Electric Goons of “Naked Fanny”
By Ed Marek, editor
March 28, 2011
Brief History of the Laos War
This was a tough section to write. There is so much history associated with every topic covered, each able to engage one’s study for years. This presentation is at a very top level and there is risk of leaving important things out. Laotian history during this period is complex at best.
The presentation, however, is meant to give some context to the 1969 deployment of the EC-47 to NKP, Thailand to conduct its electronic reconnaissance and Airborne Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) missions mainly over Laos.
Before getting started, for those of you who might be interested, I have published a multi-section story on the Hmong of Laos at my sister web site, “Wisconsin Central.” To do that, I presented a history of Laos from the 13th century to the Second Indochina War. As you will see, the Hmong were allied with US and Royal Laotian Government (RLG) forces during that war. That history will bring you fairly close to where I will start for this story. Laotian history is very fluid, and filled with constant war fighting and political intrigue, which might help put what we are about to cover into some context.
Royal Laotian Army (RLA) Officers
Pathet Lao Soldiers
As we said in the introductory section, by 1968, the war in Laos at a top level was between the RLA and the indigenous communist Pathet Lao.
Viet Minh, known as the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the predecessor to the NVN Army, trucking supplies south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
The NVN had also carved out the Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern Laos and Cambodia and into the RVN.
NVA Gun Team
Finally, the NVN Army (NVA) also fought inside Laos against the RLG and in support of the Pathet Lao. Both Thailand and the US were supporting the RLG covertly, at least as covertly as one can do that in a war.
These are important points to remember for the Det 3 EC-47s. They were working against NVN and Pathet Lao forces fighting against the RLG and against the NVN and VC forces employing the Ho Chin Minh Trail to work for the downfall of the RVN. That will be roughly how Det 3’s mission ended up getting divided.
In the eyes of the suits in Washington, the war in Laos always played second fiddle to the Vietnam War.
Hmong fighters, 1965
The US strategy for Laos was to use the RLA and indigenous Laotians, most notably the Hmong people, to fight the Pathet Lao and NVN in Laos as a means to maintain the RLG. The US and Thailand would provide air support. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA,) using its commercial company, Air America, a descendant of the Civil Air Transport (CAT) Co. and famous Flying Tigers of WWII, provided both logistics and offensive air support as well. So right off the bat, there is a heavy CIA involvement in this aspect of the war.
The intent of the US was to contain communism to North Vietnam, and not let it spread to the more prosperous South or to Laos, an independent state. So the Americans were in a containment mode.
I did a story about a legendary figure of the CAT-Air America Days in this part of the world, named Jim “Earthquake” McGoon and commend it to you to brush up on the history involved here.
I’ve also done a story about the HH-43 Pedroes, helicopters used for search and rescue (SAR) and firefighting, and with that did a fairly thorough history explaining how the USAF got involved in Laos. I also commend this story to you, but I want to extract some pertinent facts from it, since you might get tired of going back and forth.
However, from a MACV standpoint, the interest in Laos was on stopping the flow of supplies and war fighters over the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into the RVN. To do this, conventional USAF and USN air forces were used along with Army, Marine and Navy special forces, the latter of whom worked on the ground conducting reconnaissance of the trail.
Civil Air Transport C-119
In 1950, CIA had begun its own airline, called CAT, in the main to help Tibetans and the Chinese who had evacuated the mainland to Taiwan as Mao took over. To those on the outside, it appeared to be a corporate commercial airline. In reality, it was used mainly for covert operations.
Vo Nguyen Giap with Viet Minh troops, 1946. The Viet Minh would later become the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and General Giap its leader.
In 1953 the Viet Minh, known as the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the predecessor to the NVN Army (NVA), invaded northeastern Laos with 40,000 troops. They married up with 2,000 communist Pathet Lao. They were opposed by 10,000 RLA troops and 3,000 French regulars. The enemy attacked into Phongsali and Houaphan Provinces. Many refer to Houaphan Province as Sam Neua Province. That is not correct. Sam Neua was the capital city of Houaphan Province, and was the major objective of the enemy thrust into this region. As an aside, this province joined Laos only after French colonization of Indochina. Prior to that, it had either been independent or a Vietnamese vassal state.
Overall, the enemy goal was to take the royal capital at Luang Prabang and the vast Plaines des Jars (PDJ). The PDJ is roughly outlined in red with Luang Prabang on its northwest edge.
The fight was a back-and-forth process, really an incredible historical study unto its own. To intellectuals, this appeared to be a civil war. But to policy makers, the Viet Minh were from Vietnam, they were communists, and they were supported by the Soviet Union and China. The Pathet Lao were also communists and were supported by all three, so this violated US containment objectives and fell into the Cold War profile. It should also be said that enemy forces began to move into the panhandle to the south, to take as much of that region as was possible and to expand and upgrade protection for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In January 1954, the Viet Minh launched two attacks against Laos which, in retrospect, were probably meant to draw French attention away from Dien Bien Phu, marked by the blue dot on the first map above. Defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu was the main Viet Minh objective. The attacks into Laos failed, but the attack against the French at Dien Bien Phu succeeded and that was the end of French Indochina.
The Geneva Conference of April - July 1954 focused on two problems: the Korean Peninsula and Indochina. For Indochina, the conference produced the Geneva Accords. These accords granted independence to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (northern Vietnam), France, Laos, the Peoples Republic of China, the State of Vietnam (southern Vietnam which would quickly become the Republic of Vietnam), the USSR, and Great Britain signed. The US took note of the agreement but did not sign it. Phongsali and Houaphan Provinces were ceded to the Pathet Lao as part of the agreement.
While the American interest was on South Vietnam, not Laos or Cambodia, President Eisenhower was not able to look the other way when it came to Laos.
Royal Laotian Air Force RLAF L-20. Some were armed with .50 cal machine guns.
The Armée Nationale Laotienne (ANL), the Royal Laotian Army (RLA as Americans called it) was formed in 1949, but was little more than a police force. As the Viet Minh began their serious infiltrations of Laos in the early 1950s and as the French started taking some heavy lumps leading up to the loss at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French saw that the ANL needed an air arm. So they provided the ANL with liaison aircraft, light transports, C-47 transports, and helicopters. Aviation Laotienne (AL) was officially formed in January 1955, after Laos gained her independence. From here on, I will refer to the AL as the Royal Laotian Air Force, (RLAF), and the ANL as the RLA.
The French kept about 132 instructors in Laos who, along with some 200 Laotians, all based at Wattay Airport in Vientiane. In late 1960, the US decided to set up the RLAF. Using a bunch of primitive runways throughout Laos, the US set up the 1st Observation and Liaison Squadron and started training Laotian pilots.The US, using Thai stocks, provided 10 T-6G Texan aircraft for ground attack (example shown above). Most of the French-Laotian combined efforts involved air drops to beleaguered RLA forces left out in the boondocks. Special missions were even flown by contractors over North Vietnam. Thailand also supplied some helicopters and weapons trainers. CAT missions also helped the Laotians out, especially in getting aid to the Hmong sitting in the middle of Viet Minh emplacements inside Laos.
Debate exists to this day as to who was in Laos first, the CIA or the US military. I do know that the US set up a US Operations Mission (USOM) in Laos in late 1954. Its mission on the surface was to provide “economic assistance.” But the main role was to provide defense materials to the RLG. The US would have preferred to set up a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), but felt the Geneva Accord prohibited such an endeavor. Even though the US did not sign that accord, it felt compelled to at least act as though it was abiding by it even though it would not.
“I would just say this: no one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the United States involved in a hot war in that region (Southeast Asia) than I am; consequently, every move that I authorize is calculated, so far as humans can do it, to make certain that that does not happen ... Well, I am not going to try to predict the drift of world events now and the course of world events over the next months. I say that I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions, particularly with large units.”
Ike’s secretary of state was John Foster Dulles, one tough anti-communist, an aggressive containment policy-maker. Here you see Dulles (R) with Prince Savang (L) of Laos on March 1, 1955. Savang took over for his ailing father at this meeting. Prior to this meeting, Dulles had convinced Ike that the US would have to help out in Indochina, not only the RVN, but Laos as well. A Program Evaluations Office (PEO) was set up in January 1955 within the USOM, staffed by American civilians with prior military experience and led by a retired Army general, Rothwell Brown.
That the CINCPAC entered the loop was a significant event which we will discuss later in the report. CINCPAC reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). So the Pentagon was in the thick of it.
Also in 1954, Ike looked to Thailand for help. The US offered to provide military aid to Thailand for the purpose of supporting the RLG. There had been a US MAAG in Thailand. It was established in September 1950 but was renamed the Joint US Military Advisory Group Thailand (JUSMAGTHAI) in September 1953. We will come back to the intense and disparate organizational relationships later. They are mind-boggling.
The Thais accepted the US request for help and agreed to train Laotian military personnel in Thailand. The US was also training them in the Philippines. I have read that this all was done without the approval of the US ambassador in Vientiane. In any event, this set the stage for the establishment of multiple USAF bases in Thailand from which war would be waged against North Vietnam and enemy forces in Laos and the RVN. Here again, the history is wild.
At this point, most of CAT’s activities were to support the Hmong who had been left behind in the Sam Neua area and along the North Vietnamese-Laotian border. During this volatile period, 1954-1957, the US ambassador to Laos decided to take over distribution of US aid to Laos, and he organized the CAT to do that on his behalf. This reflects a moment when the ambassador and CIA started to become almost one.
What is crucial to remember, I think, is that the lines between CAT (CIA) and PEO (military) operations began to blur. Most CAT missions were supply transport and air drop missions, often flown by CAT pilots with USAF aircraft.
In 1955, the Viet Minh, who held most of Houaphan Province and all of Sam Neua city, launched forth into neighboring Xieng Khouang province. You’ll recall this map reflecting their pushes in 1953. The black arrow reflects the 1955 endeavor. The enemy did this at a time when the RLG was negotiating with the Pathet Lao to bring all this fighting to a halt.
In response, CAT and French piloted RLAF carried two RLA infantry battalions into the PDJ, located mostly in Luang Prabang Province, the home of the royal capital. Young Laotian pilots not yet fully trained began flying observation missions. French Air Force helicopters still in country plus RTAF helicopters with no markings supported medevac and other missions.
By this time, the US had 100 military “instructors” in Laos. They began making friends with the local Hmong people who fiercely opposed the communists, and supplied them with weapons and ammunition. The PEO was busily providing all manner of military supplies and began building a stronger, more potent RLAF. Among other things, the US provided more aircraft, mostly C-47s and liaison and observation aircraft, and helped build and improve “air bases” around Laos. These air bases were rudimentary at best, many carved out of dense jungles, most gravel and dirt, but suited to the environment and the kinds of aircraft using them.
Lima Site shot from EC-47 mission. This one is in very good shape. I think it is Long Tieng, LS-20A, the major LS in northern Laos.
The Americans soon called them “Lima Sites,” for landing sites. Some of these could handle fixed wing aircraft, but there were many that could accommodate only helicopters.
France terminated her funding of the Laotian defense budget, so the US took it on lock, stock and barrel. In 1957, the French began to withdraw. The USOM grew to over 100 people by 1957 and in effect was a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), serving as a cover for a MAAG, the latter of which was not allowed in Laos.
Air America C-47 transport in Laos 1959. Photo by John Lee.
CAT's name changed to Air America in 1959 as a means to expand American efforts in Laos, but it remained a CIA operation. Air America began flying all sorts of air missions in Laos, from providing supplies to delivering Laotian ground forces to target areas to bombing and strafing enemy forces on the ground to conducting photo and electronic intelligence. A US Special Forces Group was introduced into Laos in 1959. Helicopters rapidly became central to helping the Laotians. US military and non-military people were on the ground and in the air in Laos, covertly immersed in the war there.
By 1959, the Pathet Lao were firmly entrenched in the PDJ. The RLG weakened further. Laos began to destabilize badly.
This is a Soviet IL-14 over the PDJ photographed by a USAF reconnaissance flight over the area.
Adding to the problem, the Soviets were arguably even more entrenched in the PDJ than the Pathet Lao. Time correspondent James Walde went to the PDJ in March 1961 and described it this way:
A Soviet armored car moves along Route 7 in Northern Laos, 1961
“The entire Plaine des Jarres is bulging with Russian armaments and swarming with Vietnamese. The Ilyushins, which are lined up 18 deep at Hanoi airport, drone in by the hour, bringing 45 tons of equipment a day. About once a week, a convoy of 50 Gorky trucks rolls in over primitive Route Seven from Vinh in North Viet Nam”.
They also transported Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces to the PDJ, fully armed, equipped, and supplied.
“’Our (Russian-Viet Minh-Pathet Lao-Kong Le) side could take over all of Laos in three days,’ boasted a Russian reporter, one of a dozen Communist-bloc newsmen on the scene. ‘We have been patient, very patient. It is only a matter of time.’”
As a side note here, the Pathet Lao throughout this Laos War would be known for their indescribable brutality while holding US POWs. They executed or starved to death most of them. Our Hmong allies on the ground did their best to find them. If not found by the Hmong, of if they could not escape, about the best the Americans could hope for was to be captured by or handed over to the NVA, where they might have a chance to be shipped off to a NVA POW camp in the NVN, at least a chance to survive.
It’s worth noting that Chinese forces were also operating inside Laos.
President Kennedy met with Soviet General Secretary Khruschev in Vienna in 1961, shown in this photo, at which time they agreed they did not want to confront each other in Laos. The Geneva Accords of 1962 followed which reiterated the two sides did not want confrontation in Laos and required all nations to remove non-diplomatic people from Laos. This agreement had no chance of succeeding, in part since the NVN withdrew only a handful of its forces and the Soviets were not serious.
This forced the US to engage in its so-called “Secret War” in Laos where it would operate vigorously but as covertly as possible, which was all but impossible.
As a result, the US concentrated on supporting the RLA and RLAF. US support increased, and Thailand’s involvement did so as well.
I’m certain I’ve missed a lot of history here, but I’ll stop here with regard to northern Laos.
I need to turn to southern Laos, what is known as the “Panhandle,” that part of Laos below the 18th parallel, most of which abuts the RVN, whose northern boundary is marked by the 17th parallel.
Brigadier General Soutchay Vongsavanh, RLA, has studied RLG military operations in the Panhandle and has suggested that the NVN began developing the Ho Chin Minh Trail in a serious way through the Laotian Panhandle in about 1959. That is when the NVN decided to support and strengthen the Viet Cong (VC) communists in the RVN. Initially, their idea was to establish a line of communication for couriers and small combat units. As we all know, it became a major logistics thoroughfare for the NVN for the entire Vietnam war. The route through Laos was much shorter than moving logistics along the coastline, and far easier than moving it through the DMZ and down through the RVN.
In its early years, the trail pretty well hugged the Laotian-RVN border, though it did go to south central Saravane and to the Sejong River and Attopeu to extend into Cambodia. By the early 1970s it was employing the eastern half of the panhandle.
This is to say that enemy activity in the panhandle grew in importance in addition to all the challenges in the north. General Vongsavanh presented this diagram of the main enemy base camps in the panhandle region. The numbering system was devised by the US. By far, the most important base camp was at Tchepone, Nr. 604. I commend his report to you. It is most enlightening, and thorough.
General Vangsavanh wrote the bottom line to be this:
“The NVN proved repeatedly that they possessed the power to control the panhandle to the extent necessary to operate their extensive logistical system and replacement system, but this capability was enhanced by their exploitation of the indigenous communist movement in Laos.”
He wrote that the NVA would not allow any Pathet Lao or Viet Cong on the trail. The NVN viewed it as its strategic corridor to supply and man forces in the RVN.
Later, in 1962, the NVA began building what was known as the Sihanouk Trail which ran through the southern Attopeu Province and into Cambodia. It was named after Cambodian Prince Sihanouk, who allowed the NVA and VC to occupy northeastern Cambodia. The Sihanouk Trail opened in May 1966 and supplies and troops began to flow into northeastern Cambodia. Incredibly, the RLA occupied Attopeu city but the NVA simply worked around them.
Pakse, Laos taken from an EC-47 mission. The end of the runway was used as a Doppler navigation set point.
Bolovens Plateau, southern Laos
Please allow me to take a moment and point out the Bolovens Plateau, east of Pakse, both shown on the map above this photo. Try to remember these two locations as they were important to EC-47 operations.
Briefly, the Bolovens had long served as a strategic site in civil and regional warfare. It is located between the Mekong River and the Annamese Cordilla foothills. During the Indochina War, both sides fought hard to control this plateau.
General Vangsavanh argued,
“The objective of North Vietnam in the second Indochina War was to take over South Vietnam and control all of Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia.”
The RLA divided Laos into five Military Regions (MR), as shown on the map presented by General Vangsavanh :
- MR I was headquartered at the royal capital at Luang Prabang near the PDJ, commanded by General Oune Rathikul, former commander-in-chief of the RLA, and close to the royal family.
- MR II was commanded by General Vang Pao, leader of his Hmong fighters and the only Hmong general in the RLA. MRII was one tough area, including the Pathet Lao-NVA dominated provinces of Houphan and Xieng Khouang to which we have referred earlier. Vang Pao’s headquarters was at Long Chien (Tieng), just northwest of the PDJ.
- MR III in central Laos was headquartered at Savannakhet. This MR covered two provinces, one of which was Thakek, directly across the Mekong River from NKP Air Base.
- MR IV was headquartered at Pakse and covered the six provinces of southern Laos, Saravane, Attapeu, Champassak, Sedone Khong Sedone, and Sithandone (Khong Island).
- MR V covered Vientiane and Borikhane Provinces with headquarters at Vientiane.
Det 3’s EC-47s would fly over these military regions all the time once the Det got going.
On the above map, I have highlighted the locations of three air bases in Thailand that are relevant to this story: Udorn close to Vientiane and a main staging base for RLAF, Thai AF, CIA and USAF air operations into Laos, and for the latter, into North Vietnam; NKP just across the river from Laos and close to both northern and southern Laos, mainly a special operations wing flying all manner of missions, many in support of Search and Rescue (SAR) and air attacks against the NVA and Pathet Lao in Laos; and Ubon, which would play a late role in EC-47 operations, close to southern Laos and more important, to Cambodia. Ubon too was a major USAF fighter base flying many missions into North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi MInh Trail. We’ll show this again, but I thought it useful to point these out now. Please also note the location of the RVN MRs and the DMZ in relation to the Laotian MRs.
This is a most telling map. First, General Vangsavanh pointed out, “The panhandle of Laos indeed carried the life-blood of the NVA expeditionary force in South Vietnam.” He further noted the US and RLG chose to fight the war here by air, which was quite lethal but ineffective in stopping the flow.
Every time I get a chance, I highlight General Westmoreland’s plan to send in several ground and paratroop divisions, US and ARVN, into the Tchepone area, a kind of crossroads depot for men and supplies flowing down the trail into the RVN and Cambodia. His plan was simply to block the trail with boots on the ground and stop the flow, supported by air. He had hoped to create a major bottleneck out of a major thoroughfare. The suits in Washington denied his request, which was contained in his “Operation El Paso” plan. NVA generals have since said the war would have been over in weeks had Westmoreland been allowed to implement his plan. The ARVN would later try it alone, but alone was not good enough.
You can see that the Bolovens Plateau was largely contested, while southwestern Laos was controlled by the RLA and southeastern Laos by the NVA. Also remember the Sihanouk Trail which branched to the southwest off the Ho Chi Minh Trail into northeastern Cambodia. All of this together gives you a good handle on the lay of the land.
I will note here that the ARVN and RLA had agreed to cooperate in exchanging intelligence about this area. The ARVN deployed a colonel to Pakse. He got the intelligence the RLA gave him and passed it through his channels. But the ARVN seldom provided the RLA intelligence in return. General Vangsavanh, when he commanded MR IV, said the only useful intelligence he received from outside sources was “through (his) American civilian adviser and the American military attache who from time to time passed (him) items of high interest, usually gained from sophisticated American sources such as photo and electronic reconnaissance.” The EC-47s of course were part of that equation. Please keep these relationships in mind as we press ahead later in this report.
The US Air Attaché in Vientiane, Laos, started using its VC-47A VIP transport to fly reconnaissance in December 1960. In January 1961, the USAF deployed a specially modified SC-47 “search and rescue” aircraft modified for electronic ARDF and photo reconnaissance roles. She was nicknamed “Rose Bowl.” This SC-47 flew daily hunting for beacon frequencies used by Soviet pilots coming into Xieng Khoang airfield during poor weather. They would employ ARDF to try to locate that beacon.
The aircrew and aircraft were from the 315th Air Division Detachment at Osan AB, Korea. The 315th Air Division was headquartered at Tachikawa AB, Japan. The airmen were officially assigned to the Air Attaché, American Embassy Vientiane and are believed to have participated in Air America flights as well.
This is a RLAF C-47 with a black belly
The Rose Bowl aircraft was scheduled for a flight to Saigon, but the pilot, 1st Lt. Ralph McGee, decided to make a reconnaissance run over the PDJ. Enemy 37 mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) shot his aircraft down over the PDJ on March 23, 1961. The AAA gun blew off the starboard wing. He flew too low, about 6,000 ft., and too close to Xieng Khoang airfield. The 37 mm gun would be a menace to EC-47s throughout Indochina. The only saving grace with it was that it was optically sighted instead of radar controlled.
And so reconnaissance over Laos got serious. The US borrowed Philippine Air Force RT-33 jets, nicknamed “Field Goal,” and deployed them to Udorn AB in April 1961. They were painted with RLAF markings. A few weeks later F-100 fighters were moved to Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to provide the RT-33s fighter support.
The Laotian government had been pressing for more US support against the communists. President Kennedy proclaimed to the public that he was determined to prevent a communist takeover of Laos. In May 1961 Kennedy wrote a letter saying that the US ambassador to Vientiane would be in charge of all CIA operations in Laos. The marriage between the embassy and CIA was now complete.
“The original basis for US involvement in Laos after the Geneva conference was a formal request by Souvanna, dated September 10, 1962, for supplies, spare parts, petroleum, oils and lubricants, and other commodities to support the Lao armed forces, then recoiling under the first signs of pressure by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese on the Plain of Jars. The U.S. Ambassador to Laos, Leonard Unger, later Ambassador to Thailand, set up an office in the U.S. AID mission in Vientiane to handle the Lao Government’s requirements. On November 8, 1962, Ambassador Unger notified Souvanna of formal approval of his request.”
Interestingly, Unger would do this through his office located within the USAID compound, a nice cover. It’s worth noting that Unger, acting alone, without Washington approval, sent out Air America pilots in T-28 fighters loaded with napalm. He got away with it, and later received approval to use Air America pilots in T-28s to conduct search and rescue (SAR) missions.
I mention this because Unger was in control of Air America, and would soon be in control over almost all military and paramilitary operations in Laos against the communists.
In 1964, Unger showed Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma aerial photography proving the communists were sending troops and supplies through Laos to the RVN. Phouma knew this was happening, in part because he had given permission to the NVN to use Laotian territory. In September 1964, after aggressive talks from Unger, Phouma agreed that the US could bomb and strafe enemy targets in Laos at will without prior clearance. Shortly thereafter, USAF tactical aircraft arrived on a permanent basis at Udorn RTAFB, and by December they were flying armed reconnaissance over Laos.
During his tenure in Laos, tension existed between the USAF and Sullivan over command and control of USAF aircraft and missions. The USAF insisted on deciding how many sorties would be flown, which aircraft and ordnance would be used, and when strikes would be made. But Sullivan chose the targets, and he did so using reconnaissance results. The target list was 900 targets long by 1968.
That said, the USAF’s resources were focused largely on targets in North Vietnam, and therefore Sullivan had to live with limited strikes in Laos, which was not to Sullivan’s liking. A secret USAF photo interpretation team went to Vientiane to do the photo interpretation. A representative of Sullivan would attend weekly meetings at Udorn RTAFB to meet with USAF and CIA representatives. They would select 25-50 targets for attack, these were presented to Sullivan, and then turned over to the USAF for execution.
In November 1967, a reconnaissance aircraft strayed off his target and photographed the village of Sap Nao. The photography reflected that the village had been flattened. It was then revealed that CIA people acted on their own and instructed A-1E Skyraider pilots from NKP RTAFB to bomb the village. They did so, unaware that the ambassador had not approved the target.
CIA started selecting the targets, the weekly meetings were cancelled, and the USAF selected the targets it would attack from a list of its own approved targets that meshed USAF priorities and CIA recommendations. Some semblance of unity of comand ws emerging.
I want to talk a bit about the intensification of air attacks in Laos that began with Ambassador Godley.
I need to back up just a bit. On October 13, 1962, National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) No. 104 documented that the president, on October 11, 1961, had directed that a USAF “Jungle Jim” squadron be sent to Vietnam for the initial purpose of training Vietnamese air forces in their war against North Vietnamese Communist aggression. Prior to that, in April 1961, the USAF had organized an air commando operation known as the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (CCTS) at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and nicknamed it “Jungle Jim.”
With NSAM 104 out in October, the 4400th was ordered in November 1961 to send a detachment (Det) to Bien Hoa AB, RVN, located outside the capital, Saigon. The codename for his operation was “Farmgate.” The mission was to “train” the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), but the truth is the 4400th crews flew and directed air combat missions, covertly. This photo shows a “Jungle Jim" 4400th CCTS pilot (R) and his VNAF partner carrying their gear to an A1E "Skyraider" on Bien Hoa Air Base's (AB) flight line in the RVN. They are on their way for a retaliatory strike against enemy forces in the RVN’s Mekong Delta.
CIA B-26, Project Mill Pond, April 1961
When the 4400th CCTS was activated in April 1961, its table of organization (TOA) included eight A-26 strike aircraft. These aircraft often used NKP from which to conduct their attack sorties. In late 1960 and early 1961 B-26s were ferried to Takhli RTAFB, Thailand. President Kennedy was following through on his commitment to defend a neutral and independent Laos.
In March 1961 Kennedy authorized B-26 attacks against enemy forces in the PDJ. The attacks were conducted in April 1961. Even with the Cuban invasion in April in the works, the JCS in late March 1961 approved a multinational contingency force for Laos and the fight was on. USAF pilots were discharged, given civilian clothes and fake identifications, flown to Takhli, given RLAF commissions, and Project Mill Pond was up and running, a reaction to the Soviet surge in support to the enemy in Laos. Air America and these “former” USAF pilots were tasked to fly B-26s against enemy targets in northern Laos. B-26s kept flowing into Takhli along with RB-26Cs (reconnaissance version).
The 4400th CCTS also used the T-28, called the "Nomad" in the early years, the T-28 “Trojan” later on. These aircraft were equipped to carry a variety of weapons ranging from bombs and rockets to napalm. They were used for counterinsurgency (COIN) missions throughout Southeast Asia.
USAF O-1 “Bird Dog” Forward Air Controller (FAC)
They were especially effective in night operations against targets not protected by radar controlled AAA batteries and as armed escorts for A-26 attack aircraft and helicopters. They also operated in hunter/killer teams with O-1 Forward Air Controller (FAC) aircraft that used starlight scopes to locate enemy convoys and then call in the T-28s to attack.
In March 1964, air commandoes, or Special Air Warfare Units, deployed to Laos and Thailand for “Operation Water Pump.” The specific unit was known as Det 6, 1st Air Commando Wing and initially was based at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. Water Pump arrived with four T-28 “Trojans,” which were then painted with Royal Laotian markings and turned over to the RLAF. The photo shows a Water Pump T-28 flying with an O-1 “Bird Dog” FAC. The FAC spotted the enemy, marked him with smoke rockets, and the T-28 attacked. It should be noted the USAF also gave T-28s to the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) at about the same time. As an aside, the USAF also provided them to the VNAF.
RLAF T-28 being flown by two Air America pilots, taken near Udorn RTAFB, sometime between 1964-1966.
The stories behind T-28 deployments and employments are mind-boggling. Keep in mind that several were sent to NKP RTAFB to augment the ones already deployed to Udorn RTAFB.
RLAF pilots at Pakse
The Water Pump job was to train Laotian and Thai pilots to support the RLA against enemy targets in Laos. An American pilot sat in the front seat during the initial training. They launched from bases in Thailand and Laos with American civilian and military pilots on board and flew ground attack missions in Laos. Sometimes the planes flew “slick“ from their Thai air base to Vientiane, where USAF ordnance people, often in civilian clothes, uploaded them with ordnance. The crews then went on their attack missions in Laos and if all went well, they could recover back in Thailand. Incredibly, there was a period when the US Embassy Vientiane kept the fuses for the bombs to be sure no one attacked the RLG.
There was more US activity with the Laotians and Thais than one can shake a stick at during this period. The enemy was making major advances in Laos and the US decided to attack them vigorously in the north and the panhandle.
In May 1964, the tempo accelerated even more. The USAF and Navy commenced “Yankee Team” low altitude reconnaissance operations throughout Laos. The main mission was to gather photo intelligence (PHOTINT) to support T-28 attack operations in Laos. At times, these Yankee Team missions were even tasked to provide fighter cover for T-28 attacks! This marked a major US air commitment to the war in Laos.
USAF RF-101C “Voodoo” photo reconnaissance aircraft
F-100 “Super Sabre,” fighter, the “Hun”
The USAF flew RF-101 “Voodoo” photo reconnaissance aircraft with F-100 “Super Sabre” fighter escorts, known as “The Huns.” For Yankee Team purposes, they flew mostly against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the panhandle.
The Navy, usually flying from carriers on the Gulf of Tonkin, concentrated mostly against northern Laos employing the RF-8 “Crusader” photo reconnaissance aircraft.
There was so much more going on than I can possibly cover here. The point I wanted to make is that the enemy was making great gains in all of Laos. The USAF, USN, Air America, the RLAF and the RTAF and probably some I don’t know about were very active flying combat photo reconnaissance and attack missions throughout Laos during the 1960s. These flights were targeted against the Ho Chi Minh Trail straddling the RVN border and dipping into Cambodia, and against enemy ground forces in northern Laos and throughout the panhandle. The CIA was flying some signals intelligence (SIGINT) missions including ARDF. In addition, US ground and air forces were stationed at “Lima Site” airfields throughout Laos flying FAC, transport, helicopter and ground attack missions and providing communications and radar beacon support.
But recall this. Throughout the US, particularly MACV in Saigon, saw the Vietnam war as the number one priority. For that reason, the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern and southern Laos was a top priority.
As said earlier, the second objective was to contain communism and prevent it from spreading to Laos. The US tried its best to keep a lid on this containment objective. For his part, King Souvanna of Laos was most interested in enemy operations in the PDJ, which threatened his hold on Luang Prabang, and in the panhandle where RLA and RLAF forces were trying to stop the Pathet Lao and NVN expansion over the panhandle. Throughout all this were the delicate yet wildly fluid interactions between the military, CIA, the US Embassy in Vientiane, MACV in Saigon, Commander-in-Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) in Hawaii, and the JCS in Washington.
I mentioned earlier that there was tension between the USAF and Ambassador Sullivan in Laos. I’d like to address this here. The USAF threw him a command and control curve ball in November 1965.
The Department of Defense (DoD) established a new air headquarters at Udorn RTAFB, the Deputy Commander 7th/13th Air Force. The 7th AF was headquartered in Saigon and was responsible for most tactical air operations in the RVN and Laos. However, the air bases in Thailand were under the control of the 13th AF headquartered in the Philippines. So the USAF decided to set up a deputy commander 7th/13th AF at Udorn to coordinate between the two air forces. As you might expect, the USAF did this because command and control of military forces is so crucial to military operations.
But the dominant point to be made here is that this meant the USAF set up a Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) to handle command and control of USAF aircraft, not to the liking of Ambassador Sullivan.
Prior to 1967, the ABCCC air coordination was done using a C-47 aircraft, but they were replaced by two EC-130Es. One operated over northern Laos 24-7, callsign “Cricket” during the day, “Alley Cat” at night; and the other over the panhandle, callsign “Hillsboro” during the day, “Moonbeam” at night. These ABCCCs would become important centers of attention for EC-47 crews flying out of NKP.
ABCCC crew at work over Laos
The ABCCCs were to serve as relay stations for the embassy “Country Team” and other military headquarters and the aircraft involved in a strike. Prior to their entry, all air strikes were controlled by the ambassador and his staff from Air America operations. Now there were ABCCCs aloft conducting coordination. The air situation over Laos became so complex that the ABCCC crews took increasing control of air assets and individual Forward Air Controllers (FAC) were often in charge of directing air attacks and reporting back to the ABCCC. The ambassador in theory still ran the show, but in practice the air war was so complicated that USAF controllers had to take increasing responsibility. This helps explain why Ambassador Godley saw that he needed to cut a deal with the USAF, getting his aggressive oar in on targets, but letting the USAF execute the missions
As mentioned earlier, the target selection group at Udorn assigned the targets, but the USAF made sure it was in charge of execution from a command and control standpoint.
Thus far, in the area of reconnaissance, we have been talking in the main about photo intelligence (PHOTINT) reconnaissance. We have not talked much about signals intelligence (SIGINT) reconnaissance, except that I mentioned the CIA was doing some using Air America aircraft. As an aside, they were silver, and Det 3 fliers would often see them in areas where they were operating.
The EC-47 electronic reconnaissance and ARDF aircraft was a SIGINT platform. They began flying in the RVN starting in 1966. On occasion they would fly over Laos as well from the RVN.
The National Security Agency (NSA) at Ft. Meade, Maryland was the single organization responsible for SIGINT operations against foreign targets abroad. NSA had mounted a significant SIGINT endeavor targeted against the enemy in the NVN, RVN and to some extent in Laos. Each of the military services had a cryptologic organization to conduct SIGINT operations worldwide, on land, sea and in the air. These organizations were called Service Cryptologic Agencies (SCAs); the Army Security Agency (ASA), the Naval Security Group (NSG), and the USAF Security Service (USAFSS). These SCAs belonged to the services but operated SIGINT activities on behalf of the NSA, the DoD and other intelligence organizations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Many questions and disputes existed between the services and field commanders on the one side and the NSA on the other, too numerous to address here. For purposes of this report, the dominating dispute was the level of control the military commanders in the Indochina War had over the SCA SIGINT operations against targets of concern to them. The field commanders wanted greater control, the NSA was reluctant to delegate that to them.
For example, the Army operated a large ground-based SIGINT site at Ramasun Station, just east of Udorn AB. The NSG and USAFSS also had operators there. But this site’s SIGINT targeting was driven by NSA back in Maryland. NSA felt it was doing its very best to respond to field commanders’ requirements, but field commanders did not always feel that way. They preferred that they assign the targets and that Ramasun Station report directly to them. Over time, many improvements responsive to the field commanders were made, but the field commanders always were skeptical about what NSA was doing and not doing on their behalf.
RC-135M “Combat Apple”
By the mid-60s, the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) began flying the RC-135 over the Gulf of Tonkin, drawn away from her missions against the Soviet Far East. They were targeted mostly against the NVN and enemy forces in the RVN and NVN. These systems and their operators were so good that soon they were required to fly 24-7, demanding two aircraft be employed each day. That was a tough order, since they had only five aircraft in the Far East.
The RC-135s launched out of Kadena, Okinawa and returned there after mission completion. An orbit run over Laos was added to the mix as early as 1970, enabling the RC-135 operators to concentrate on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While this was one of the most effective SIGINT platforms in the war, here again, there were constant battles between COMUSMACV and the NSA as to who had control over what for these missions. The bottom line was that NSA had control, but NSA and the crews did their best to meet MACV, 7th and 13th AF, and 7th Fleet requirements.
The EC-47 was a SIGINT horse of a different color. The EC-47s staging out of RVN bases flying over the RVN and Laos were under the direct control of COMUSMACV and responded directly to COMUSMACV requirements. MACV told them where to go, when to go, against what kinds of targets to collect and locate, and to whom to report the results for action. MACV received support from NSA, but did not have to jump through hoops to get NSA coordination or approvals. This was a huge positive for MACV.
While the EC-47 was far less capable than the SIGINT ground stations and RC-135 mentioned earlier, the EC-47 crews had an accurate ARDF capability enabling them to provide good locational data on the enemy, and good insights as to what the enemy was doing and intended to do. In many cases, the locational data was so good that the EC-47s could report the enemy locations to the ABCCC, the ABCCC would task a FAC to go take a look, if the FAC spotted enemy, he called in air or artillery attacks.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze, third from left, at a National Security Council meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. February 7, 1968.
All argument regarding who controlled the EC-47s was quelled by Paul H. Nitze, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, who issued a memorandum on June 19, 1968 that said this:
“...airborne communications intercept and direction finding in South Vietnam are COMINT (Communications Intelligence) activities which should be assigned in direct support of and under the operational control of MACV.”
This was a huge decision. MACV owned those Electric Goons, lock, stock and barrel.
But that was Vietnam. Laos was a different story.
This is the first time I have mentioned the 460th TRW. We’ll talk more about it and its squadrons later. In short, the 460th TRW provided the aircraft, the maintenance, the pilots, navigators and crew chiefs for the EC-47s, while the 6994th Security Squadron, a USAFSS unit, provided the “backend” crew of ARDF and COMINT operators. The 460th TRW navigator supported his pilots and the ARDF-COMINT crews.
In 1968, the 460th TRW had three squadrons, the 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare (TEWS) at Tan Son Nhut, RVN; the 361st TEWS at Nha Trang, RVN; and the 362nd at Pleiku, RVN. At the time, the wing only had 42 aircraft possessed out of the 47 authorized; 13 at Tan Son Nhut, 15 at Nha Trang, and 13 at Pleiku. Each TEWS had a 6994th SS outfit assigned with it: the 6994th SS HQ was with the 360th TEWS at Tan Son Nhut; Det 1, 6994th SS was with the 361st TEWS at Nha Trang, and Det 2, 6994th SS was at Pleiku. Those were the ARDF teams covering the RVN.
Tan Son Nhut would later increase to 16, and Nha Trang and Pleiku to 16 each for a total of 49 aircraft.
President Nixon become president in January 1969 and the strategy for the Vietnam War changed to Vietnamization, turning the war over to the Vietnamese. It had always been US policy to get the Laotians to fight against the enemy in Laos, but as we have commented, they received a great deal of US support from the ground and the air. The problem in Laos was that everything, only a slight exaggeration, was secret. The political and military intrigues throughout were incredible.
So Nixon came into power in 1969, and Ambassador McMurtrie went to Vientiane in 1969. One result of Nixon’s ascendency was that the ARDF outfits in the RVN at Nha Trang and Pleiku had to move. A great deal of discussion ensued. The 361st TEWS and Det 1, 6994 moved from Nha Trang to Phu Cat. The 362nd TEWS and Det 2 moved from Pleiku to Danang. The 360th TEWS and the HQ 6994th SS remained at Tan Son Nhut.
During the planning process for these moves, NKP came up as a good location for covering northern, eastern and southern Laos. But there were diplomatic problems associated with moving more American military into Thailand, especially more cryptologic people, and there were questions about the EC-47 operating over hostile territories in Laos. The PDJ and northeast Laos were very dangerous for the EC-47, which flew at about 110-120 knots and from 8,000-10,000 feet, unarmed and unescorted, and as each day passed the Ho Chi Minh Trail became more and more heavily defended and Laos became more and more under enemy control.
But northern Laos was under siege and the Ho Chi Minh Trail through southern Laos and into Cambodia was improving day by day as a logistics line. As a result, the US Embassy Vientiane in April 1969 expressed a need for EC-47 ARDF aircraft to fly over Laos as a matter of routine.
I should note here that prior to the establishment of Det 3 at NKP in April 1969, the Det 1 crews from Nha Trang and Det 2 crews from Pleiku were flying missions over Laos, several times each week. I must say that I find this baffling, but I will convey the research I have.
I don’t have a single map to show you what I want to show, so I will have to use three.
First, let me acquaint you with one of the ways the Air Force divided up Laos. Broadly speaking, the Barrel Roll included all northern Laos while Steel Tiger included the southern Laotian panhandle as shown on the map. Now remember that the Ho Chi Minh Trail, heavily protected, extended from roughly Steel Tiger East all along the Laotian-Vietnam border and into Cambodia. Also note the location of the PDJ in Barrel Roll West.
Now, keeping this map in mind, let’s move to this next map.
A memoir sent me by a former Det 1, 6994th Nha Trang flier said his unit was flying round robin missions from Nha Trang to the PDJ. He called them “One long mission.”
These crews would leave Nha Trang early in the morning, stop to refuel at NKP and receive their mission briefing, fly a seven hour mission over the PDJ, return to NKP and drop off mission results, refuel and return to Nha Trang. One long mission indeed. Dave Samppala has told me that their route took them directly over the Ho Chi Minh trail, which meant they had to fly for a while at a higher altitude. We were supposed to stay at 10,000 ft. since we were not pressurized and had no oxygen supply. I do not know how high these guys flew to get over the trail but I imagine the pucker factor was there.
A crewmember from Det 2 at Pleiku said they flew as early as March 1969 over the Steel Tiger area in the southern panhandle. If Pleiku flew the northern Steel Tiger area, they would usually go to NKP for fuel and then return home. If they overflew the more southern areas of Steel Tiger then they would either not refuel or go to Ubon RTAFB to the south of NKP for fuel, and then return home.
In retrospect, this does not make sense. Pleiku was far closer to the PDJ than Nha Trang, one would think the reverse would have been true.
This final map explains how missions were assigned to the USAF by MACV in ARDF terms.
All Indochina was divided into ARDF areas. Missions were tasked to fly over a numbered area and to the extent that was practicable they were to remain in that area for the entire mission. They could fly anywhere in the area agreeable to the aircraft commander, who took risks to hostile fire into account. So Nha Trang flew Area 15 while Pleiku flew Areas 10 and 11.
Whatever the case, in looking at the latter two maps, you can see how NKP was far better situated to handle all these flights. Setting distance aside, the NKP fliers would not have to overfly the dangerous Ho Chi Minh Trail to operate over Laos.
Irregular air operations had been using NKP for several years. Formal USAF operations began at NKP in 1964 with a SAR operation of HH-43 Huskies, known as the Pedros, then a Tactical Control Squadron, and then in February 1966, NKP received a USAF Air Commando unit which quietly blended in with the irregular operations already staging from there. The 56th Air Commando Wing formed in April 1967 and its designation was changed to the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW) in 1968. The 56th SOW had multiple helicopter types, A-1E fighters for attack and SAR support missions, C-123 flareships, and A-26 bombers. T-28 fighter bombers were stationed there in 1967. The Navy also had OP-2E Neptune observation aircraft there. It’s also worth mentioning that all manner of aircraft, including CIA aircraft, flew in and out all the time.
In addition, there was a substantial ground-based intelligence operation at NKP, known as Task Force Alpha (TFA). Initially, revetments were built around a host of vans, and large antenna arrays were installed. TFA was part of an operation known as Igloo White. It was a covert USAF electronic warfare operation that began in late January 1968 and operated through February 1973. Seismic sensors were dropped by air along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Navy OP-2 Neptunes and USAF helicopters would drop the sensors, but as enemy defenses built up, USAF F-4 Phantoms would drop them. These sensors were designed to blend in with the foliage.
TFA is worthwhile studying as a separate report. Look up the "47 Jasons" or "Jason Study" at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), Joint Task Force 724, also known as the Starbird Task Force, Project Practice Nine and sub-efforts known as Dye Marker, Muscle Shoals, and Igloo White. All together, you can also look up "McNamara's Line."
As traffic came down the trail, the traffic would activate the sensors which would relay the seismic data to an EC-121R aircraft orbiting over Laos, having staged from Korat RTAFB. The EC-121R crew would then relay the data to TFA at NKP. Analysts at the Intelligence Surveillance Center (ISC) within the TFA compound would integrate this information with other intelligence information and would attempt to predict where the detected traffic was going and when it would get there. The ISC could then relay what the analysts thought would be lucrative targets to the ABCCC, which then relayed target locations to FACs. The FACs would check the targets out, and if lucrative, bring in air attacks. If the weather were bad or it was night, other systems were used to direct the fighter aircraft to attack the targets.
Returning to the Embassy Vientiane request for EC-47s at NKP, the TFA leadership agreed it would be a good idea. The CIA’s Chief of Station (COS) at US Embassy Vientiane, which was immersed in analyzing intelligence and running the war in Laos, also agreed the EC-47s were needed to support ground and air operations.
As a result, in April 1969 the 7th AF directed the 460th TRW to deploy three aircraft to NKP for temporary duty. The 460th did this from its existing resources. The force increased to five aircraft by 1970. Hearkening back to our discussion of who controls what, the Chief of Staff, USAF said that the aircraft at NKP would be under the operational control of the 7th/13th AF, but the mission tasking would be as responsive as possible to the requirements of COS Vientiane.
So, here you have a major difference between the NKP EC-47 operation and those flying over the RVN. The latter responded directly to MACV tasking, while the former responded directly to COS Vientiane requirements, to wit, CIA requirements.
On April 6, 1969 Det 2, 460th TRW was established at NKP. On June 1, 1970, Det 1, 360th TEWS was activated at NKP as a permanent unit. With the Det 2, 460th activation in April 1969 came the requirement for another detachment of the 6994th SS, in this case, Det 3, 6994th SS, the subject of this report.
I apologize for taking so long to get to this point. I can only hope that the history helps you understand Det 3, 6994th SS, NKP better as we press ahead and talk more about the unit.
Before addressing the Det 3 unit specifically, I want to acquaint you with the aircraft and the ARDF and COMINT equipment.
Aircraft and Mission Equipment