam, and 1,472 sorties for Operation Barrel Roll.
Naturally the other side couldn’t ignore the installation after they found out about it, and before the end of 1967, American reconnaissance aircraft detected the North Vietnamese building paved roads heading for Phou Pha Thi. The Pathet Lao overran a nearby village in December, but the Hmong drove them out again. Then in January 1968, the North Vietnamese staged a rare attack on the site by air. I will read a description of the air raid from a book by Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: the Hmongs, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942–1992. Quote:
“On 12 January, CIA spotters reported a four-aircraft formation flying in the direction of Lima Site 85. They were Soviet-made Antonov An-2 biplanes. Two aircraft continued towards Lima Site 85, while the others turned away. The Vietnam People’s Air Force, in one of its few air attacks during the conflict, tried to destroy the radar at Lima Site 85. The An-2s flew over Phou Pha Thi, and their crewmen dropped 120 mm mortar shells through the aircraft’s floor and then strafed their targets with 57 mm rockets mounted on the wing pods. As they repeatedly attacked the facility, ground fire heavily damaged one AN-2, and it crashed into a mountainside. By now, CIA officers and US controllers at Lima Site 85 had managed to contact an Air America helicopter, which was faster than the Soviet-made biplanes. The Huey pilot Captain Ted Moore sighted the remaining An-2, and promptly gave chase. As he pulled alongside, flight mechanic Glenn Woods armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire and caused the biplane to crash into a ridge.
The remaining An-2s had observed the attack from a distance and managed to escape without damage. Four Hmongs, two men and two women, had been killed by the communist attack. The TSQ-81 radar and associated equipment were undamaged.”
Over the course of February, North Vietnamese forces assembled in the vicinity of Phou Pha Thi. On Februray 18, the Hmong ambushed a small party of North Vietnamese five miles southeast of the site. Among those killed was an officer who carried a notebook with plans for an attack on Phou Pha Thi. The notebook said three North Vietnamese battalions and one Pathet Lao battalion would take part; the exact location of the installation was also given. Now that the Americans knew the North Vietnamese were coming to get them, they requested more arms to defend the installation; this request was denied, out of fear that it would blow the cover of the American personnel. Although a CIA report said that Lima Site 85 would not hold out past March 10th, the officers on the site were confident that the enemy couldn’t scale the mountain’s cliffs,
The North Vietnamese had completely surrounded the mountain by March 9, and they launched their assault on March 10, led by a 33-man platoon that had received special training in mountain fighting. Against expectations, they went up the cliffs, and on the early morning of March 11 they reached the buildings on top and began attacking with grenades. Helicopters were belatedly called in to evacuate the Americans, but twelve of the nineteen Americans were killed; this was the greatest loss of Air Force personnel in any Laotian battle. Years later the North Vietnamese reported killing 42 enemies in the battle, mostly Hmong and Thais. By the middle of the day, the site was completely overrun; the Americans now decided they needed to destroy the radar so that the enemy could not use it, and also destroy any intelligence the North Vietnamese could gather. During the next seven days, 95 sorties were flown against the site, which also obliterated any American remains that were left on the mountaintop.
All right, that will do it for today. I want to apologize for getting behind schedule, when it came to recording this episode. For some reason, whenever I played back what I had recorded, it just didn’t sound right, and by the time my self-imposed deadline arrived for putting it up, the recording was too long to edit easily. It makes me wonder how the more long-winded podcasters get their recordings done in the time they have. I will also admit that after all the time and episodes I have spent on the war in Laos, I was getting impatient to return to the war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the original script sounds better when divided in two, so I will need one more episode to make it to the 1973 cease-fire, and Vietnam will have to wait until the last episode scheduled for this year. The good news is that I think I can get the next episode done quickly, since a lot of the footage I recorded for today will go into that episode instead. On that note, join me next time for the fourth (and I promise the last) episode on the Laotian Civil War!
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