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America’s Secret War in Laos
Personal anecdotes from the field
The true beginning (or end) of American involvement in the Viet Nam War requires a fuzzy logic of a sort; there is no clear “First engagement” or “Final Shot” to benchmark the conflict. Dates that were used to report American entry and exit from the conflict, including the dates of departure for ground and air forces from support bases in Thailand and Laos are widely inaccurate.
USmilitary interest in the area began far earlier than most think.
OnOct. 27, 1932Americahad established what became known as MAG (Military Assistance Group) in Saigon although US military personnel inVietnamandLaosdidn’t carry weapons with live ammo untilNov 1, 1955. The French Vietnam War began in 1954; the same year that the Algerian war for independence fromFrancebegan.
In March 1959 Ho Chi Minh declares a Peoples War to unite all ofVietnam. From the communist perspective, this is the start of the war with theUS. US Special Forces were active in limited numbers inSouth Viet Nam at this time, assisting anti communist troops in training and providing arms and ammunition.
Dec 11, 1961 theUSaircraft carrier “Core” arrives in Saigon with 65 helicopters and 4000 support personnel to aid theSouth Vietnamgovernment.
August, 4, 1964, twoUSdestroyers are attacked in theGulfofTonkin. Based on the reports of those attacks,PresidentLBJpersuaded Congress to increase American involvement in the war.
Official figures list that over 1 million Americans served theViet Namconflict in uniformed service. It may never be known how many ‘secret soldiers’ were involved in the battles.
After a long period of Peace talks,HenryKissinger brokered a peace accord and hostilities fromUS ground troops stopped in 1972.
April 30th, 1975, the American involvement inVietnam came to an end. Armed Forces RadioVietnam played theBingCrosby song, “White Christmas.” Soon after the American people were told that the war was over.
Hard data is difficult to come by regarding the actual dates of American involvement in Southeast Asia. American President Dwight D. Eisenhower ‘inherited’ the war from the French who withdrew after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu. At the time of the 1954 defeat Americawas underwriting 80% of the expenditure for French operations against the Viet Minh (Karnow, 170).
The Paris Peace Accord of 1954 left the Vietnamese feeling cheated in victory. The nation was still divided in two. TheUnited Statesremained committed to “our kind” of victory and began to firmly establish a foothold in the area. In 1954 we began to “Americanize”Laosby buying and destroying large deposits of Lao currency “Kip” giving a ridiculously high rate of exchange.Americaalso paid the salaries of the entire Lao army makingLaosthe most prosperous of countries in the region.
In 1959 Operation Hotfoot (among other names) began with the insertion of Green Berets from the 77th SF Group into Vientiane Laos to advise and support the government forces against aggression from the communist Pathet Lao. These troops were not authorized to wear US uniforms due to the clandestine nature of the mission. In 1961 their status changed asVientiane officially requested American help. This brief interlude was ended when theKingdom ofLaos declared it’s neutrality in 1962. This neutrality should have endedAmerica’s involvement in the country. As far as the American people and Congress were concerned, we were no longer inLaos. However a full scale war involving Billions of dollars, thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Lao (especially Hmong) people. American involvement included support for anti communist actions in the form of materiel, money and personnel including mercenaries and even active duty military troops from The Thai army.
To support the war inVietnamtheUSformed a two pronged effort inLaos. One: “Raven” consisted of ground forces established in listening posts and forward air controllers (FACS). The other, “Palace Dog” was to provide support personnel for the Raven aircraft. While Lao pilots flew many of the missions; “Sheep dipped” American ‘civilian’ pilots flew many missions in violation of the Peace accords, neutrality act and even writtenUSmilitary policy. “Sheep dipping” was a process by whichUSservicemen were released from their military status and then they voluntarily showed up inLaosand started flying aircraft or running training ops. The majority of personnel were ferried throughUdornRTAFB(Royal Thai Air Force Base)Thailand’s headquarters for the CIA’s ‘civilian’ airline, AirAmerica. The American public and many politicians were unaware of this effort even thoughVietnamhad an unprecedented number of photo journalists covering the war.
The war inLaosis somewhat a cross between “Full Metal Jacket” and “AirAmerica”. No movie better exemplifies certain aspects ofAmerica’s actions inLaosduring the Vietnam War than “AirAmerica” starringMelGibson. While certain parts of the movie are, of course, fiction in the name of sensationalism; many are grossly understated. Pilots did in fact go on bombing missions, get shot down and then rescued, get back to base and then have a fine French meal. The scene in a street side bar whereRobertDowneyJr.’s character asks another pilot if they go on a bender like this often is answered with a fatalistic: “Bender? This isn’t a bender, this is just nighttime!” The movie is only mentioned to give the reader visual references to the terrain and some of the duties of the quasi civilian arm ofU.S.military policy in the supposedly neutral country ofLaos. The CIA operated with impunity in the region shuttling mercenaries, dope and rice into hot zones to keep the VC, Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge at bay.
The LBJ White House exerted a micromanagement style over actions in Vietnamwith some mission orders coming real time from the war room, 13,000 miles from the battle. Rigid SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) rules hamstrung war efforts in Vietnam. Pilots were given specific objectives, routes and times. Not only open to betrayal, these types of missions didn’t allow a pilot the discretion to attack targets of opportunity such as truck convoys, fuel depots, missile sights, etc. SinceLaos was a neutral country and theUS wasn’t inLaos, it was a whole ‘nother ball game.Laos was the last vestige of the “Wild West.” It was, in many ways a ‘gentleman’s War.”Laos saw the first and possibly only time where aUS helicopter crew shot down a fixed wing Vietnamese airplane with an AK-47 rifle. The rescue helicopter came in above the plane as it was targeting aUS radar station. The helicopter crew didn’t receive medals because they were never there.
Exigencies of the service such as to preclude competent written orders this mission is authorized VOCO.
Verbal Orders of Commanding Officer (VOCO) was the predominant modus operandi of many units inThailandandLaos. In all bureaucracies, if it isn’t written down; it never happened. VOCO operations meant that many, many things ‘never happened’.
Cash payoffs and payrolls were routinely ferried in briefcases by low ranking airmen who looked more like protestors than soldiers with their long hair and casual dress. More than a couple of these shipments of $250,000 went missing. CIA planes with one American and one or more local pilots dropped supplies to mercenaries who were on the ground ‘somewhere’ in the area. Many of the mercenaries were nothing more than brutal killers and hence, highly prized. Many Americans ‘went native’ wearing local clothing and even eating local food so that they would smell the same as their Asian team members while on patrols. Early patrols were called HunterKillerteams. In a PR move the name was softened to ‘recon’ patrols. If you needed a vehicle, a weapon, a plane or helicopter to complete your mission, approved or not, you could find a way to ‘get it handled.’ Aircraft numbers were painted over in order to obscure their true origins and some atrocities passing the line of sadism were performed in the name of ‘freeing’ the region from communism.
TheUnited States of Americahas always seen itself as the watchdog against communist aggression anywhere in the world. Some of our efforts to stem the Red Tide and establish democracy have been successful. The War inVietnam, an effort to establish stability in South East Asia failed for any number of reasons and even with the demoralizing military loss,Americacontinues to be a factor in the area, although more of an economic one now. The American Legion and Disabled American Vets magazines offer guided tours back to your previous AO’s (areas of operations) and promise excellent hospitality by our gracious Vietnamese hosts in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
We are judged by our actions, not our intentions and inSouth East Asia our actions caused us to be judged harshly indeed. At the present time, hundreds of thousands of families inLaos,Cambodia andVietnam are still affected by the war. 350,000 Americans were wounded, 58,000 were killed and over 2 Million locals, combatants and civilians were killed. Millions of landmines are strewn around the countries and continue to take lives and limbs. Hundreds of thousands of women were either forced into prostitution or even sold by their families to even out debts. Many more women sought to escape the drudgery of working in the rice fields for a few dollars a week by selling themselves for $5.00 to $10.00 (and sometimes much less) per night nearUS military bases. In this pre-AIDS, pre-women’s rights world; theUS even set up brothels on bases and required ‘bar girls’ to submit to regular testing for STD’s. Unclaimed children of American fathers were (and are still) ostracized in their communities and suffered abuse at the hands of their countrymen. Villages were wiped out, thousands of square miles of jungle and farmland have been defoliated with Agents’ ‘Orange’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’. Only recently (May 2010) have more American veterans been able to receive compensation for exposure to these and other ‘herbicides’ used throughout Asia. No all encompassing compensation plan exists for the millions of Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese people who were exposed.
After being abandoned by Americathousands of American sympathizers were captured, tortured and brainwashed or “re-educated” in camps set up by the victorious North Vietnamese.
Today veterans ofIraq,IranandAfghanistanare applauded, thanked and hugged on their return from overseas duty. During the Vietnam War they were spit on, cursed at, attacked and insulted as ‘baby killers’ monsters and drug addicts. In fact, the amount of drug addicted veterans was staggering at the time and without the support networks of today, thousands of veterans became strung out, homeless and hopeless.
We, the unwilling, led by the unqualified are doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful!
I have done so much with so little for so long that now I can do almost anything with nothing.
-Two Anonymous GI slogans.
Today in 2010Laosremains one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. There are no Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, many paved roads or other trappings of modern society. Realistic or not theLaospoint of view seems to be one of isolationism from the modern world; hoping that further conflict will pass them by.
“Those Who Do Not Learn from The Mistakes of History are Doomed to Repeat Them.”
Dien Bien Phunotes.
Senior Master Sergeant Sharp’s photos fromLaos1969- 1970
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: The
Viking Press, 1983.
Additional material provided by:
- TLC (Thai, Lao, Cambodian) Brotherhood
- The Viet Nam Dog Handlers Association
- The Viet Nam Security Police Association
"Land of a Million Elephants", by Asa Baber, Morrow books, 1970;
"The War in Laos", Kenneth Conboy, Osprey books, 1989;
"Code-name: Copperhead", Joe Garner, Simon & Shuster, 1994;
"Operation White Star", Richard Sutton, Daring Books, 1990.