"Victory goes to the guys who make the next-to-last mistake. " – Unknown Author
It felt good to be part of the first group to deploy to Laos in the Fall of 1968. Everything that I had learned during my first tour would surely make my job a lot easier the second time around. However, when it came time for me to go, the Air Attaché asked if I could delay my departure a couple of months especially if I wanted to return to LP. Vientiane was very happy with the performance of the present AOC Commander who had several months remaining on his tour. Not wanting to go to any of the other sites, I agreed to the delay, and my departure was moved to March 1969.
I enjoyed a couple of leisurely days in Vientiane checking out some of the local landmarks and getting daily briefings from AIRA and Dick Secord. Dick was coordinating air operations in Laos for the Embassy, a role similar to one he had in a previous assignment. He also had an interest in the up-country AOCs and provided me with guidance on what was expected. Dick took me to a celebration with some local Lao bigwigs and I was asked to participate in a Basi as I was soon to depart for LP. A Basi is a local custom where every one in attendance wishes the traveler good luck and a safe journey. Then everyone ties a string around your wrist. It gives one a strange appearance with all of these much-coveted bracelets on your arm. Dick was to visit LP often. Once I asked him if he would like to ride my back seat and he sternly informed me that he never rode the back seat. I gave him his own T-28 and off we went to assist the RLAF in taking it to the bad guys. General Secord is the finest officer, leader and dive-bomber pilot that I know, a true warrior in every sense of the word. Even though later on, I frequently took money from him on the gunnery range when I was a member of his A-37 squadron.
I wasted little time in putting all of my credentials in order and getting rid of my military items and packing all my gear for the trip up to LP. Again I was told to alter my plans. The Attaché office asked me if I would spend a little time in Ban Houie Sai on my way up country. LP had sent 4 T-28s and Raven Dale Richardson over to provide support for the FAR operating in an area close to the Burmese border. It was only for five days, but when I found out the real reason the FAR had for this operation I was not a happy camper. The airstrikes were directed against the caravans bringing questionable cargo (opium) down through Burma. I guess that the FAR Generals felt it was necessary to get the warlords back in line to ensure their cooperation. Not pleasant duty, but I found out real quick that unless I was flying, I had nothing to say about where the airplanes flew. Once the last mission took off, we loaded the Mark 108 radio jeep on a C-123 and flew back to LP.
There was also a new Joint Operations Center (JOC) at LP. Before I left in 1967, while I was recovering from injuries, I was given the job of teaching the Laotian Army the Principles of Air Ground Operations and how to set up a Tactical Air Control System. They were starting to get the general idea, when it was time for me to rotate back to the states. Now I see that they had a JOC that met every morning with an Intel type, an Army rep and an RLAF rep to determine priorities for potential targets and publish a daily FRAG Order. They were doing something right just like I taught them.
The bad guys had retaken Nam Bac, and outside of a few isolated pockets of resistance, pretty much controlled everything north of the Mekong all the way into North Vietnam. The NVA had also made a major effort to complete Route 19. This was the road that ran from Dien Bien Phu across northern Laos down to the Nam Ou River. It looked as though eventually it would join up with the Chinese Road to the west at Moung Sai. Presently, it ended at the Nam Ou River. The Facilities they constructed at this terminus point seemed to be logistic support structures where they unloaded and stored supplies for transport down the river by motorized Barge. This became the major route for bringing supplies into MR-I. This area would also provide the FACs with lots of targets in the next year.
The biggest surprise was what had become known as the Chinese Road. The Chinese were building a super highway that ran from China down into Laos. The road passed through Moung Sing in Northwest Laos to Nam Tha, then down to Moung Sai and from Moung Sai it followed the Beng River south down the valley to Pak Beng on the Mekong River. This road was considered one of the major construction feats in Laos and had received increasing attention of both the Thais and the Laotian Governments. This was mostly because there had been no stated purpose for the road. What the Chinese intentions were may have been indicated by their determination to defend it.
I had heard about the road when I first arrived and was engaged in the operation at Ban Houie Sai. I was told that the road was considered by the Air Force to be a high threat area and was off limits to just about everyone. The USAF wouldn’t even fly RF-4 photo recce missions on the road because of the reported triple A threat. This made me all the more determined to see it for myself. Besides I was filled with curiosity to find out why everyone was so concerned about this one road. I flew up to Moung Sai and flew south down the Beng Valley towards the Mekong. It was plain to see that this stretch of the road was still under construction. You could see the road traces as the construction crews worked back towards each other from several spots along the route.
I had noticed from my observation of Route 19 when it was under construction that this was a technique the construction crews used and when they all linked up, the road was ready to use. Using this knowledge as a guide, the road looked as though it was nearly finished from Moung Sai to Na Tha and was finished between Nam Tha to Moung Sing. All along the route you could see that several bridges were being constructed across valleys and streams in the area. The truck traffic was going all out in broad daylight.
The Embassy was unable to get any current photo-reconnaissance of the road. Especially since the Air Force wouldn’t fly because of the Rules of Engagement they had to follow. Without photos it was difficult to assess the triple "A" danger. This was to prove critical later on when Air America had one of their C-123Ks meaconed into the Beng valley and shot down. As a result they sent one of their Volpars up the road to drop leaflets trying to find the crew. It was rumored at the time that this was only an excuse for the Volpar to use the concealed large format panoramic camera it had onboard to film the road. The aircraft immediately attracted a lot of attention from the gunners as soon as they started their run up the valley. The aircraft was hit right away by a direct burst from a 57mm. Through sheer determination, the crew was able to bring the crippled aircraft back. Jim Rhyne their chief fixed wing pilot, lost his leg from the encounter.
By the summer of 1969, the progress on the road was well along and approaching its terminus at Pak Beng. Our Intel guys in Vientiane were in the dark about what was going on in that part of MR-I and during one of our weekly AOC meetings, John Garrity asked me if it was possible to get close enough to the road to get pictures without getting shot up. I told him that I thought it could be done. The Ravens kept a pretty close check on the road on their occasional visual recce flights in the vicinity and we hadn’t had any problems up to this point.
The bulge from the way the cameras were mounted gave a pregnant look to the unarmed T-28 thus its Guppy name. The airplane had a great camera system. It had a large format 12” Forward Oblique, a 9” vertical and a 9” Right Oblique. It was capable of producing excellent pictures.
I returned back to LP and gathered the Ravens together in the Big House and explained what it was that Garrity wanted. I told them that we would use the U-17 and try to get the pictures from a standoff position to minimize the risk. The first mission we flew was the first time that I had seen the road since my first days at LP. It was easy to see all the progress that had been made. We counted 50 trucks in the first 20-mile stretch that we photographed. Then Jerry Furche, Ed Gunter, and Jerry Hare, three of my Ravens, flew several more missions to the area getting great pictures from up close to the road.
Photo Recce Mission
When we arrived in the target area, the plan called for me to fly very low with the left wing into the side of the mountains to the East of the route. This put the river between me and the road, and put me on a southerly heading. This would also allow me to use the right oblique camera. The covering aircraft would fly to my left and at a higher altitude that would be determined after we arrived in the area. The four covering T-28s would each be armed with six pods of flechette rockets for flak suppression. They would only be used in case we were fired upon.
My flight of aircraft arrived in the area and we circled the area east of the intersection of the road at Moung Sai. The cloud base was at 8,000 feet just as it had been reported. I went to a point north and east of the road and begin a letdown that would put me in the desired position with my wing towards and into the mountain. I set the speed at 250 knots and lined the aircraft up parallel to the road and turned on the vertical and the right oblique camera. Jim Walls and Gunter had taken a position high to my left, but the two Lao pilots were high and to the right of the road.
This was not where I wanted the little guys, but it was too late now to start over. We continued down the road with no interference from any of the gun positions that we had seen in the area and the cameras were clicking away. I turned the vertical camera on because John had seen construction on some of the ridgelines and perhaps it would show up in the pictures.
When we approached the end of the road, Garrity asked if I could go back and get a picture of the bridge construction we had passed awhile back at the juncture of the road heading to the Northwest. In my best overconfident voice, I said, “ sure thing”, and turned the Guppy back around to the North. I then turned to a westerly heading, aimed at the bridge, and turned on all the cameras. I thought my best chance of getting good pictures of the bridge would be with the forward oblique camera.
My heart was in my throat and my first instinct was to roll the aircraft inverted and pull it down towards the river and push the throttle through the firewall and get all the speed I could. The RPM was already at 2400 and the old bird really wound up, I think I saw 300 knots. I rolled out of my escape maneuver with my knees shaking and proceeded to get the hell out of Dodge. I planned to keep it as low as I could and not crash. As I was flying down the river with the prop in the water, I looked back over my shoulder and saw that a T-28 had rolled in and fired his rockets. I believe to this day that Ed Gunter probably saved my life by firing at that triple A battery and distracting it because at this point all of the guns had stopped firing. Jim in his wisdom pulled straight up and through the clouds. The two little guys chattering unintelligibly started attacking everything in sight. Jim said that when he broke out on top, flak bursts were going off all over the place. After firing off his rockets, Ed started chasing me down the river and joined up just as we reached the Mekong.
I turned towards home with Gunter on my wing and set the engine power to a climb setting. I leveled off at 7,500 feet just below the clouds. We never made contact with Jim or the two little guys until we arrived back at LP. We all deplaned and met on the ramp where we checked over the airplanes. Miraculously, no aircraft took a hit. and the mission had left us soaking wet and exhausted. Ed came up to the group and laughingly said he saw his whole life pass before his eyes and was sure that I was a goner. It seems as though my cat still had at least one of his nine lives left.
Gunter said he could hardly make out the shape of my aircraft in that sea of red coals and tracers. He said he just pointed the aircraft towards the area where the 57mm fire was coming from and fired all of his rockets. I asked Garrity as we walked across the bridge in front of the AOC what he thought. He said that he thought that any further missions would be without him. We immediately curtailed further activities for the day and invited all our troops and the little guys to join us for beers at the Bar at the bridge. We had several beers and relived the mission with the guys from Udorn, each time being thankful that we hadn’t lost an airplane. John and the pilots from Udorn left the next morning. John said he would let us know when we could come down and see the pictures.
We had been requested by AIRA to develop a targeting plan that would include a description of the targets, a listing of the coordinates and what ordnance we proposed to use. We took the plan to the Embassy where we briefed the Station Chief and the head Political guy for the Embassy. CAS had no problems with the targeting but the political guy stripped away about half of the targets we had identified. Jerry Furche was the Raven that would coordinate the airstrikes and be the FAC in charge of the operation. The mission was a complete success, the BDA was awesome. There was only one problem, it seems that the Embassy had some Recce imagery that showed collateral damage to parts of one of the villages that was not on the target list. The Embassy wanted Dave’s scalp, but the CAS guys went to bat for him and said that they had changed the target list to include the structures destroyed.
After the dust settled, all the Intel types reported that all construction activity had stopped along the Beng valley. There was no evidence that the Chinese made any attempt to replenish the supplies that we had destroyed. I believe that they were fearful that more airstrikes were imminent.
At last my TDY was coming to an end but I was getting some pressure from my CAS guys to see if I could get an extension. Finally I gave in and told them that I was agreeable if they could swing it with my bosses. My CAS guys at LP asked Pat Landry (CAS mfwic for Laos), who was a personal friend of Secord and Heinie, to see if SOF would consider an extension of my TDY for another 179 days, Heinie agreed and I was set for another dry season. I was actually pleased with the extension as I still had a lot of things that I wanted to get done and now I had the time.
The Pathet Lao Navy
The FAC was excited. He didn’t want to let them know that he had spotted them, so he continued down the river until he was out of sight. It was assumed that the boats were waiting for dusk or nighttime to head out and should stay put until we could send up some T-28s. Ed Gunter, the Raven that had spotted the Barges, came running into the AOC shouting that he had some boats cornered on the upper Nam Ou and we could still get them all if we hurried.
I looked back over my left shoulder and saw my bomb explode unscorable at 6 o’clock but right in the middle of the river. To myself I said, “man that was horrible”. In my excitement and haste, I had forgot to put in the mil setting for dive-bombing. I attributed it to my excitement and “Buck Fever” from seeing that big boat out in the open. But everything worked out fine. Seeing that bomb go off behind him, shook the hell out of that Barge Captain because he started to “S” back and forth from one side of the river to the other. When T-Vant rolled in to attack, the Captain aimed the Barge for the shoreline and beached it. The boat was now a sitting duck. Red Lead’s bomb was a near miss that damaged the boat. My second bomb was a shack and blew the hell out of the Barge. It must have been carrying ammo because of the large secondary explosion that resulted. This was too easy. We radioed our Raven to go find us another one.
We left the Barge burning under the trees. I guess we will have to give our Raven a probable on this one, as it was his marking rocket that started the fire and we couldn’t hit it with both hands. We started home down the river, and passed the beached boat still burning on the shoreline. We were feeling good about our success in our first encounter with the Nam Ou Barges. This was only the first of many good missions we flew seeking out the big boats and sending them to Barge heaven.
To see if we could outwit the Barges, we shifted our tactics to dawn patrols. The Barges were out and we had some success, but they soon stopped running at all in the daylight. The Air Force had read our reports and offered to help. They thought that mines might be the answer. We got a FRAG approved for the F-4s to drop MK 6 mines into the Nam Ou. We mined a ten-mile stretch of the river between where we saw the first Barge and where I dropped the unscorable at 6 o’clock bomb.
I heard somewhere that thereon intercepts indicating the supplies were having difficulty getting down river because of strange explosions that were destroying the Barges. All of a sudden the Nam Ou had some very bad spirits.
There was one other mission I recall where I had Doug Swanson, our local CAS guy in the back seat of the T-28. Doug was a bear of a man, a former Special Forces Sgt. Major, and his size made it difficult for him to fit into one of our parachutes and then squeeze into the rear cockpit. On this day, we had spent a couple of hours up the river looking for Barges and had not seen any. We were on our way back to LP and looking for a target to expend our ordnance. For some unknown reason, I looked back behind us and saw nine or ten long boats going from the east shore to the west shore of the river. Interesting that this was in the area where the Nam Bac River flows into the Nam Ou. You might recall from some of my previous stories, that this is the area where we had always found bad guys in 66-67.
Shortly after our flight over the Chinese Road in the Guppy, Vientiane called saying that they had the film back from Udorn and that we really needed to see it. They described it as spectacular just what the Embassy wanted. I needed a rest so I grabbed Ed and we took the U-17 down to Vientiane for a little R and R. We checked into the Intel shop to view the pictures. It was easy to follow the road on the film. There were trucks all along the route we flew. The vertical camera had recorded numerous active triple A and Automatic Weapons sites that we flew over, but the shot of all shots was after we rolled in to take the pictures of the bridge under construction. It plainly showed the bridge under construction and then suddenly the white streaks appeared on the film. There was no doubt that it was the triple A rounds flying past the aircraft. But, also impressive were several frames from the vertical camera that was still running when I rolled the aircraft over and headed for the deck.
The vertical camera was pointing at the sky and the pictures showed crisscrossing white streaks over the entire frame. Heavy triple A - - I think so. If what we saw on the film is what we think it is; then we had flown through a very heavy crossfire concentration of anti-aircraft fire directed at the Guppy and we didn’t get a scratch. Unbeknown to me, John Garrity had been taking shots through the canopy with the Pentax. He also got some great shots of hilltop strong points with gun pits that we had flown over. It was easy to see the guns in the pits and the troops looking up.
In the stories that I have just related, I only cover the time period that I was at LP in 1969 and 70. There are many more equally as exciting and important stories that I could have included. Maybe my next set of short stories will include some of these. I am just sorry that it has taken so long to finally write these vignettes. I apologize for leaving anyone out, but there are too many people that were responsible for the success of these operations to include them all.
"The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever" - Unknown Origin
Everyday that I spent in Laos offered me new opportunities that challenged all of the old traditional ways of doing things, and my assignments were all interesting, educational and exciting to say the least. There were plenty of occasions to distinguish ones self if you were looking for recognition, but I never took on a job with the expectation of a reward for doing it well. Besides I was having too much fun to worry about whether anyone in Vientiane knew what I was doing in Luang Prabang.
Don’t get me wrong, it always makes you feel good to be recognized for hard work. When you are successful and that effort is acknowledged as being just a little bit better than what is expected, and when you are highly praised for your performance and recommended for a commendation it tends to humble you.
That is exactly what happened when the RLAF recognized me and two of the Raven FACs with the award of the Royal Insignis "Larn Chang Roume Kao Chan Pucha Ma Porn". This is the Lao designation for the "Million Elephants with White Parasol Medal – 5th Class (Knight)" awarded for meritorious service as an advisor to the RLAF.
Order of a Million Elephants With White Parasol
The Order was created by Sisavang Vong, the King of Luang Prabang on May 1, 1909 to recognize exceptional military and civil service. It is awarded in five classes (Grand Officer, Grand Cross, Commander, Officer, and Knight). The uniface insignia is composed of three white enamel elephants with red enamel headpieces suspended beneath a golden crown, surmounted by a stylized parasol.
On the right are the recommendation letters and Citation for this award.