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Laos, 1948-1989; Part 1
By Troung, Albert Grandolini & Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 02:26

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A Failed Experiment

After its return to Indochina in the wake of the WWII, in May 1947 France transformed its protectorate of Laos into a constitutional monarchy, with sufficient rights to form a national parliament. This was a singular experiment that was to serve for defusing nationalistic movements and buy some time while the Vietnamese communists in the Province of Tonkin should have been fought down. The Lao “experiment” was, however, was continued and brought even so far that in July 1949 the Armée Nationale Laotienne (ANL – the Royal Lao Army) was formed.

From the beginning the ANL - which above all served as protection for the Royalist government under King Sisavang Vons - was little more than gendarmerie, completely dependent on French assistance. Consequently, neither the ANL, nor the French did much to suppress the growth of the communist Pathet Lao that – supported by Viet Minh – started rapidly spreading in the north-eastern Laos, in the early 1950s.

Only after heavy defeats against the Vietnamese in Tonkin, in the year 1954, did the French recognize the importance of strengthening the ANL in order for it to form the basis of a fully developed army, needed in the face of the forthcoming Laotian independence.

In May 1954 the first plans for an air unit of the ANL were developed, which was to be equipped with several Morane-Saulnier MS.500 Criquet (French-built Fieseler Fi.156 Storch) liaison aircraft, a few DHC L-20 Beaver light transports, C-47s and some helicopters. Eventually, nothing was done before the armistice in Tonkin, on 6 August 1954, when the Kingdom of Laos also gained independence and the French officially handed over ten MS.500s to the ANL. The Geneva Accords left Laos neutral in principle, but with three factions struggling for power and ready to start a civil war. In the north, the Pathet Lao (“Lao State”) movement, led by Prince Souphanouvong, was supported by the Viet Minh. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma headed the Royalist-Neutralist government, and there were anti-communist forces within the military establishment. France maintained a small military advisory mission to support the ANL with the right to conserve the Seno military base in southern Laos.

The ANL’s aviation branch, officially called Aviation Laotienne (AL), was founded on 28 January 1955, after nearly five months of additional preparations, around a core of 132 French instructors and some 200 Laotians, based at Wattay airfield, near Vientiane, and a number of primitive runways at Plain of Jars, Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang and Pakse. The 1st Observation and Liaison Squadron was set up at Wattay with the MS.500s that also served as trainers for the first Laotian pilots. This force was under command of a French colonel, with Headquarters at Vientiane. In a country where the road system was primitive and limited, air re-supply was of the utmost importance. When the cease-fire was implemented many Laotian Army garrisons were cut off from their rear and survived only thanks to air drops: out of a total of 30 000 ANL troops, some 6 500 depended only from air transport support. In order to maintain them in their positions, as well as to drop supplies to anti-communist guerrillas forces set up by French Intelligence Services in northern Laos and even in North Vietnam, the French Air Force in January 1955 handed over four of their C-47s and their crews to the Laotians. Three of the planes were even repainted in Laotian markings and continued to fly the airdrop missions. Nevertheless, they were forbidden to fly outside Laos.

In January 1955 the French Air Force repainted three of their C-47s into the Aviation Laotienne colours. The planes were manned by French crews until the end of 1956 when enough trained Laotians took their places. It would be not the last time that foreign pilots flew alleged Laotian aircraft. (Photo credit: Jacques Lebourg via Albert Grandolini)

A small number of L-20s entered service with the RLAF in 1957. The STOL capacity of the plane was well adapted to the rugged Laotian airstrips. At least one of the Beaver was armed with a 50 Cal machine gun in early 1960s and served as an impromptu gunship. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

The “Special Missions” - meaning secret air drop sorties carried out over North Vietnam - were done only by some contracted civilian companies that also flew for the benefit of the ANL. These contracted airlines were Air Laos and Laos Air Transport, the last owned by one of the most powerful Laotian families. They operated a total of one Boeing 307, two Bristol Freighter 170s, three Dragon Rapides, eight DC-3s and some L-20s as well as Noorduyns, but there were practically no Lao pilots or mechanics. Consequently, some 32 students had meanwhile been sent to France at the end of 1955 for advanced training. Also present in Laos was the CIA’s front company Civilian Air Transport (CAT) that deployed four C-46s and two C-47s.

Fighting at the Plain of Jars

The Royal Laotian Government (RLG) was at the time already involved in negotiations with the Communists, and there was no fighting. However, in early 1955, the situation was about to change as the negotiations failed. The Pathet Lao, already in control of the Sam Neua Province, in the northeast of the country, pushed into the neighboring Xieng Khouang Province.

With the help of CAT’s C-46 transports as well as the “Laotian” C-47s flown by the French, two infantry battalions were brought to the Plain of Jars. Contracted civilian DC-3s soon joined to para-drop the sole ANL’s airborne battalion into Xieng Khouang, and then an air bridge was organized in order to sustain this force. The still in training young Lao MS-500 pilots were also mobilized to fly the first observation missions. The four French Air Force H-19 helicopters still in the country were now not enough to fly MEDEVAC operations, consequently Thailand agreed to supply two Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) Sikorsky H-19 helicopters, in October 1955, to be used by the Laotian government. These Thai machines flew without markings, officially belonging to “Thai Airways“.

The American support was also increasing and there were already some 100 US instructors in Laos. The United States were not only to become involved in supporting the RLG, but they also especially cooperated with the anti-communist Hmong Tribe, which was supplied with weapons and ammunition. Namely, already in 1954 a Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) was organized at the US Embassy in Vientiane, which became responsible for organizing and channeling the Lao defense budget, and delivering US-built equipment to the ANL and the Hmongs. In January 1956, for example, the PEO officially turned over four former French C-47s – the first US-aircraft to be directly supplied to Laos - to ANL. A new Laotian aviation development plan was implemented aiming to bring its strength in the next three years into a “tactical reconnaissance and cooperation squadron” with 12 AT-6s, a transport squadron with eight C-47s, an observation squadron with 12L-19s, and a liaison squadron with four L-20s and three H-19s. The first six L-19As were delivered in March 1956 while the last MS.500s were turned over to the French for scrapping at the end of the year. Nevertheless, the fragile truce that prevailed soon broke off leading to events that curtailed this development scheme.

US Involvement

The coalition government in Vientianne, formed in 1957 and including royalists as well as the Pathet Lao, lasted only until July 1958, when there was a right-wing coup through which General Phoumi Nosavan emerged as a head of state. As an anti-communist, Phoumi was concerned by the spread of Pathet Lao’s influence, and he requested additional help from the USA.

With increased US involvement the French influence gradually disappeared: by 1957 the first Lao officer was put in command of the AL, and subsequently the remaining 85 French instructors were pulled out. This development had little impact on the combat capability of the AL, however, and then already by the time most of the surviving MS.500s and C-47s were grounded for lack of spares and maintenance. Nevertheless, the situation was soon to improve. The Americans immediately started a work on developing the AL and building additional airfields around the country. In the frame of this project the existing airfields were significantly expanded. The building of new airfields went hand-in-hand with first significant reinforcements for the AL, which arrived in form of six C-47s, two L-20s and six L-19s from the USA, as well as a single Aero Commander 560 that was a personal gift from President Dwight Eisenhower to the King of Laos. Two Alouette II helicopters were also bought from France in January 1960 and a De Haviland Dove in 1963.

Instable Government

By 1959 the situation gradually started to improve, with the former CAT – now Air America – being used to furnish additional transports for support of ANL operations, and the PEO planning to reinforce the AL through addition of the first six North American T-28 trainers. Nevertheless, the increasing Air America operations were not enough to fulfill all required Laotian air transport needs. It was then decided to deploy a month-long detachment of USAF C-119G, C-123B and C-130A transports from the PACAF 315th Air Division to Wattay. The American crews operated in civilian cloths and lived at a discrete hotel south of Vientiane. However this very high profile US military intervention in Laos began to raise international oppositions and the operation was suspended on 27 April 1959 after 72 sorties flown.

On urge from the US Ambassador and the PEO a Military Advisory Assistance Group (MAAG) was established in Vientiane, with intention of intensifying the training of Laos’ armed forces and the fighting against the Communists. In the following years, however, the government in Vientiane was to show significant signs of instability. In August 1960 it was removed in a lightning coup d’etat led by Capt. Kong Le, a paratroop officer. Kong Le and his Neutralist Forces – or FAN – opened negotiations with Pathet Lao and started even cooperating with them: the Communists were now able to put enormous areas in the north of the country under their control without any fighting at all, and in turn completely destroying all the gains from the recent fighting. At this time also the North Vietnamese began the building of a logistic corridor inside Laos, along the borders to North and South Vietnam, that later would be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the areas occupied by the Pathet Lao.

Soviet Air-Bridge

This was something neither most of the ANL nor the USA could tolerate: in December a US-supported coup of the Laotian military – again led by Gen. Nosavan – created a rival government at Savannakhet in southern Laos. After months of preparation, the counter-coup force moved north in November 1960 to try to retake the capital. During the countercoup the AL suffered heavily; Le was able to “evacuate” two operational C-47s and two L-20s to Plain of Jars to form a “Neutralist Laotian Air Force” or NLAF. The offensive was supported by Air America and Bird Air transport aircraft as well as some RTAF H-19 and four Air America H-34 helicopters. At Vientiane Kong Le now openly requested help from North Vietnam and even the Soviet Union. In a bold move, Moscow rushed 44 transport aircraft (14 Il-14s, 20 Li-2s and ten Mi-4s) to North Vietnam in December 1960. It was the first time that the Russians acted on this way outside their traditional areas of influence. The move alarmed Washington when the first aircraft flew into Laos to support Kong Le forces. The Soviet planes landed at Wattay and unloaded military equipment as well as a battery of North Vietnamese-manned 105mm howitzers in some 30 sorties.

In December 1960 the Soviets deployed a mixed transport regiment to North Vietnam to support Pathet Lao and Neutralist forces inside Laos. It was the first time that Moscow operated on this way outside its traditional areas of influence, prompting a swift US response. This Il-14 was photographed over the Plain of Jars by a US reconnaissance plane. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Nosavan accelerated his advance in reaction: the final offensive against Vientiane took place with a simultaneous armor-led ground assault and an airborne dropping of a battalion of Phoumi’s paratroopers southeast of the town by 15 Air America C-47s and C-46s. After a destructive battle, with liberal use of artillery, the Phoumi troops occupied the shattered city. Meanwhile the Kong Le forces had retreated north of Vientiane in good order, supported by Soviet and VPAF airdrops. By March 1961, the Soviets had already flown over 1.000 sorties while the VPAF 919th Transport Regiment flew an additional 184 sorties into Sam Neua. In April, the Soviets dropped an average of twenty tons of supplies per day to the FAN/Pathet Lao forces while eight VPAF aircraft landed each day at Tchepone. During several occasions the FAN paratroopers were also dropped from Soviet aircraft while the NLAF was reinforced by three Li-2s given by the Soviets.

The United States supported the left-wing forces of General Nosavan who marched north from Savannakhet at the end of 1960. The advancing Task Forces were supported by CIA airdrops. Among the aircraft involved was this Bird and Song C-46 transport that was also used to drop paratroopers over Vientiane. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

This Air America C-46 was repainted in false RLAF markings during the operations that led to the retaking of Vientiane in December 1960. Occasionally, some others Air America aircraft received Laotian markings even they were never part of the RLAF inventory. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Concerned by the Soviet air bridge for Kong Le, in late December 1960 the USA decided to supply six North American T-6 Texan training aircraft – modified to carry weapons in Thailand - to Laos, in order to enable the ANL to attack the North Vietnamese and Soviet transports at Plain of Jars. This decision was actually based on a Thai proposal to supply Texans from their own stocks: the Americans had naturally enormous interest to stop this air bridge before it could reinforce Kong Le’s forces and the Pathet Lao, just like the Thais had, and have considered different other kinds of actions against the communists, but the deployment of the Texans appeared the best solution at the time. Among others suggestions that were finally put aside were the borrowing of South Vietnamese or RTAF Grumman F-8F Bearcats for CIA use.

In response to the Soviet airlift the United States decided in December 1960 to set up the RLAF first combat unit, or the Reconnaissance and Cooperation Squadron, by delivering 10 T-6G Texans. The planes were drawn from the RTAF stocks and served mainly in ground attack role. In April 1961, Lt Khamphanh even scored the only RLAF air-to-air victory by shooting down a Soviet Il-14. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

This deal illustrated a very interesting kind of relations between Thailand and USA: in exchange for the T-6s, the United States supplied five Cessna T-37 jet trainers to RTAF. The transfer of Texans to Laos was organized within a very short period of time, since there were three Lao pilots that were already trained on the type by the French. Consequently after only five days of training in Thailand, on 9 January 1961 the first T-6s – armed with rocket launchers, gun pods, and hard points for 45kg bombs – arrived in Laos. They formed the Reconnaissance and Cooperation Squadron under the command of Captain Keo Soutsana of the now officially Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF).

The AT-6s were in action for the first time only two days later, and on 15 January 1961 they scored their first confirmed kills – against two trucks. Further reinforcement, however, could not follow so fast for the RLAF lacked the trained personnel and infra-structure to accept more aircraft at the time. The Laotians especially needed trained pilots – a fact that became painfully clear when on 17 January the first T-6 was shot down by the North Vietnamese and the pilot killed. Consequently, a number of Thai pilots from the RTAF 63rd Squadron were recruited to fly the Texans for the RLAF. On 11 March a second T-6G was lost during a bombing run, and only one day later the two remaining aircraft collided in the air. Finally, on 31 March 1961 a Thai pilot had to be saved from the wreck of his T-6G by the crew of an Air America helicopter, after his machine got hit by the Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns.

US Air-Bridge

The American involvement continued to increase but remained limited in scope. In April 1961, President Kennedy authorized an exceptional air bridge to Vientiane for several weeks, using USAF C-130s and C-124s to deliver military equipment while four USAF C-130s were handed over to Air America. These CIA-operated Hercules were also used to fly Royal Thai Army artillery unit to Seno in order to bolster the local defences. In December 1961 also the camera-equipped VC-47A of the US Air Attaché flew the first two reconnaissance missions over Plain of Jars. This brought back the evidence of continued Soviet air bridge, but was damaged during its second sortie by anti-aircraft fire, and had to be replaced by a USAF SC-47D, which flew 38 sorties – until it was shot down, on 24 January 1962. Others reconnaissance assets deployed were an RTAF RT-33 that flew some sorties, in January 1962, a camera-equipped PV-2T Harpoon from Bird&Son, and some U-2s operating from the Philippines. The Thai RT-33A was replaced by another one borrowed from the Philippine Air Force and reportedly painted in RLAF markings in the frame of the Project Field Goal. It was based in Udorn AB, in Thailand and flown by detached USAF pilots.

Despite losses and considerable problems the RLAF remained operational with US and Thai help. The USAF had a number of own advisers and also a large number of contracted Pilipino technicians in Laos, who maintained the RLAF aircraft. The RLAF fleet of 13 C-47s then flew the first significant Lao airborne operation by deploying three battalions to Sam Neua. The Thais were also supplying replacements as needed, so that between January 1961 and spring 1962 a total of ten Texans were delivered. Consequently, additional strikes against the Pathet Lao were flown. In April 1961 four T-6Gs were deployed to Luang Prabang airfield, in order to support an operation by what was now the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) in the northwest of the country. During their patrol, a Lao pilot, Lt. Khamphanh, spotted a Soviet Il-14 over the jungle. Since the plane had no guns mounted, the Laotian pilot aimed his unguided rockets at the transport, one from a salvo of his rockets hitting the right engine. The Il-14 made several wild turns and fell finally into the jungle, killing a crew of two Soviets in the process.

In May 1962, the fortune of the war turned once more time against Phoumi’s forces when a North Vietnamese offensive wiped out the governmental garrison of Nam Tha on northwest corner of the country, close to the Chinese border. The Laotian troops fled southwest in disorder and even crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. Fearing that the North Vietnamese would pursue them across the river, President Kennedy ordered the deployment of the Joint Task Force 116 into the area. The JTF-116 was already activated in 1957, after a North Vietnamese offensive against Sam Nuea. It consisted of two aircraft carriers deployed in the Gulf of Tonkin and a Marine landing party ready to be deployed in Thailand. Since that date, regular SEATO exercises took place with the allied forces in Thailand in order to deter any new Hanoi or Beijing move into Laos. The first notable one was the Operation Airlink in 1957, with the deployment of the F-100Ds of the USAF 35th TFS at Dong Muang. The rhythm and scale of the exercises increased steadily, with French participation in 1959 with some Super Mystère B2 fighters. The Laotian crisis saw a new surge in the allied exercises in 1961 with Operation Air Bull. Simultaneously to the deployment of the JTF-116 in Thailand in May 1962 the exercise Air Cobra took place. It involved RAF Hunters, RAAF Sabres and Canberras, USAF F-100s and F-102s, French Vautours, and RTAF F-84Gs and F-86Fs.

Operation Mill Pond

Despite the fact they were supplied in order to strike Soviet and North Vietnamese transports on Plain of Jars, the RLAF T-6s were never used to attack that airfield. In fact, even the four CIA-controlled (and unmarked) B-26 Invaders, deployed at Takhli AB, in Thailand, in December 1960, which were operating against the Pathet Lao logistic hug in Vang Vieng, were never used for that purpose. CIA’s Invaders were frequently supported by South Vietnamese Douglas AD-6 (A-1 Skyraider), which were already active over Laos, and at one point Saigon even agreed to deploy a “secret unit” to Vientianne, but this idea was eventually dropped.

Instead, the original four B-26s were reinforced by additional 12 B-26B/Cs and four RB-26Cs within the Operation Mill Pond. The aircraft were then prepared to strike targets in Plain of Jars and to bomb the airfields used by the Soviet transports. On 16 April 1961, the Invaders were fully armed with 250lb bombs, rockets and Napalm canisters, ready to be launched. Six USAF F-100Ds were also deployed at Bangkok to fly top cover for the strike. Nevertheless, when news leaked-out that at the same time that the other CIA air offensive that was taking place over the Bay of Pigs in Cuba had failed, President Kennedy cancelled the strike in the last moment. The B-26s remained in Thailand for three further months but no order for attack was ever issued.

One of the twenty B-26s and RB-26s deployed to Takhli AB in Thailand in spring 1961 in the cadre of the Operation Mill Pond. The unmarked aircraft were flown by CIA aircrews. These black-painted B-26Bs were seen armed with Napalm tanks on 16 April 1961, ready to depart for a strike against the airfield used by the Soviet on the Plain of Jars. The strike was cancelled at the last minute by President Kennedy. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

Meanwhile, the RB-26Cs flew regular reconnaissance sorties until the end of 1961 and at least one aircraft was damaged by hostile fire. Vietnamese sources reported that on 6 November, a VPAF Li-2 piloted by Dinh Ton over Laos was “attacked” by an Invader but that the North Vietnamese gunners had damaged it with 12.7mm machine-gun fire. Namely, by that date, most of the VPAF transports operating over Laos or South Vietnam were modified to carry 7.62mm and 12.7mm machine-guns, fired through windows, for self-defense.

Arrival of the JTF-116

The first elements of the JTF-116 (5000 men) arrived in northern Thailand in 16 May 1961, and consisted in the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit and the US Army 1st Brigade/27th Infantry Division. Air support was furnished by 20 Douglas A-4C Skyhawks from the VMA-332, 20 USAF F-100Ds and the UH-34s from HMM-261, conveniently deployed at Udorn, only some 35 miles south of Vientiane. This show of force led to an armistice in Laos, on 10 May 1962, and the creation of new coalition government, the involved parties agreeing to have all the foreign forces pulled out of the country. The RLAF nevertheless yielded some profits from the cease-fire by merging its ranks with the NLAF. The departing Soviets also handed over three Li-2s and three An-2s to the Pathet Lao, while the RLAF received three Li-2s and a Mi-4. Nevertheless most of these Soviet aircraft were soon non operational for lack of any logistical support from Moscow.

In May 1962 a new coalition government was taking place at Vientiane, grouping the Royalist, Neutralist and Communist factions. The Soviet then withdrawn from Laos but had handed over some of their aircraft to the RLAF and the Pathet Lao. Nevertheless, the planes were soon non operational due to the lack of any Soviet logistic support. This RLAF Mi-4 was seen at the end of 1960s at Wattay in derelict condition. Note one of the six Li-2s also received by the RLAF/NLAF in the background. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Although the RLAF got its first air-to air-kill, it became apparent that their combat aircraft had to be replaced by more capable machines if they were to have an effect on the eventual outcome of the war. For this reason, and despite an armistice with Pathet Lao and Kong Le’s forces, a group of RLAF cadets was trained on T-28 Trojans at Lopburi in Thailand in June 1962. The first of them concluded their qualifications by August, and then a number of Trojans was supplied from the stocks of the South Vietnamese Air Force, which at the time was replacing T-28s by much more powerful A-1 Skyraiders. Nevertheless, the armistice in Laos prevented the delivery of the T-28s.

The New Civil War

The peace in Laos was not to last for very long. The coalition government quickly began to fall apart due to the polarized elements within. The Pathet Lao forces that had been inducted into the army deserted with their newly acquired weapons, and by October 1962 it was already clear that a new phase of the civil war was in looming. In order to find out what is going on in the Plain of Jars area the CIA again sent the RTAF RT-33As into reconnaissance missions over Laos. When these encountered strong resistance from the Vietnamese air defenses the USAF was forced to start using more powerful aircraft: the first four RF-101C Voodoos of the 45th TRS/460th TRW were deployed to Tan Son Nhut airport, in Sout Vietnam, already in November 1961 in the frame of the operations “Able Mabel” and “Pipe Steam”, and it took not much longer until they started flying over Laos as much as over other parts of Vietnam. These fighters that absolved up to four reconnaissance flights per day were only a pale announcement for the enormous US air assets that were later to be deployed in Thailand, but they enabled the administration in Washington already at the time to track the developments in Laos very closely.

Meanwhile, in Laos the Neutralist government was concerned that the Pathet Lao forces might attack: the North Vietnamese, on the contrary, reinforced their and Pathet Lao anti-aircraft units deployed in the country in order to protect their supply lines. These have shot down two Air America transports that attempted to drop supplies to Kong Le.

The animosity between the Royalist government and Kong Le, as well as newly developing problems between Kong Le and Pathet Lao – caused by the active North Vietnamese support for the later, and the massive land-grab by Pathet Lao – were to result in the outbreak of the new civil war. The Pathet Lao murdered two of Kong Le’s officers and in turn the Pathet Lao’s foreign minister Quinim Pholsena was gunned down in front of his house in Vientiane. The communists eventually ended in a more powerful position than before, then the North Vietnamese had made a mockery of the cease-fire by deploying considerable forces in Laos without any disturbance from the USA. Concerned with their own safety the leadership of Pathet Lao fled the capital and in the following days the fighting broke out between the communists and the RLG forces again. Simultaneously, supported by the North Vietnamese artillery, the Pathet Lao infantry assaulted Kong Le’s positions on Plain of Jars and wiped them out. In reaction the US President Kennedy ordered the CIA to supply Kong Le – and the Hmong with weapons – and food. The later were led by Vang Pao, who was expected to launch raids against rather exposed Communist supply lines. But, Pao went a step ahead by deploying his fighters to reinforce remaining Kong Le’s forces in the Plain of Jairs area: over the following ten months Le managed to hold his positions, but elsewhere the Hmong have lost some ground to the communists.

Battle for Plain of Jairs

In August 1963 Hmong sappers blew a part of the Route 7, blocking it for North Vietnamese supplies. They used C-4 explosives to effectivelly blow the road off of a mountain: the explosives were dropped to the raiding party from the air once it reached a position near the road. The blockade of the Route 7 dramatically slowed the flow of supplies for the North Vietnamese and Hanoi swiftly dispatched several engineer battalions in order to rebuilt the road, and enable combat units to mount an offensive against the Hmong. However, Vang Pao used the lul in the fighting to let his men hack out several small airfields in the jungle in order to allow Air America’s STOL aircraft to land there, bringing arms and supplies. These supply operations became vital to anti-communist forces in Laos, especially in order to keep their forward units in the field and well-stocked with food and ammunition. Additionally, same of these small airfields were also used to transport Hmong troops by helicopters.

An AirAmerica C-123 Provider transport aircraft seen on a dirt strip somewhere deep in Laos. Over the time no less but 200 such strips were established around the country, many of them being little more but tight and short clearings in the jungle, or on the side of some mountain, where only so-called STOL ("Short-Take-off-and-Landing") aircraft could operate. (source unknown, via Troung)


The RLAF now became active over Laos again when the USA finally decided to start supplying six T-28 directly to Vientianne, even as the surviving T-6s – all of which were inoperational by now – were airlifted back to Thailand. All the T-28s were in Laos by the end of August 1963, together with amount of unguided rockets and bombs: the last could not be used, however, as the US embassy held back their fuses. Despite some training on aircraft, the RLAF soon lost two of them: one crashed in the suburbs of Vientianne, but another disappeared under – at the time – unknown reasons.

The RLAF received its first T-28s in 1963 and the type would become the cornerstone of the Laotian combat units. This Lao pilot was posing over a pile of 500lb bombs at Savannakhet AB in 1965. The T-28 in the background carried the insignia associated to the fighter squadron of this base, a stylized white eagle on a black background, painted on under the cockpit and on the tail. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Namely, one of the RLAF T-28 pilots at the time – and one described by the US instructors as the “most aggressive” of all – was Lt. Chert Saibory, a former RTAF-pilot, who defected to Laos in 1960. Chert initially offered his services to Kong Le, but was turned down. Remaining in Vientianne, Chert then joined the RLAF - once Gen. Phoumi returned to power - and flew many combat sorties but was never promoted in rank. For unclear reasons, in September 1963 Chert decided to defect once more and during an airshow that was to be staged over Savannakhet he flew his T-28 away from the rest of formation – to North Vietnam. Instead of commissioning him in their air force the North Vietnamese imprisoned Chert: several months later his T-28 was refurbished and – serialled “963”, in commemoration of the date when it was acquired – became the first fighter aircraft of the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF).

One of the first six T-28s delivered to Laos was a reconditioned T-28B with an unknown serial, which was brought up to T-28D standard (three others were reconditioned RT-28Cs). This aircraft was flown by Lt. Chert Saibory, a former pilot of Royal Thai Air Force, to North Vietnam, in September 1963. While Chert was imprisoned, the North Vietnamese have after some times refurbished his aircraft, repainted it and put it into service. Thus a US-built T-28 Trojan - serialled "963" in memory of the month and the year in which it was "delivered" - became the first fighter aircraft of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Air Force. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Concerned by the prospect of communist encroachments on Thailand, but also the lack of activity on the part of the RLAF in the face of communist provocations, the Americans decided to re-start their operations in Laos. The CIA continued its secret support for the Laotian junta and its specialists had in the following months and years built some 200 small runways around the country, from which the aircraft and helicopters of Air America could operate in order to support RGL troops. While building these remote airfields the CIA operatives found remnants of several shattered RLG Army battalions who had been living behind enemy lines for months. These men were recruited and put under command of Maj. Khamsao Keovilay, who was promoted to the post of the deputy governor of Sam Neua City, with intention of supporting the Hmong in their struggle against the Communists, and the capture of this town. Air America aircraft and helicopters were used to bring arms, ammunition and new uniforms for Kamsao and his men in preparation for the assault, enabling organisation of four infantry battaliions. The plan for attack on Sam Neua City saw deployment of three RLA battalions in a massive diversionary attack outside the city, in order to cause the Pathet Lao to send their reinforcements, and the fourth battalion – consisting of Vang Pao’s Hmongs – then to go into the town through the “back doors”, and capture it. The plan worked: while the RLA was causing problems to the Communists outside Sam Neua City, the Hmong were brought by Air America UH-34 helicopters to the town, which was swiftly captured. It was a big victory for the Hmong and quite a “blue-eye” for the RLA, but some within the Army still saw it as their success as well, then they were at least involved. Gen. Phoumi, however, wanted the glory for himself and the RLA, and in November 1963 he launched several RLA battalions into an attack against Phatet Lao further to the north. The battered and demoralized RLA troops made some advance as the Communists were taken by surprise: the Pathet Lao fell back under the onslaught, but then the North Vietnamese deployed three well-equipped and trained infantry battalions and mauled the advancing Laotians. As Phoumi’s force fell back the Pathet Lao ambushed it and most of the unit was wipped out.

The CIA used a variety of STOL aircraft to support its paramilitary operations in Laos, including this Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer from Continental Air Services, Incorporated (CASI). Note the Air America UH-34 helicopters in background. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Meanwhile, the then US Ambassador to Laos, Leonard Unger, urged the administration in Washington to reinforce the – still quite small – RLAF. This was still suffering from a – meanwhile latent – lack of trained personnel, and in February 1964 the USAF began organising training courses for RLAF pilots on T-28s in thailand. This operation was codenamed Waterpump and run by 38 USAF instructors, led by Maj. Barney Cochran, based at Udorn AB. Equipped with four T-28s, the Waterpump received its first RLAF students from May of the same year.

In the meantime, however, the Pathet Lao launched a lightning offensive accross the Plain of Jars, and there was now an urgent need for the T-28s in Laos, regadless how many pilots were trained on the type. Consequently, Maj. Cochran had to deliver his four Trojans to the RLAF on 13 May. Only two days later the CINCPAC ordered the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam to transfer five additional T-28s, as well as five reconnaissance-configured RT-28s from the surplus stocks of the South Vietnamese Air Force to Waterpump as well: four of thesse were retained on Udorn, while the others were sent directly to Laos.

The A-Team

The mentioned Pathet Lao offensive on the Plain of Jars was already launched actually on 16 March 1964 – and highly successful in forcing government troops away from the area. Consequently, Prince Phouma was forced to officially request help from the USA. The RF-101Cs of the 45th TRS from Tan Son Nut were meanwhile joined by Vought RF-8A Crusaders from USN aircraft carriers underway off of the Vietnamese coast. It appears, however, that nothing of the intelligence they gathered during extremely risky operations over Laos reached Vientianne, then despite dozens of reconnaissance flights over the area – all of which met fierce AA-fire – even in the mid-May 1964 the Laotian government was still of the opinion that the Pathet Lao is nowhere near the Plain of Jars. Consequently, both the US and the Laotian governments were now under a sudden pressure to do something

On 13 May 1964 the RLAF T-28s flew their first strikes against the communist forces. Due to the lack of qualified Lao pilots, the PEO in Vientianne became active in recruiting volunteers from Air America: within few weeks twelve of these were gathered in Udorn, where they were organized into a unit called “A-Team”. The A-Team launched its first strike – including all five T-28s that were available to them at the time – on 25 May, against a bridge east of Plain of Jars. The attack missed completely, and what made this premiere even a more bitter one was the fact that two aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.

The lack of Lao pilots led the CIA to form in May 1964 the A-Team. That was a pool of Air America pilots trained to fly on the T-28s. This unmarked T-28C, brought up to D standard, was seen taking off for a reconnaissance sortie with an Air America crew. The A-Team was disbanded in 1967 when sufficient Lao and Thai pilots were available. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Since the capture of Americans in Laos would be considered a blamage for the USA, the PEO had to stop for the moment any further combat operations of the A-team and look for an alternative. Therefore on 27 May five Thai pilots from the RTAF 223rd Squadron were sent to Udorn to supplement the pilots of the A-Team. They flew heir first combat mission on 1 June 1964, thus starting the Project “Firefly”.

Still to supplement the Lao pilots, it was decided to create the B-Team within the Project Firefly in May 1964. The Thai pilots flew a great part of the RLAF operations until the program was suspended in 1973. Each detached RTAF pilot was required to operate a six-month tour, or to fly 100 sorties, in Laos before rotating home. The high wages paid by the CIA, several times those in attendance in Thailand, attracted a lot of volunteers. This Thai pilot celebrated his one-hundredth sortie in 1966 before going home. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolin)

Significantly, two US pilots only narrowly evaded capture by the Pathet Lao or the North Vietnamese in this period of time, albeit while flying US aircraft. On 6 June 1964, the RF-8A (BuAerNo. 146823) from USS Kitty Hawk was hit by AA-fire while underway over the area meanwhile known as “Lead Valley”, in reference to the heavy flak concentrations, and Lt. Klusmann was forced to eject. Shortly after landing he was indeed captured by the Communists, but these obviously had no clue what to do with him and after three months of being held captive in one of the small Pathet bases, he eventually managed to escape – and was then lucky enough to be swiftly extricated with the help of Air America aircraft. The next day of Lt. Klusmann shot down, another RF-8, flown by Cdr. Lynn was also lost while on a reconnaissance mission over Laos. This time a massive rescue effort resulted in the pilot being found and recovered on the same day. In reaction for the loss of two Crusaders the USAF F-100Ds launched an attack on the AAA-sites near Xieng Khouang, but the results were inconclusive.

Road Watch

In parallel to the aerial reconnaissance, it was also decided to infiltrate “road watch” commandos into the communist held areas. The CIA quickly set up a number of units in Laos, using recruits from hill tribes that operated fairlly well throughout the conflict. They were usually inserted by Air America helicopters near the main enemy logistical corridors and relayed to orbiting electronic gathering aircraft what they saw. The South Vietnamese also tried since 1959 to infiltrate their own special forces. In June 1964 five ARVN commando teams were dropped into the Ho Chi Minh Trail sector by unmarked VNAF C-47s during the Operation “Leaping Lena”. This enterprise ended in a resounding failure, then most of the commandos were intercepted and killed. Undaunted by the setback the South Vietnamese infiltration-operations evolved in 1965 into Project “Prairie Fire”. Operating with US Special Forces, the South Vietnamese commandos penetrated up to 12 or 15 miles inside Laos. They operated mainly in cooperation with the VNAF 219th Helicopter Squadron, an elite unit that gathered the most experienced crews and the helicopters of which were usually escorted by USAF Air Commando UH-1Ps.

In the meantime the RLAF started deploying T-28s from Pakse, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet. Covert operations by the Air America were intensified as well, and with the employment of the Fireflies the areas of operations inside of Laos had to be divided. Due to heavy concentrations of AAA in the north, and the lack of experience of the Lao pilots, it was decided that the RLAF would operate mostly over southern part of Laos while the Fireflies were deployed mainly in the northern sector. Meanwhile, Kong Le had regrouped his forces at Moung Soui, in the southwestern part of the Plain of Jars. The town was near the Route 7 and easy to keep supplied per truck. However, after the victory at Sam Neua the Americans had slowed the flow of supplies, ammunition and uniforms to Le’s troops so in many areas they had to pull back because they were out of ammunition. One of the reasons was that Kong Le was still bikering with the central governmen. In June 1964, in order to send a clear message to the Neutralists, a flight of T-28Ds flown by the A-Team was sent to bomb the new Neutralist headquarters at Khang Khay. After this action, all new break-away ideas were dropped by the Neutralists that decided to side difinitivelly with the Royalists.

RLA Offensive

The CIA now attempted to further intensify its operations in Laos, and for this purpose Air America was to be reinforced. The US Marine Corps was ordered to transfer four more UH-34s to Air America, and then a mixed fleet of Air America Helio Couriers, C-47s, C-123Bs, C-46s, and PC-6s were used to hastily fly in reinforcements and supplies for the rest of Le’s force, including some 500 or 600 new rifles, dozens on machine guns and two-month worth of ammunition. To raise the stakes the North Vietnamese cut Route 7 and 13 to prevent road bound supplies from reaching Kong Le at Muong Soui from Vientiane. They deployed a blocking force of three battalions of Pathet Lao to keep the roads closed and to starve out Le’s forces in the Plains. If the siege continued the Neutralist forces would be defeated within a few months.

In reaction the Americans forced the RLA to act in a concerted effort and to reopen Routes 7 and 13. The RLA put together a task force of three full infantry regiments, supported by 105mm and 75mm howitzers, and sent them to remove the communists. To coordinate close air support, each infantry company had big white arrows they carried around with them. They would point the arrow in the direction of the enemy and an air borne FAC would then send in T-28s to attack with bombs, machine guns, free flight rockets and napalm. The tactic worked to allow the RLA to push the Pathet Lao away and allow them to shatter the blocking forces and reopen the roads. The outnumbered and outgunned Pathet Lao blocking force melted away under the aerial and artillery bombardments. The RLA then moved in on Sala Phu Khun, where there was another road-block. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Pathet Lao forces retreated again: as they were leaving, Vang Poa moved one of his battalions – with help of Air America’s helicopters – to take the city before the RLA could. This left a bad taste in the mouths of RLA soldiers on the operation.

Still the RLA celebrated one of their few battlefield victories to date when – near Muong Soui - their fortune reversed again, as the retreating Pathet Lao forces counterattacked and mauled several RLA battalions. The RLA retreated and left Kong Le dangerously exposed to the communists. In the end, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao were able to put Muong Soui under a siege, and the US President Johnson ordered the USAF to counterattack. The first to arrive over the area were USAF RF-101Cs, tasked with gathering information needed for an assessment of the situation and finding potential targets: two Voodoos, however, were shot down by communist anti-aircraft fire. One pilot was rescued but unfortunately the Pathet Lao captured the other pilot. The Americans responded with F-100 Super Sabre strikes on communist AA-positions which – along with heavy air strikes by the RLAF’s T-28s – eventually forced the communist forces to end the siege.

The A-Team was still active as well, and end of June 1964 it was tasked with fullfilling a – politically – sensitive mission: the bombing of the “Chinese Cultural Centre”, a Pathet Lao training camp in Plain of Jars staffed by Communist Chinese instructors.

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